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Donald Fanger on Seamus Heaney

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Posted on Feb 26, 2009
book cover

By Donald Fanger

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.


book cover


Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney


By Dennis O’Driscoll


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pages


Buy the book


“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.

“Stepping Stones” consists of three sections, the first evoking in magical detail the poet’s childhood on the family farm (Mossbawn) in County Derry—“a small, ordinary, nose-to-the-grindstoney place”—and his subsequent schooling in Belfast. The long central section organizes the intertwinings of life and work through the successive collections of the poems; and the third—the briefest—brings the account up to date, describing the poet’s stroke in 2006, his recovery, and his view of the world on the eve of his 70th birthday.

Heaney is a man in whom being and doing coincide to a remarkable degree: What he is—both as man and poet—permeates every eloquent sentence of this book. O’Driscoll reminds him, for example, that in a previous interview he’d said he’d had a happy and secure childhood. “Yet you added, ‘I think everybody recollects their earliest life as somehow in the middle of a space that is separate and a little sorrowing.’ I’d like to hear you elaborate a bit on that.” Heaney’s answer: “What’s to be said? I was trying to express what it felt like when I thought back to my earliest self. Something like that is necessarily vague, and it’s bound to be affected by ways of knowing and feeling that literature and culture offer you. I must have had this image of the little me as the animula, the little soul alone. Or the image from Plato’s parable, as Yeats calls it, of the soul at birth separated from its other half, and seeking and yearning for it ever after. When I recollect myself as a young child, I have a sense of being close to that unsatisfied, desiring, lonely, inner core. It—or he—hasn’t disappeared but nowadays he dwells farther in, behind all kinds of socialized defences, barriers he learned to put up in order to keep the inwardness intact but which ultimately had the effect of immuring it.”

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By Christopher, February 16, 2011 at 8:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I love reading Donald Fanger. Thanks for this review.

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By Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, March 13, 2009 at 5:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What an exhilarating review of what is evidently an exhilarating book!  As someone drawn to both poetry AND prayer, I find Fanger’s (and Heaney’s) reflections on transcendence enlivening.  This review was a wonderful read.  Thank you, Professor Fanger.

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, February 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

Poetry is best read to oneself, whether alone or aloud.

The practice of public poetry reading as performance is mostly an inferior form of music or drama, inflicted on gullible audiences by people who can’t really act, sing, or play an instrument, but who hope that merely by reading a well-written text aloud they will garner for themselves some of the glory that properly belongs only to the writer.

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