An Animated Conversation

Book cover
Stepping Stonesby By Dennis O’DriscollFarrar, Straus and Giroux. 560p $32

What attracts you to a poet? A sense that you’re in safe hands, artistically speaking, and that the work embodies knowledge of life.” So Seamus Heaney explains his affinity for Czeslaw Milosz and other Eastern European writers; but for over 40 years readers have discovered these things in Heaney’s own verse: a constant care that “a poem must have the right sound” (a lesson learned first from Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.) along with lines that acknowledge at every turn the givenness of the world, and its sorrow. (“The deeper register of your understanding, which includes that sense that ‘we’re going to have to pay for it,’ has to be there somehow—even in a celebratory poem.”) Despite much attention and many honors (the 1995 Nobel Prize, the bestselling translation of Beowulf, and—both blessing and curse—Robert Lowell crowning him the greatest Irish poet since W. B. Yeats), there has never been a full-length study of Heaney’s life and work. He will turn 70 this year, and suffered a stroke in 2006 (from which he has recovered completely). Still, as his interviewer Dennis O’Driscoll puts it, Stepping Stones represents “a stocktaking, not a summing-up.”

Yeats said of Oscar Wilde that he was the only person he ever met who seemed to talk in paragraphs, as if everything he said had been carefully crafted beforehand. The reader initially has a similar (and slightly jarring) sense here, as the exchanges between Heaney and O’Driscoll take the form of conversation, but are far too shaped to be spontaneous (allusions to Chaucer and T. S. Eliot in one sentence, to James Joyce and Emily Dickinson in another). In fact, O’Driscoll submitted questions over a number of years, and Heaney answered them “principally in writing and by post” in any order and to whatever extent he wished. Nonetheless, it soon feels as if one were listening in on talk between two old friends (there is even some amiable chaffing when it seems Heaney doesn’t care for a particular question).

The book begins in a singular fashion: O’Driscoll asks Heaney to take him through his childhood home, the family farmstead at Mossbawn, County Derry, Northern Ireland, giving not only its layout, the outbuildings and furnishings, but the sounds and smells, where things stood in relation to one another and so on. He clearly knows his man. There are few poets to whom the sense of place is more important, and Heaney is more than willing to acknowledge, indeed to honor, that he is the cattle-dealer’s son, grounded in the Ulster countryside, yet without romanticizing the facts: “It sounds very idyllic, but it was a small, ordinary, nose-to-the-grindstoney place. A subsistence-level life.” His family was nationalist (though not aggressively so) and Catholic (but on good terms with their Protestant neighbors). Here is the beginning of the book’s first section, “Bearings,” which, in taking us up to the publication of his first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966), locates the poet for us—“locate” being a key term for Heaney, as when O’Driscoll asks him whether he regards his poetry as a way of describing his origins:

 

The early-in-life experience has been central to me all right. But I’d say you aren’t so much trying to describe it as trying to locate it. The amount of sensory material stored up or stored down in the brain’s and the body’s systems is inestimable. It’s like a culture at the bottom of a jar, although it doesn’t grow, I think, or help anything else to grow unless you find a way to reach it and touch it. But once you do, it’s like putting your hand into a nest and finding something beginning to hatch out in your head.

The second and by far the longest section takes up the long process of hatching out: “On the Books,” (almost) neatly divided into one chapter for each volume of poetry. One topic was apparently off-limits: Heaney did not want to provide explications of individual poems. (For that, the interested reader can turn to Helen Vendler’s Seamus Heaney, which would make an excellent companion to this volume.) Instead, he gives background to the works (for example, the grandfather in one of his earliest and most reprinted poems, “Digging,” was actually his uncle) and traces his lines of poetic affiliation (he says he does not particularly fret in the shadow of Yeats, while some British and American figures have been far more important: Hopkins above all, along with Lowell, Ted Hughes and Robert Frost). Though the focus is kept squarely on the work, along the way we get the life as well: his marriage to Marie, whom he met at Queen’s University, Belfast; teaching at Berkeley and Harvard; pressures from the nationalist community to take a more public stand on “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland; and his enduring the characteristically (though not exclusively) Irish sport of resentful “begrudgery” among writers.

“Coda,” the third and final section, covers the period since his illness. Here Heaney speaks of how he has lost his belief in an afterlife (though not the profound sacramental sense his Catholic faith has given him) and of what poetry has taught him: “That there’s such a thing as truth and that it can be told/ …that poetry itself has virtue…possessing inherent strength by reason of sheer made-upness….” The title of the book is taken from his Nobel Prize speech, in which he called the poet’s vocation “a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival—whether in one’s poetry or one’s life—turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.”

These remarkably rich interviews are indeed stepping stones, leading us to Heaney’s poems, again or for the first time.

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