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.”O’Driscoll then asks whether Heaney can recall visionary moments of that kind at later stages of his life, triggering this answer:

Out in the country, on starlit nights in Glanmore, pissing at the gable of the house, I had the usual reveries of immensity. But on a couple of other occasions that I specifically recollect, it was more a case of being overwhelmed by the work of mortal men. One morning in Berkeley, on the top floor of Wheeler Hall where the English Department is located, I was standing out on a balcony. The bricks were already warm in the sun, it was clear and summery and light-drenched; you could see the white terraces and tower blocks of San Francisco across the bay and the green trace of trees and gardens in between, and I had this visitation of — well, I don’t know what to call it … Humanist joy? Awe? A tremendous sense of what human beings had achieved on earth. Something akin to Wordsworth’s revelation on Westminster Bridge.

book cover

Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney

By Dennis O’Driscoll

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pages

Buy the book

There is a lot here about how poetry comes into being. Speaking of Robert Lowell’s “epoch-making poems like ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Near the Ocean,’ Heaney explains: “They came from where he was cornered, in himself and his times, and were the equivalent of escapes, surges of inner life vaulting up and away. Every true poem arrives like that, with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness in the glee of finding the words.” An aside on Lorca finds him making the same point in other terms, finding in the Spanish poet’s essay on duende an implication “that poetry requires an inner flamenco, that it must be excited into life by something peremptory, some initial strum or throb that gets you started and drives you farther than you realized you could go.” “The image I have,” he writes later, “is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting out over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.”

One striking example comes in his discussion of the famous lines from his early poem “Digging.” Heaney explains: “In the case of the pen ‘between my finger and my thumb’, ‘snug as a gun’, and all the rest of it, I was responding to an entirely phonetic prompt, a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear. It’s the connection between the ‘uh’ sounds in ‘thumb’ and ‘snug’ and ‘gun’ that are the heart of the poetic matter rather than any sociological or literary formation.” That aural susceptibility is everywhere on display in this book, as when he comments: “I always hear the tinkle of a whitesmith’s hammer in the word ‘tinker’, the rim of a tin can being beaten trim” — or when he speaks of “poems full of linguistic burr and clinker.” (“If I couldn’t altogether escape an Irishy/Britishy formality,” he comments, “I had an inclination from the start to dishevel it. I’ve always been subject to a perverse urge to galumph rather than glide.”)

One can see in this a fidelity to his country childhood. One sees it everywhere, of course. It is the root of his being as of his doing, what is there to be preserved for its own sake and transcended for the sake of poetry. Speaking at one point of “visionary gleam,” he compares the terms of his own with those of Yeats: “My starlight came in over the half-door of a house with a clay floor, not over the dome of a Byzantine palace; and in a hollowed-out part of the floor, there was a cat licking up the starlit milk.”

Something of that same persistence underlies Heaney’s remarks on religious belief. Noting his loss of faith, he comments on words like transubstantiation and real presence that “the potency of those words remains for me, they retain an undying tremor and draw; I cannot disavow them.” This is not self-division but a paradoxical wholeness, and it serves Heaney well by allowing him a deep (because sympathetic) understanding of prayer as what he calls a key piece of equipment in the lives of others — as, for example, in the case of his mother’s life:

The longer I live the more I’m aware of the siege she must have experienced in body and spirit for the first two decades of her marriage — a child arriving almost every year to begin with, then being cooped up in a small house, the family crowding in and growing up around her, living in a farm kitchen, her body thickening — some reinforcement was required and I believe it came from prayer and religious understanding. Religion in some sense “equipped” her. Identification of a mother’s suffering with the suffering mother of Christ. Praying for strength to bear up. As she recited the rosary, you could almost hear a defiance in the strength of her voice announcing the mysteries and leading the Hail Marys, as if she knelt to give challenge to the conditions. And then the invocation of the names of the Virgin in the litany –“Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Refuge of Sinners, Health of the Sick, Morning Star, Star of the Sea” — it now seems to me to have been the redress of praying.

In his own case, the discovery of vocation replaced the revelations of belief, and it did so by embracing the need that prompts belief: “Poetry is a ratification of the impulse toward transcendence. You can lose your belief in the afterlife, in the particular judgement at the moment of death, in the eternal separation of the good from the evil ones in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, but it’s harder to lose the sense of an ordained structure, beyond all this fuddle. Poetry represents the need for an ultimate court of appeal. The infinite spaces may be silent, but the human response is to say that this is not good enough, that there has to be more to it than neuter absence.”

book cover

Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney

By Dennis O’Driscoll

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pages

Buy the book

“The human response” is what this book is all about, half record and half meditation, indissolubly mixed. When asked whether, despite his Catholic observances having lapsed, he still approves of the ceremonial aspect of church obsequies, Heaney replies: “I do. I think it’s the right moment for ceremony. The funeral pyre is one thing, the crematorium something else.” By the same token, funerals are different from memorial services. “Funerals are closer to the bones, as it were; they have to deal with the rent in the fabric. The memorial service has more to do with the recompense of reputation, sometimes maybe with its retrieval. It’s closer to the obituary notice than to the eternal questions.”

These distinctions, the retentions that persist alongside the disavowals, the grounding of generalization in the irresistibly convincing (and hence transferable) specifics of one man’s experience, the extraordinary intelligence, the precision and eloquence of the writing — all make this prose what Milosz called poetry: “a dividend from what you know and what you are.” There is no urging here, but only the quiet draw of example and the reader’s answering exhilaration at being allowed to contemplate so extensively what Seamus Heaney knows and what he is — and what he can do, for this book embodies the inevitability it repeatedly ascribes to successful poetic utterance, and sees in “those incontrovertible paintings [of Cézanne’s], so steady in themselves they steady you and the world — and you in the world.”

Not least of the rewards on offer here is what amounts to a whole anthology of memorable characterizations of other poets and their work — Hughes, Milosz, Yeats, Lowell, Bishop, Kavanagh, Hopkins and dozens of others. Here is one illustration of Heaney’s virtue and the reviewer’s dilemma: Heaney writes, “Kavanagh walked into my ear like an old-style farmer walking a field.” This is eminently quotable and surely suggestive. But see how its expressiveness compounds when replaced in its context. Heaney is speaking about the effect on him in his early days of Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”:

[It] was to me the equivalent of wrap-around sound in one of today’s cineplexes. It had the wham of big-screen cinematic close-up, an amplified language that could knock you sideways. Head-on, as cold-breathed and substantial as the stuff the potato digger was kicking up from the drills. Kavanagh walked into my ear like an old-style farmer walking a field. He had that kind of ignorant entitlement, his confidence contained a mixture of defiance and challenge. You were being told that you would never hit your stride if you didn’t step your own ground, and would never hit the right note if you didn’t sound as thick as your own first speech.

In the same way the 400-odd pages that precede it saturate with meanings Heaney’s answer in the closing pages to the question, “What has poetry taught you?”

That there’s such as thing as truth and it can be told — slant; that subjectivity is not to be theorized away and is worth defending; that poetry itself has virtue, in the first sense of possessing a quality of moral excellence and in the sense also of possessing inherent strength by reason of its sheer made-upness, its integritas, consonantia and claritas.

This is not only a radically original book; in its own quiet way it is also a great one.

Donald Fanger, formerly Harry Levin Professor of Literature at Harvard, is the author most recently of “Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences.”

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