Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O’Driscoll, Faber and Faber, 560 pp, £22.50, ISBN: 978-0571242528
With the thousands of reviews, articles, interviews and full-scale studies that Seamus Heaney’s work has already attracted, it is hardly necessary here either to introduce Heaney or to use Stepping Stones as a mere stepping stone back to the familiar squabbles over his poetic territory – whether the land is over-grazed or over-green, whether he should have moved out of the area entirely, whether a diploma in experimental farming techniques might not have been advisable at some stage, whether he is drawing attention away from other worthy neighbours, whether he has reinforced the traditional confinement of women’s work to home and farmyard, whether he is merely walking the fields out of habit …
Most newspaper reviews of the book contented themselves with describing the nature of the enterprise: Dennis O’Driscoll’s proposing the idea of a volume of interviews; Heaney’s agreeing but asking that matters should be conducted in writing; Heaney’s responding to a selection of the many possible questions forwarded by O’Driscoll; and the careful crafting of answers that this allowed. Most reviews were positive, though a few emphasised that the book was for the devotee rather than for the casual reader. Some offered a juicy plum or two (a subtle jab to the ribs here; a sketch of a literary legend there) as if to assure us that the pie had been fully inspected. Some commented wonderingly on the fact that, in a period obsessed with the lives of the famous, Heaney had managed to avoid becoming the victim of a biographer. This is indeed a remarkable feat; it may at least partly be put down to the fact that Heaney has inspired a degree of loyalty among friends that would be the despair of any scandal-sniffing biographer, compounded by the fact that there seems to be so little scandal to sniff out in the first place.
There is an implicit valuation of his wife, Marie’s, judgement in the way Heaney speaks of the process of making and keeping friends but, beyond some emblematic moments, she and the children figure almost exclusively insofar as they intersect with the writing life. As O’Driscoll says, Heaney has every right to keep the details of his personal or family life to himself; this stance is also consistent with the autobiographical, but ultimately non-confessional, impulse in his poetry.
A short-lived, rather arty Irish magazine of the 1980s once carried an interview with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. As question followed question, the reader could observe with a kind of awe the poet’s gathering realisation that the interviewer knew absolutely nothing about him or his work. This is not the kind of thing that Dennis O’Driscoll is going to be accused of. We may assume that, at the outset, he already knew man and work intimately, but the sheer mass and detail of the questions and promptings suggest an additional thoroughness of research. Thus, if we are not entirely surprised at some of what O’Driscoll knows – Wasn’t there a phone call from Czeslaw Milosz during that party? – we have to doff our caps when he casually drops this kind of thing: But you were skilful enough to play for the Castledawson minors, and you even received a trial for the Derry county team. O’Driscoll would not, we suspect, be a regular visitor to Semple Stadium in his home town of Thurles. Though his name figures prominently on the cover of Stepping Stones, as it deserves to, his performance as interviewer is, on the whole, an admirably self-effacing one.
There is no appendix listing all the unanswered questions, so if there are matters where we sensation-seeking readers might have liked a little more detail, we can only guess whether O’Driscoll was uninterested or diplomatic, or whether his curiosity might have been rebuffed. Only very rarely, as in the case of Ted Hughes, does a sequence of questions suggest an opinion different from Heaney’s.
If a volume of Selected Heaney Interviews ever appears, it will almost unavoidably include much repetition in both questions and answers. The steady journey through the career that this volume provides overlaps of course with previous articles and interviews – how many times has Heaney recounted the way in which he heard that he had received the Nobel Prize? – but it is usefully self-contained and internally consistent. Any committed lover of Heaney’s poetry will want to stand at the poet’s shoulder as he casts an eye back over fifty years of work, and even dippers into the stream will be rewarded by a striking formula here, a vivid pen picture there, not to mention corrections to the record, word-play and assorted Heaneyisms. And if Stepping Stones does take us from book to book, it retains a conversational quality by hopping back and forth in time and nipping up side paths as it goes along – as well as in the light, unlaboured tone of much of what Heaney says.
Heaney has the widest readership of any poet writing in English today. If he had written a relatively conventional biography, he would have been guaranteed even more readers than Stepping Stones will have. The opening chapter sends out a clear message that this is not going to be merely a relaxed stroll down memory lane, that it is a book for those who are willing to pay attention. It does indeed go down the lanes of south Derry but in a way that appeals rather too much to both the quantity surveyor and the devotee in us. There is a reason for this, but the effect is almost disconcerting at first, as this selection of questions might suggest:
And besides the shed?
Walk on with the gable of the house on your left and the shed on your right and you’re into the back yard. One side of that is defined by the dwelling house and opposite, on the other side, say fifteen yards away, you have the byre and – later on – a pig house. The byre was an old structure, a cow house, no windows; cow stalls on your left when you went in, with room for four cows; stalls again on your right, although these weren’t used for cattle in my time, more for storage of fodder. Beast smells and manure smells. A ‘groop’ as it was called, a sunk trench in the concrete floor running to a back outlet, to drain the piss and catch the cow dung.
Given the extraordinary attention Heaney pays to the detail of Mossbawn, his childhood home, it would not be going too far to refer to it as a sacred place of his imagination – and in Heaney’s case, as is well known, the poetic imagination is intimately bound up with memory. Not only did going to boarding school reduce Heaney’s active connection with life at Mossbawn at an early stage, but the family’s move to an inherited farm-house some miles away a few years later, soon after the shocking death of the poet’s young brother, reinforced the separation, and of course he would go on to live in various homes in Ireland and abroad. But it seems that, whether he is in Belfast, Dublin, Wicklow or Harvard, Heaney has to feel the thread of connection with rural Derry.
The depth and length of Heaney’s engagement with the matter of childhood suggests that what is involved goes far beyond nostalgia: we are dealing with the kind of imaginative loyalty that underpins a whole life. Regardless of where he is living at the time or what creative phase he is in, Heaney persists in working and reworking the material given him by birth and inheritance. We might recall the lines from “The Badgers” in Field Work:
not to love the life we’re shown?
I suppose this should go on the record once and for all. My mother’s attitude was not at all expressed by the phrase ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ – nor, I should say, was mine. Her use of it and my use of it put it very much in inverted commas. The phrase was a knowing acknowledgement of the power structure, a Catholic nod in answer to the Protestant wink that got the jobs and the houses. It was ironical rather than instructional. It was fundamentally an expression of anger rather than of acquiescence.”
The social discomfort involved in homecoming is acknowledged in a passage in “Casualty”, from Field Work, written in memory of a neighbour who died in an explosion:
To him, my other life.
Sometimes, on his high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.
As a writer, Heaney’s voice has been troubled by doubt or has wobbled towards uncertainty at various points, but there is an underlying faith in the possibility of giving untroubled voice. The wobbles, we might say, are eventually assimilated to the texture of the voice or are overcome; the poet’s voice changes with the years – and Heaney will, within limits, try out new voices – but, typically, a continuity is maintained. Heaney’s failure to dissolve or fragment his voice in correct modernist-into-postmodernist style lies behind some of the exasperation which is directed at him. Muldoon’s intellectual narcissism and power-play are much more forgivable because the poems gesture towards the dissolution of the ego into a multiple play of identities and voices; the monotone under the fizzle, the amusicality with which this is accomplished – the sophisticated drone into which John Ashbery has long settled also comes to mind – is little commented on by those who are less interested in a line that moves through time and space than in raw material for exegesis, in the exemplification of a theory or in the solving of a puzzle. (Musicality here is not to be confused with the pastoral or with the living remains of nineteenth-century convention: by analogy, we are talking as much of Boulez or Ligeti as of Vaughan Williams or Sibelius.) When Heaney’s “Parnassian” or self-imitating poems have fallen away, the poems that remain standing will continue to demonstrate a variety of music and a degree of variation within the voice. It is the luxury of readers to enjoy what is to be enjoyed in Heaney but to value other approaches and writers at the same time. It is not that Heaney’s poetic mode and procedures are right in any general way; it is that they seem to be right for him. In poetic technique, as in other areas of life and writing, Heaney does not take his inheritance as a bag of tricks to be casually shouldered.
To think about the span of life encompassed in Stepping Stones is to realise just how easy it would be for someone like Heaney to consider the past another country. It was open to him – through some happy intertwining of ability, personality, application and luck – to move, step by step, away from his childhood world. Already, for someone of his background to go to boarding school was to be marked out as different. To go to university was a further step away. Then there was third-level teaching, a steadily expanding reputation as a poet, international fame, prestigious positions at Harvard and Oxford, friendships with some of the most eminent writers and intellectuals of his time, a string of honours culminating in the Nobel Prize for Literature … At this stage, we are far indeed from the boy perched in a tree overlooking a road in South Derry, the boy fascinated by frog-spawn or collecting blackberries. It would be easy to think of that childhood world as the accidental beginning of a self-shaped and highly successful career. Instead, Heaney chooses to return endlessly to his beginnings.
Was it right to list luck alongside ability, personality and application in the paragraph above? Or is it a combination of the triad of ability, personality and application that makes some of what happens to Heaney appear like luck? Whatever the truth of the matter may be, it seems that people have always been happy to give to Heaney. A primary school teacher offered to give him lessons in Latin outside of school hours, thus helping him on his way to boarding school and university. It was hinted, while he was at Queen’s, that the path to postgraduate study at Oxford might be made smooth for him. (It was Heaney himself who failed to follow through on the matter, for various reasons.) Not only did Heaney have a book published ahead of some slightly senior contemporaries but he was taken up by Faber as a relative unknown at a time when the Faber poetry list was the one that mattered.
It was Heaney’s luck that the young Helen Vendler, soon to become an influential voice in the American literary critical world, was entranced by his work in the early 1970s and was to become a major interpreter and advocate, as well as a friend. Towards the end of the same decade, Elizabeth Bishop having reached retirement age, Heaney was offered some teaching at Harvard at just the right moment for him. And so it goes – friendly hands helping Heaney towards the top, with few if any bodies left in the bushes along the way (though envious mutterings may be heard here and there).
Some of what Heaney has had to deal with – the scrutinising of every line for what it says about the state of the nation, the world, the relations between men and women; the distance between the home ground of his imagination and the world in which he operates as a writer – may be the price of success. There is a limit to the sympathy that will be felt for carriers of that burden, but it cannot be denied that Heaney has carried it with more grace than most. Should we simply say that he has managed the journey and the burden well? The language of management – with its hint of manipulation or calculation – does not quite do justice to what is involved.
A particular memory world, a particular intelligence, a particular talent: these are the givens, as it were. However, it is the handling of the materials and the handling of the life over decades that mark Heaney out. Here it becomes impossible not to speak in terms of vocation, a concept that can be related to such terms as discipline, patience, conscience, respect and perhaps husbandry – and then to alertness, intuition, the weather eye. Heaney was given a particular piece of the world to tend. It has never been in his nature, it would seem, to make wild, unprepared moves. Caring for his patch of land is a matter of attention and repetition. At the same time, if you keep your nose to the ground at all times, if you don’t keep an eye out for possibilities or for changes in the weather, if you don’t notice the field that might be acquired from the aging farmer next door, then the farm may slowly run down. Heaney seems to gather experience and then let intuition, or what comes his way, guide him at a certain point – and though success of various kinds (publication, position, prizes) came early to him, he has never been in a rush; instead, he has seemed to ease his way forward. Stepping Stones reminds us that, for Heaney, the poet is not simply a producer of individual poems, but a person with a special responsibility: the poet’s intuitive, emotional and intellectual equipment must be kept in good order if the long-term internal conversation from poem to poem is to be sustained. Even if the terminology changes somewhat over time – and Heaney is here distinguishing between craft (a certain formal excellence) and technique – something of this is already to be found in “Feeling into Words”, a well-known, relatively early essay published in Finders Keepers:
In keeping with the notion of vocation, Heaney seems quickly to have developed a feeling for material that could trigger sustained exploration and revisiting. There are repeated references to this throughout Stepping Stones, the title itself of course evoking ongoing movement rather than fixed achievement.
There was a terrific sense of having arrived somewhere, and at the same time a definite anxiety. Would you get off the ground again – and on course – and then get landed again safely?
From the moment I wrote it, I felt promise in ‘Bogland’. Without having any clear notion of where it would lead or even whether I would go back to the subject, I realized that new co-ordinates had been established.
It seemed the right poem to close with since it didn’t seem to stop after the last line.
I don’t know how to explain the dam-burst.
It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming.
The pattern was always the simple one of setting out, encountering tests and getting through to a new degree of independence.
I was sitting in this most beautiful reading room with the rain coming down on the glass dome. Suddenly I wrote a few lines and it became a twelve-line, four three-lines, thing. It felt given, strange and unexpected; I didn’t quite know where it came from, but I knew immediately it was there to stay. It seemed as solid as an iron bar … The form operated for me as a generator of poetry.
Though there is quite a lot of incidental detail on the politics of the North (a subject that is probably not Dennis O’Driscoll’s forte) in Stepping Stones, Heaney tends to underplay the intensity of his own engagement (however slantwise) with the matter – preferring at this point to look back to the writing of the poems themselves:
The national and sexual politics of North, in particular, has thrown up some fine criticism but a few points may be made here. First, the noise around the poems means that the voice of the poems themselves, or the poems as experienced, is easily forgotten. Second, as already suggested, there is no particular reason to look to Heaney for political insight as such. Third, where the Troubles are concerned, the Heaney that matters is neither the willing or unwilling lender of phrases to politicians nor the permanent exhibit in the museum of incorrect choices, but, as Vendler emphasises, the poet working from image to image and from poem to poem, trying (and sometimes failing) to do justice to the challenges thrown at him by the violence that is rending his (extended) home ground. Fourth, after the much criticised sexual politics of North, Heaney went on to write the outstanding love poems that appeared in Field Work.
If, as suggested earlier, Heaney has taken doubts and guilts into the heart of his writing process, it may be that he took on too much of a load in the late seventies. Thirty years later, Field Work still retains a curiously unsettled quality: alongside the starry but guilt-invaded lyricism of “Oysters”, the hushed tenderness of “Homecomings”, the deft plaiting and replaiting of “The Harvest Bow”, the surprising crop of mature love poems, the estranged formality of “A Dream of Jealousy”, the almost palpable surge of history through the funeral scene in “Casualty”, there are eruptions of overwrought language and imagery as well as failures of touch (as in the end of “The Strand at Lough Beg”, the focus of indirect self-accusation later). There was no knowing where Heaney was going. The book that followed, Station Island, is still hugely important to him. The title poem, an internal dialogue cast as a dialogue of the poet with literary and personal ghost-voices, both accusing and enabling, enacts a ritual casting-off of oppressive burdens. A key event in the poet’s personal narrative, the poem in itself may prove less central to readers of Heaney as time goes on. Some freedom of voice is immediately achieved in the Sweeney Redivivus section that follows the poem proper, a freedom built on in The Haw Lantern, though with something stiff and willed about it at times.
Some have speculated, and Heaney himself does not disagree, that the loss of both parents in the 1980s brought grief, of course, a revisiting of personal and family history that is seen in many poems, but also the psychic freedom of being his own man rather than a dutiful son. If Heaney was always at heart a celebrator, a venerator, a singer, it is the final, untroubled release of the praise-singer in himself that sings off the page in the eleventh chapter of Stepping Stones, devoted to Seeing Things, and especially to “Squarings”.
Heaney gives the impression of largely accepting himself, the life he was given, the life he has led and the work he has done:
If there is, I haven’t got to it yet. But I can imagine it – a phase of solitary wandering at the edge of the mighty waters. What I said in that interview I have repeated often since, but in a somewhat different way. I believe the three phases turn out to be cyclic, that there are renewed surges of endeavour in your life and art, and that, in every case, the movement involves a pattern of getting started, keeping going and getting started again. Some books are a matter of keeping going; some – if you’re lucky – get you started again. Seeing Things was a new start. There, for once, the old saw came true: life began, or began again, at fifty.
There is reference to an episode recounted by Michael Longley when, with drink taken, Heaney was told, rather vehemently, that Mahon was the better poet. Heaney is no prize-fighter, but he can throw a nice punch while gliding out of reach:
Well, yes, but I have to say his posturing irked me. Swirling the snifter of brandy and brandishing the cigar. Setting himself up as commissar, interrogating rather than conversing. I remember walking into the Club Bar that week [late 1968] and being asked rather grandly – in front of Kinsella and Montague – ‘And where do you stand on the North?’ I should have said that, unlike the company I was in, I’d stood on it for thirty years, but I just let it go. I admired him even if I didn’t get close.
Silence has been the poet’s main critical tool where some of his contemporaries are concerned. There is also an implicit self-evaluation in the company he keeps in his essays, and in the great writers he summons up, or is visited by, in his poems. (Kinsella is one of the few living Irish writers to be written about at length; their temperaments may be different, but Heaney would respond to Kinsella’s unwavering concentration on the building, unbuilding and rebuilding of his own imaginative world.) On the whole, and this is an aspect of the thrift that was mentioned earlier, Heaney has concentrated his energies on working his own ground. Ultimately, it is up to us readers, and the readers of the future, to decide how much of his work we value and how he stands in relation to his predecessors and contemporaries. In addition to criticism by silence, Heaney also displays critical thrift – an excess of it, perhaps, for those of us who might like to witness more meeting of worlds – when he simply turns away (not always in dismissive fashion) from forms of writing not relevant to him:
Such comments, when set alongside others distancing himself from “open-weave” poetry and various positive references to poetry as felt in the body (there is even a reference to muscle-tone) point to the consistency of Heaney’s world: even if he later “takes off”, he starts from an object, a gist, a body, a grid, an enclosed rather than an open field, a form that can take pressure. His first urge as a writer was to touch, to dig, to excavate. Later he might look skyward and let gusts of strangeness and exaltation blow through his imagination, but he is a poet of attachment, even at his freest. For an artist to claim unlimited freedom would imply an art disconnected from human and natural life, from limits, from endings, from death.
In the later sections of Stepping Stones, there are many illuminating comments on translation, on age and writing, and on the writers Heaney admires. Ted Hughes and Czeslaw Milosz are his two unshakable reference points, in life as in poetry, returned to again and again. He is never afraid that expressing admiration for the qualities of others might lead to some diminution in his own position or authority. The poet’s credo can be found in his many essays, by implication and in partial statement in his poems, but here it is presented anew in a conversational style that can shift easily to the epigrammatic and the reflective. A reviewer should not be a pig digging up every truffle in the wood; readers will sniff them out for themselves. Heaney holds the line steadily, falling neither into false modesty nor into arrogance. It would be difficult not to emerge from Stepping Stones without increased respect or liking for the man and understanding of the poet.
O’Driscoll raises the matter of the many conferences, launches, conferrings and other public events in which Heaney participates. “Ongoing civic service, I suppose,” Heaney responds. The grace and patience with which he handles such demands on his time and energy point to another aspect of the poetic vocation as he conceives it. Life has been good to him in many ways; poetry has enriched his existence both privately and in the social and intellectual worlds it has opened up to him. In return, though under no obligation to roll up his shirtsleeves and take part in the meitheal, Heaney performs his neighbourly duty as few in his position would.
To anyone who is considering inviting Heaney to perform such duties again, a reading of the later sections of the book, and of the coda, is recommended. Perhaps the poet should be left master of his own time. He has made an excellent recovery from the stroke he suffered some years ago. He speaks touchingly – humorously too – of this, of the sheer joy of existence in its best moments and of the potential nearness of death. Whether a further late harvest of poems is due or not, Heaney deserves to enjoy these years as he sees fit. He sees no reason not to keep going. And we have the poems, the essays and now Stepping Stones to be going on with.
Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, cultural politics and music to publications ranging from Graph, which he co-edited, and Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press) to the JMI (Journal of Music in Ireland). He works in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language sector.