by J.M. Sylvan
American Reporter Correspondent
February 10, 2009
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- It's true, Seamus, you and I were both born in 1939, that year Hitler was marching into Czechoslovakia and Poland, that forerunner of a decade that introduced the Atomic Age.
Did you, as a Derry schoolboy, fear those mushroom clouds, practice useless exercises designed to protect you from the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in your early classrooms?
Did the idea of the destructive power out there make you want to hide under the house, the way it did me?
It's true there is a great geographical distance between your farm in Derry and my home in what was then Los Angeles, but considering the time in which we emerged, we had to have at least these things in common.
Inevitably, we chose separate paths. You set your heart and mind early on poetry, proceeding poem by poem, to build the reputation you now possess, while I was still scribbling wretched little bits of mine on yellow legal tablets in law school.
By the time I visited Ireland for the first time in 1966, a member of the California Bar, you had already begun to "establish" a critical following that has never wavered, not even recently.
After that first visit I was back in Ireland on a year-in-and-year-out basis, and I heard many things about this young Ulster poet.
One of the things I remember from Frances MacNally, the curator at Thoor Ballylee, echoed by many others, was what a fine and gracious man you were.
I'm sure that's still true.
We were both rearing our children in those years, some of whom have reached middle age by now.
Isn't it odd to think of these children at that age when we're inclined to still think of ourselves as younger men.
Has the time passed as quickly for you as it has for me?
Do you find yourself assuming that everyone you used to know who was older than you is now dead?
But old age is not the thing that either of us expected.
The praises we get tend to ring false or be for all the wrong reasons and to ignore our essential virtues.
At least that is what we think.
You have gleaned every award a poet can hope for in this world, culminating with the Nobel Prize in 1995.
If I was sizing you up in my youth, the way I sized up and compared myself with an opposing attorney at trial, there was no real rivalry between us.
The parade has long since passed me by.
Now we find ourselves in diametrically opposed positions.
You, besotted with praise, could understandably be questioning the only assessment of a poet's career that matters, the assessment of time.
You have listened to all the extravagant statements of your merits over the years, so that you must almost be tired of hearing them.
You keep looking behind you to see who is coming up from the back of the crowd.
I, on he other hand, so unused to praise in the past for my poetry, feel exhilarated at the slightest positive comment from the great.
In some ways, despite the curse of obscurity, there is a least a basis for preferring my position to yours.
But approaching what my late father-in-law used to charmingly refer to as "The Death Zone," we know as well as anything we have learned in our soon-to-be three score and ten that there are no guarantees for either of us, Seamus. As we prepare for that last great assize*, we can only hope that we will be judged on what was best about us, and that the rest may be overlooked.
So here's a glass upraised to you, agra**, and I hope you will find it in your heart to raise one up to me.
I'm not sure of the toast, only of the sentiments that inspire it.
T.S. Kerrigan's poetry has appeared in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic. His latest and most complete collection, My Dark People (Central Avenue Press)m appeared in May of 2008. A new collection, Crows on a Telegraph Wire, will be out in 2009. A longtime member of the California Bar who has argued and won before the U.S. Supreme Court, Kerrigan retired in 2008.
* Judgment Day
** Gaelic: Old friend