Guest Review: Nolan on Heaney

PJ Nolan reviews
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney
by Dennis O'Driscoll

From farm boy to Nobel Laureate, the life of Seamus Heaney has acquired a mythic proportion, in scale with the influences and preoccupations that continue to shape his remarkable output of poetry and related writings. Unapologetically a poet of the local, he has achieved a global readership, well beyond the halls of academe. Widely recognised as an affable interviewee, Heaney is also well-practiced in discretion – any tendency towards the oracular countered with determined respect for those private spaces which allow inspiration to flourish, within attendant and necessary mystery.

Denis O’Driscoll, poet, editor, commentator and stalwart of the Irish poetry scene, is also widely respected. George Szirtes has referred to him as ‘a poet of European temperament, and stature’. He shares familiarity, firm friendship and mutual respect with Heaney and is therefore well placed to coax intimacy and candour from his subject. In mining these familiarities, he has produced a remarkable insight into what Heaney himself has described as ‘a journey into the wideness of language’. It may be true that the revelations and insights in Stepping Stones are to be found in Heaney’s own words, but the success of this book lies in skilled and sensitive prompting by O’Driscoll.

Structured in a loosely chronological format, the first of three sections – Bearings – deals with formative years and experiences. Childhood, family relationships, sketches of community and custom, schooling and vital first exposures to literature and specific poetry, are spelled out in languid reflection. Some of this ground is already documented in Heaney’s own essays – but here, the interview format teases further depth from recollections. Physical description is leisurely and context is set for some future Heaney themes: family, tradition, place, history and perception.

The second section – On The Books – is the meat of this volume. Throughout these linked interviews, O’Driscoll shapes space so that the poet may roam the terrain around each of his poetry collections. Heaney stipulated early in the process that he would not engage in detailed analysis of individual poems; yet this is no handicap to either interviewer or subject in freely exploring those landscapes – physical and otherwise – from which they emerged. Beginning with Death of A Naturalist, we become passengers in that roaming, and are introduced to sources of specific imagery – some benevolent, others more troubling – and concerns that saw an Ulster Catholic poet ‘hurt into poetry’, as Auden remarked of Yeats’ relationship with Ireland.

Part of Heaney’s achievement is an ability to bridge the world of poetics. His relationships with Eastern European poets, as well as the UK and US communities, mean there’s no shortage of anecdotes here. Encounters with contemporaries are recounted – admiration expressed, or tactfully withheld – destinations, achievements and disappointments are visited, without apparent rancour or regret. A certain steeliness becomes apparent along the way as the young poet grows in confidence and stature, embracing risks that prove to be judicious moves beyond the comfort zone, at the necessary times. A move to Wicklow, to Berkeley, a refusal to become a mouthpiece – or bite the tongue, for that matter – all point to a finely timed sense of the appropriate, carried beyond the formulation of words on a page. Key influences are affirmed: Frost and Hopkins emerging as consistent touchstones, a weathered respect for Yeats; the ghost of Patrick Kavanagh looms. Love of the classics, and the depth of scholarship there is striking, with their value as source re-affirmed.

The book concludes with the shortest section – Coda – dealing with current perspectives, following the poet’s recent recovery from a minor stroke, as he faces into the next phase of a richly detailed and productive life.

One couldn’t claim that this book sees Heaney at his most unguarded. The structure of the book – most questions and answers were communicated in writing between interviewer and subject – perhaps precludes some of the spontaneous cut-and-thrust of a live interview. Some of the ground has been covered in previously published interviews and Heaney’s own prose writings, for example in Finders Keepers. In truth, The Redress of Poetry, drawn from Heaney’s lectures while Professor of Poetry at Oxford, may give a sharper insight into the purely poetic concerns informing Heaney’s work. Some of the material is echoed elsewhere, drawn from interviews with O’Driscoll under the patronage of the Lannan Foundation in 2003 (one of which is freely available as a podcast from their online archive).

However, this volume is a valuable and considered addition to the Heaney bibliography. It will, appropriately enough, serve a wider readership than those engaged in purely academic study – especially in the absence of a formal biography at this time.

Stepping Stones reveals the poet from within his formative experiences. The leisurely pace of the questions and answers, the eddying currents of memory and intuitive digression, create a fleshed-out sense of the concerns which drive some of the most striking and popular works in English language poetry today.

Nolan is a Dublin-based poet, reviewer, and blogger.