So now I want to read all of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. I want to start with Death of a Naturalist and see what set him apart from other poets getting started. I want to follow him up North to see how he both did and did not address the Troubles of his native Northern Ireland. I want to see the sets of sonnets that seemingly sent themselves, hear how he took up a longer story of Sweeney, make out the light of The Haw Lantern, travel a new line with District and Circle, and all of the others before, after and in between.
It will be a sideways entry to his poems. I read and loved his Nobel lecture, Crediting Poetry, when it was new, and I have gone back to it again and again through the years. I have also read and enjoyed his Beowulf, yet I have never read a volume of his original poems. That will soon change.
Stepping Stones is a book-length set of interviews between Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll, a fellow Irish poet who was 15 years Heaney’s junior. They were conducted over a series of years and, at Heaney’s request, “principally in writing and by post.” (p. viii) Some items from 2003 and 2006 originate from conversations that O’Driscoll and Heaney had in person, the latter before an audience in London. Stepping Stones is also the closest that Heaney came to leaving an autobiography. After two introductory chapters about Heaney’s early life, O’Driscoll organizes the rest of the conversations around published collections of Heaney’s poetry. “I wanted to avoid a slavishly chronological approach; collection-centred questions fostered variety and flexibility, allowing for a blend of contemporaneous commentary and retrospective recollection.” (p. ix) O’Driscoll and Heaney work through the collections chronologically, but within the chapters they range back and forth through time, and across many different themes.
“My own role here is that of prompter rather than interrogator,” (p. ix) writes O’Driscoll. He is a friendly interviewer, but also one who is deeply versed in Heaney’s work and the context from which it sprang. He knows enough to ask good and interesting questions, and Heaney respects him and himself enough not to go with facile answers. “[N]ever during my interviewing did I sense that he had withheld or suppressed anything that would be of significance to readers; and this is very much a book for readers of his oeuvre, on whose behalf I hope to have asked the kinds of questions which they might themselves have wished to pose.” (p. ix) Or in my case, a future reader of his work.
Heaney was born in April 1939 on a farm in the southern part of County Derry, Northern Ireland, the first of nine children. In addition to working the farm, Heaney’s father was an independent trader in cattle. Both parents had roots in the area; when Heaney was in his teens the family would move to another farm that his father inherited from an uncle. By that time, though, Heaney was a boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry, where he won a scholarship to attend beginning at age eleven.
From an early age, Heaney and his family both seem to have understood that his academic gifts would draw him away from the farming life, a life that at any rate would change significantly even before Heaney had finished growing up. His work remained deeply rooted to the places where he began, but it was clear that he would work in further fields than the furrows he came from. He published in the university literary magazine, and soon after graduation began succeeding in having his works printed by paying venues. He was also part of a nascent Belfast artistic scene in the mid-1960s, with poets, playwrights, musicians, and other artists exploring new currents of the time.
O’Driscoll asks him about rivalries among Ulster poets in those days. “Young poets thrive on a mixture of affection and disaffection anyhow, they get involved in a kind of vying that’s not quire rivalry, more an aspiration to outdo, pure and simple.” But was it healthy? “I don’t think the rivalry, if that’s the right word, was ever unhealthy in the matter of writing, in the sheer aspiration to best yourself. The desire to have something terrific to pull out of your pocket when you met — that kind of trumping and self-trumping was enjoyed by all. No begrudging, in other words, of achievement per se. The awkwardness or resentment set in when one was promoted over the other by publication or praise or later by the award of a prize. More a matter of ratings than rivalry. But that kind of thing just cannot be helped.” (pp. 76–77)
Many times, there are reminders why it’s good to have a fellow poet posing the questions —
O’Driscoll: You mentioned earlier that the poem will come more quickly if there is a form. Would you be offended to be called a formalist?
Heaney: I wouldn’t be offended but I think it would be a mistake. ‘Formalist’ to me sounds like a kind of doctrinaire position. I totally believe in form; but quite often, when people use the term, they mean shape rather than form. There’s the sonnet shape, fair enough, but it’s not just a matter of rhyming the eight lines and the other six; they happen to be set one on top of each other like two boxes, but they’re more like a torso and a pelvis. There has to be a little bit of muscle movement, it has to be alive in some sort of way. A moving poem doesn’t just mean that it touches you, in means it has to move itself along as a going linguistic concern. (p. 447)
O’Driscoll brings out much more from Heaney, from family recollections to observations about changes to English in different places that are important to Heaney. They range across politics, particular what it means to be a poet from Northern Ireland writing in English, but equally about how to transcend the partisan. Heaney talks about all of the different day jobs he has held to support his poetry writing, and there are joyful recollections of meetings with other writers and poets, either visitors to his home territory (which soon enough was in the Republic of Ireland) or people he encountered at festivals or during the parts of years during the 1980s and 1990s that Heaney taught at Harvard. He speaks of how an early semester in Berkeley helped him see wider horizons, and about the balance art and engagement he found in Central European writers such as Czeslav Milosz or Miroslav Holub.
In its individual parts, Stepping Stones is interesting and engrossing. Taken as a whole, it’s a lively accompaniment to a poet through most of his career — Heaney published just one more major collection after those covered in Stepping Stones, and he suffered a significant stroke toward the end of the period when he and O’Driscoll were conducting their interviews. There’s far more life in the book than I have been able to convey in this short overview, and now it is time to go find the poems.