Mar 10, 2014
Donald Fanger on Seamus Heaney
Posted on Feb 26, 2009
Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, spent his boyhood on a small farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, and has never turned his back on it. He has returned over and over again to the remembered details—the heft and feel and smell and look of things—even as the poetry he forged out of them spoke to increasingly broader concerns and turned the poet himself into a world figure, most importantly by incorporating the myriad ways his countrymen found themselves caught up in nightmare cycles of murderous conflict, hammered between “hope and history.” His goal is to get things right, to make his presentations perfectly focused and suggestively resonant, and he is so supernaturally successful at that that you can’t read him, whether in verse or prose, without a thrill of satisfaction and wonder akin to what he describes as his own experience of the way the writing takes shape. He makes the simplest words shine.
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney
By Dennis O’Driscoll
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pages
“Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney,” poet Dennis O’Driscoll’s extraordinary book, takes its title from the place in Heaney’s Nobel lecture where he observes that both his writing and his life can be seen as “a journey where each point of arrival … turned out to be a stepping-stone rather than a destination,” and the emphasis on continuing process informs it from beginning to end. The book’s form is that of extended interviews, conducted (largely in writing) over a period of years, in which the interviewer, O’Driscoll, defines his role as that of prompter rather than interrogator. Its purpose—in the continuing absence of any substantial biography—is to present interviews, freed from space limitations, that might come to comprise “a comprehensive portrait of the man and his times”—and, of course, of the work itself. (Heaney’s only stipulation was that he would not speak in analytic detail of any of the poems, though he does cite particular aspects of many, and to dazzling effect.)
O’Driscoll calls the book “a survey of [Heaney’s] life, often using the poems as reference points,” thus providing “a biographical context for the poems and a poetry-based account of the life.” For this reason he is right to find the result “very much a book for readers of [Heaney’s] oeuvre.” But it is much, much more.
Many-leveled, it is a book that rearranges itself according to the angle of the reader’s questioning, and while it will surely send many readers to the poems themselves, whether for the first or the dozenth time, it has, as great autobiography must have, stand-alone value as well.
Some of this value is documentary, whether detailing the nuances of Irish cultural politics during the Troubles of the late ’60s, or trenchantly evoking the writers and writings that assumed a place in Heaney’s development. Richly deployed, this is the stuff of cultural history, and it is inevitably central to Heaney’s probing account of his formation as man and poet. What I want to stress here, however, is that the book is more than simply an account of experience; it is itself an agency of experience. You come away from it—at least you can: I did—moved, enlarged and deepened.
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