It must feel odd – and more than a bit unsettling – to realise that sooner or later, perhaps in your lifetime, somebody will write your biography. Biographers can get lives badly wrong; and even when they get things right, giving attentive accounts with the salient facts in order, they may leave out friendships and discoveries that contributed greatly to a writer’s inner life. How to supplement – or correct, or displace – a future biography without taking years to concentrate on a memoir? Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll have found a good way. Stepping Stones is not quite Heaney’s autobiography: it is, instead, a long collection of interviews, revised collaboratively, in which Heaney describes each phase of his life. Only a poet of Heaney’s repute could enable a trade publisher to support such an enterprise; only a poet of Heaney’s temperament, at once gregarious and thoughtful, and an interlocutor such as O’Driscoll, wry, informed and deliberately informal, could agree to collaborate on it, and make it worth reading. Together, the two Irish writers connect Heaney’s poems with the people, places, books and songs that he has known.
Songs matter more than you might think; so do some places, especially California, and so, by the end, do the mixed blessings of fame. The most important place, though, is the first: Mossbawn, County Derry, the farmland where Heaney – the son of a cattle dealer and a housewife, with eight younger siblings – spent his childhood. O’Driscoll and Heaney promise to move book by book, from Death of a Naturalist (1966) to District and Circle (2006), with a postscript about Heaney’s recovery from a stroke; early chapters move, necessarily, place by place, from Mossbawn to St Columb’s College in Derry, where Heaney discovered Wordsworth and Hopkins, and then to Queen’s University in Belfast. ‘When I wrote my first poems as an undergraduate,’ Heaney says, ‘I wrote in Hopkins-speak.’ That early affinity sprang not only from Hopkins’s gorgeous metrics, not only from the familiarity of Hopkins’s Catholic doctrine, but from the austerity of Jesuit life, ‘the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds’ that Heaney knew at St Columb’s. Hopkins’s ‘whole theology of suffering’, his determined enunciations of self-denial, also echoed Heaney’s ‘mother’s situation … doomed to biology, a regime without birth control, nothing but parturition and potato-peeling’, ‘toiling on in the faith that a reward was … in heaven’.
The religious sensibility that led Hopkins, Margaret Heaney and the teenaged Seamus Heaney to Catholic piety emerged in the adult poet as attachment to land, to numinous sites: an attachment analogous to, but never identical with, religious faith. Critics distinguish genres of poems about rural places – ‘pastoral, anti-pastoral, bucolic, eclogue, Doric’, as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in the Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney – and Heaney uses them all, though pastoral and georgic, visionary meadow and labour-intensive hay-baling to him seem complementary, even continuous. Mossbawn ‘sounds very idyllic, but it was a small, ordinary, nose-to-the-grindstoney place’. Nonetheless, ‘there was a terrific rightness and lightness about the forks and rakes,’ and ‘the smell of hay still opens a path to the farthest and fondest places in me.’
To read Heaney’s memories of his early life is to find not only rural, familial experience (hauling sacks of grain, buying eggs from ‘the egg man’ and the like) but rural and local words: ‘A “groop” [was] a sunk trench in the concrete floor … to drain the piss and catch the cow dung. Cleaning the byre involved barrowing out the contents of the groop, sluicing it down and rebedding it with clean straw.’ Readers younger than Heaney, especially outside Ireland, may wonder at the gap in sensibility between Heaney (born in 1939) and Paul Muldoon (born in 1951), but to read about Heaney’s first years, his ‘nineteen-fifties/Of iron stoves and kin groups still in place’, is to see that the two poets do come from different generations: ‘I was well and truly formed,’ Heaney says, ‘by 1963.’
Heaney’s years in Belfast – most of his time from 1957 (when he matriculated at Queen’s) to 1972 – encompassed his marriage and the birth of his two sons; his first teaching jobs, in secondary schools and then at Queen’s; his literary life with Seamus Deane, Derek Mahon, Michael and Edna Longley, Philip Hobsbaum, and the workshop that Hobsbaum convened, the Group; and the grisly metamorphoses of Northern Irish public life, from simmering inequality and half-suppressed resentment into the worst of the Troubles. Each of these developments affected Heaney’s sense of the rest; the last two (the Group and the Troubles) have prompted countless books and articles, most recently Heather Clark’s informative, archive-fuelled monograph The Ulster Renaissance. Deane, raised in Derry, was ‘more Manichaean’ in his sense of Ulster, ‘more hard-edged’, Heaney says, because he ‘never had Protestant neighbours in and out of the house’, never knew ‘cheek-by-jowl, lane-by-field, country-neighbour life’.
And yet, when Heaney began to publish poems, ‘I’d gone delving straight away into the sectarian seam’: such a poem as ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ raised ‘a battened-down spirit that wanted to walk taller’. After Bloody Sunday, Heaney ceased to read that poem aloud: ‘It hadn’t been written as a recruiting song for the IRA. No way.’ Heaney’s early experience of Catholic identity foreshadowed a serious goal in his mature poems: they seek pride without aggression, a defiant confidence never designed to harm.
It was a confidence Belfast could not sustain. In the most discussed of all his changes of place, Heaney moved in 1972 from Belfast to Glanmore, County Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland; his ‘sensationally unalienated’ life in a cottage there, gathering blackberries and ‘bathing the kids by firelight’, gave him not only some distance from the Troubles, but also a way to reclaim the emotions of Mossbawn, a pastoral – or an idyll, or a Doric mode – fit for his adult life. Field Work (1979), the book that reflects life at Glanmore, bore the working title Polder (Dutch for ‘reclaimed land’). Glanmore was ‘absolutely the right place for writing’, though not – as they grew – for the ‘four other people in my care’. Though the family moved to Dublin in 1975, Heaney later bought the cottage he had been renting, and it has remained a site of replenishment: ‘Glanmore Revisited’ (from Seeing Things, 1991) makes the poet’s return to his daughter’s birthplace a return to his own first years, ‘when the whole world was a farm that eked and crowed’.
Scantily represented in his verse, but crucial in his learning how to write it, is Berkeley, where he taught in 1970-71. Berkeley, too, had violence (‘the draft card and the water cannon’) but American poetry, American students, even American hippies and popular culture, showed how an assertive response could be made: ‘I was taller and freer in myself at the end of the year than at the beginning.’ Daily life there ‘added up to one long steady protest’, with poets – Robert Duncan, Robert Bly, Gary Snyder – joining in: the engagé styles that repelled other American writers showed Heaney ‘what it meant to be American. There was a trust that things could be changed.’
America meant stylistic liberties too. ‘By 1972 … I had roamed a bit, both geographically and poetically; travelled in the realms not only of Kavanagh and Hughes, but of Olson and Williams, Snyder and Bly. I was freed up,’ he says, much as Donald Davie was freed up by his own move to California. (Heaney praises Essex Poems, begun before Davie left Britain, but published, and perhaps completed, afterwards.) To live in America meant acquiring un-English ways to read. Heaney met Czeslaw Milosz, along with Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, but the most important new acquaintance was the novelist Thomas Flanagan, who later wrote The Year of the French. ‘When I landed in California,’ Heaney says, ‘my head was still basically wired up to English Literature terminals … When I left, thanks mostly to Tom’s brilliantly sardonic Hibernocentric thinking, I was in the process of establishing new co-ordinates.’ Wintering Out (1972) is the first whole book in which Heaney sounds like no other poet, English or Irish; only half a world away from the Troubles could a ‘Hibernocentric’ outlook take root.
As conversations veer into Heaney’s adulthood, we hear more and more about music, especially Irish traditional music, which – perhaps more than any other art – connects the North to the Republic, high craft to folk culture, Catholic to Protestant everyday life. Heaney met the singer and filmmaker David Hammond in the ‘pre-Troubles, upbeat folk scene Belfast of the mid-1960s’; through him, and after the move to Dublin, he ‘got to know a lot of people, north and south, who were involved with traditional music’, among them Garech Browne of Claddagh Records and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains. Hammond appears over and over in Heaney’s oeuvre, as storyteller, performer, collaborator, dedicatee. In the obituary of Hammond he wrote for the Guardian in 2008, Heaney called the singer ‘a tuning fork for the spirit’, ‘equally at home’ in Belfast and Donegal, with an ‘immunity to ideologies’, who ‘found a unique middle way between the homely and the heroic, between folk song and art song’: ideals a poet might share. There was, Heaney tells O’Driscoll, ‘virtually a West Donegal Summer School in action’ during the 1970s, when holidays brought together the Heaneys, the Hammonds, Deane, Brian Friel and John Hume; there is a book to be written about those summers and their consequences, in politics and in the arts.
But Heaney’s debts to music pre-date Hammond, and extend far beyond his example. A blind musician, Rosie Keenan (remembered in the poem ‘At the Wellhead’), used to visit the Heaneys at Mossbawn: it was she ‘who first made time and space in our lives for art’. Heaney ‘felt the full blast of the Clancy Brothers’ breakthrough and listened a lot to their early records’. Decades later, in Oxford in the 1990s, his sense of ‘the Irish community’ took in its ‘active music scene, with the singer Mick Henry at the centre’. Asked about his own occasional verse, Heaney describes ‘the common song-making, rural-bard tradition that I grew up with’. His first example is an Orange song; his second, ‘Come all you young rebels’, reminds us that (as students of trad music know) Unionist, Republican and non-political texts often take the same tunes. Alas, what seems to be the only study of Heaney and traditional music, Seán Crosson’s ‘The Given Note’, attacks him for caring too much about lyric art, ‘obscuring … historical and communal realities’ reflected in musical practice. What would a more sympathetic performer or ethnomusicologist say?A Virgilian eclogue in Electric Light (2001) sounds better – and closer to what ‘song’ meant two thousand years ago – if we imagine its ‘song’ as Irish trad music, a ballad recited by drovers or wanderers: ‘Singing shortens the road, so we’ll walk and sing … When the real singer comes, we’ll sing in earnest.’
To look at any poems through the life of their writer is, almost inevitably, to look for what gets represented, for theme and idea. When poets consider their own development, though, they must think about ‘music’ in an extended sense, about what sonic and tonal effects they discovered, and how, and when. When Heaney talks, as he must, about ‘Digging’ (it has become his ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’), he describes ‘a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear’, ‘the connection between the “uh” sounds in “thumb” and “snug” and “gun”’. ‘Punishment’, one of Heaney’s celebrated poems from the 1970s, about Iron Age corpses found in Danish bogs, comes up in classrooms (including my own) as a harrowing piece of self-accusation, a look at the morals of art amid civil strife: and yet ‘the difficulty in getting “Punishment” finished was … as much a matter of sound and syntax as a matter of self-examination.’ A change of place is for Heaney a change of sound. He began to write ‘Glanmore Sonnets’, the centrepiece of Field Work, ‘immediately after … three or four days getting to know Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage … for a TV programme’ in 1974; ‘I remember wondering,’ soon afterwards, ‘what the hell is all this iambic pentameter doing in my life?’
We can chart Heaney’s changes place by place, or genre by genre (sonnets and elegies, bog poems and eclogues); he has described them more often by means of the four ancient elements, or rather – since he is averse to fire – by three. ‘Eventually I came to recognise something of my mother’s down-to-earthness in myself,’ he tells O’Driscoll, ‘or rather an old suspicion of too much up-in-the-airness.’ The early work connected him to the earth (he even compared himself to Antaeus); the later poems advised him, and advised us, to ‘walk on air against your better judgment’, to strive for the open. As for water, it links the known earth to the free air in almost all of Heaney’s books, from ‘Bogland’ (Door into the Dark, 1969), to ‘Seeing Things’ (‘the deep, still, seeable-down-into water’) and beyond. In his Nobel Prize lecture he reported that ‘poetic form is both the ship and the anchor’; as in the most famous poem from Seeing Things, it may be a ‘marvellous’ flying ship, connecting familiar ground to the unenclosed sky.
When that ground means home and farm, it is sustaining; when it means nation, civic duty, ethnic belonging, it can be felt as restraint. Heaney agrees with Yves Bonnefoy that ‘successful poetry will launch itself beyond the pull of the contingent and get into its own … imaginative orbit.’ Yet things in Earth’s orbit go around and around the Earth; these interviews, necessarily, go around and around the questions about politics and roots that Heaney’s poems still raise. ‘I began as the lad who wrote “Requiem for the Croppies” … and over the years have had to keep parrying demands for poetry that would fall into line with one or other party – or para-party.’ The grim pun on ‘para’ suggests the urgency with which Heaney has had to resist such demands. Part of Heaney’s burden, we see from the interviews, has been to show us how we incorporate – and yet are not the same as – our home, our belonging, our politics: he has been trying to do so, strenuously and without repeating himself, for at least 40 years.
Success in that line itself implies views about politics. They are views whose negations imply a kind of servitude, a narrow obligation: to ‘the tribe’, to a historical dialectic. The poems, by refusing such bad obligations, end up as measured expressions of freedom, even when they also sound (in one of Heaney’s famous conclusions) ‘lost,/Unhappy and at home’. Heaney’s comments here on other poets often discuss this kind of freedom: Robert Lowell’s ‘epoch-making poems like “For the Union Dead” and “Near the Ocean”’ – the first intertwined with the civil rights movement, the second with the war in Vietnam – ‘did not arrive from a programme of instruction, 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.’
From 1982 to 1995 Heaney taught, each autumn, at Harvard. Everyone who read The Haw Lantern (1987), the first book begun in those years, noticed its turn to allegory and parable. That turn, too, owes something to where the poet lived: a ‘historically aware, hard-bitten Eastern-European aesthetic meant more to me in the 1980s, as a precaution against the ahistorical, hedonistic aesthetic that I was encountering in America.’ Yet it would be short-sighted to see in these interviews a straightforward attack on recent American poetry: Heaney respects John Ashbery (‘actually his subject is the nature of contemporary reality shifting away from you’), and his model for the first of the parables, ‘From the Republic of Conscience’, was an American poem, Richard Wilbur’s ‘Shame’. As for Harvard itself, his remarks about it are funny, fair and consistent with my memories of his teaching: in selecting the students for his classes, ‘what I wanted was evidence of their artistic doings’ rather than ‘the plenitude of those essays of self-introduction that American students are so good at’. Other poets, Muldoon among them, have changed a great deal in America, but for Heaney the American ‘professionalised academic condition’ could only get in the way: ‘I was more like a lighthouse keeper than an emigrant.’ Heaney’s family remained in Dublin, where he joined them for eight months each year: during the other four, the demands of teaching made him feel like ‘Gulliver with his big head roped down in Lilliput, pegged to the ground by strands of his own hair’.
He might feel a bit like Gulliver even now. No other serious poet now writing in English attracts such attention: dozens of monographs, buildings named for him before he turned 60, attention from President Clinton, his face on stamps, at least 95 published interviews, translated into at least 28 languages, and now a 15-CD set, for sale through Radio Telefis Eireann, on which he reads his entire Collected Poems. (How long did it take to record?) Less renown than this has transformed, or deformed, successful poets’ late works: they may become almost cynically populist, or defensively cantankerous, or slack, unwilling to make demands on themselves. Heaney’s post-Nobel Prize work has done none of these things. Instead it has turned more and more nostalgic, more and more elegiac (not only in elegies for named individuals), more and more to the taproot of his past, and more and more to other languages: Latin, Irish, Continental tongues, Beowulf. Heaney quips that in poetic translation ‘you get the high of finishing something you don’t have to start’; translation also places him in the company of poets from other eras, at one remove from the requirements of the day.
‘Can public life as a prominent writer rob you of your private life?’ – this is the very first question O’Driscoll asks Heaney – and ‘if so, does poetry restore that missing life or at least provide some recompense?’ Heaney says yes: ‘Many of the poems are doing something like that. You end up dropping back through your own trapdoors.’ The image of escape (the poem takes the writer where readers won’t follow) seems more Muldoonian than Heaneyesque, but the idea of escape from the outward man, from the ‘bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast’ (as Yeats put it, and Heaney quotes him), from the photogenic figure who accepts awards, seems central to the poet Heaney has become. To ‘walk on air against your better judgment’ is not just to walk above and apart from the responsibilities of national belonging. It is also to rise above, to get away from, the phalanx of givers of honorary degrees, of graduate students and journalists with microphones, that threatens to eat up the space Heaney has for his art. It is a problem many writers would love to have, and one that comes with advantages, but it’s a problem nevertheless.
‘What frustrates me most,’ Heaney tells O’Driscoll – it is one of his few complaints – ‘is the gall of people who press you to do a book launch or go to a dinner party … and then tell you that you ought not to do so many book launches or dinners … Your real friends leave you alone, so you end up doing less for them.’ To reread the last two books of Heaney’s poetry in the light of these interviews (or perhaps in the light of common sense) is to see how much hassle, how many problems of time-management and obligation must get into Heaney’s post-Nobel life, and how little, by contrast, they enter the verse. It is as if, in Electric Light especially, Heaney didn’t want to sound ungrateful, with the result that disappointed (or hostile) readers thought he sounded self-satisfied. District and Circle, however politely, let the frustrations in: ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ imagines the corpse from the bog poems resurrected and happy, ‘Unregistered by scans, screens, hidden eyes’, walking about among ‘cattle out in rain’. The original bog poems, with their choppy stanzas, indicted what Justin Quinn, in the Cambridge Companion, calls Heaney’s ‘censurable complicity’ (it is, Quinn adds, one of his ‘central themes’). ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ – six sonnets as full of plashy, self-delighting onomatopoeia as anything Heaney has written – becomes both celebration and self-defence. Like ‘Tollund’ (from The Spirit Level), it welcomes the peace process. Yet, after the interviews, ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ also looks like a post-Nobel poem: the Tollund Man escapes his museum ‘display case’ for a meadow where ‘the early bird still sang,’ where he is ‘neither god nor ghost’, able without obligation to roam as he will.
To roam without obligation through these interviews is to uncover gems. When Muldoon first sent poems to Heaney, they arrived ‘in this terrific big bold black-ink calligraphic hand’, with a cover letter that ‘as I remember it, said “Perhaps you can tell me where I am going wrong.”’ The angry man in Heaney’s poem ‘The Flight Path’, who buttonholes him on a Belfast-bound train (‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write/Something for us?’), sounds like one more of the composite dream-figures who accuse Heaney in earlier poems; in fact ‘my interlocutor was the Sinn Féin spokesman Danny Morrison.’ Then there are remarks on raising a family: ‘If poetry can be written in the trenches … it can surely be managed between the day job and the night feed.’ (New parents may find ‘surely’ scary.) And there are remarks (we remember, here, that O’Driscoll is himself a deft poet) about late Yeats: ‘His effort towards the end … was to prepare himself to meet his unmaker and confront him with made things.’
Heaney, too, has kept on making things – things of earth and air, of ploughs and rivulets, of commemoration and inner vexation and outward joy. We may imagine Auden or Byron, Pope or Muldoon sighing when Heaney calls poetry, in general, ‘a ratification of the impulse towards transcendence’. We may even wonder how ‘Punishment’ fits that bill; but that is what many of Heaney’s poems – and not only the recent poems – have tried to become, and it is to the poet’s current credit that the poems can become so many other things too: meditative retrospect, incident report, disillusioned Horatian advice, erotic plea. The Companion concludes with John Wilson Foster’s admiring overview of Heaney’s poems since 1989: Foster envisions him as ‘diplomat or ambassador’, with his pan-European interests, his poems about jet planes, prefigured by ‘Terminus’ from The Haw Lantern. There Heaney remembers imagining himself, in childhood, as the last Irish-speaking Ulster nobleman to flee the province in 1607: ‘When I stood on the central stepping stone//I was the last earl on horseback in midstream/Still parleying, in earshot of his peers.’
The poet as diplomat, striving for balance and parley, avoiding outright confrontation, might strike some readers as selling his art short: Peter McDonald remarks astringently that Heaney writes the prose of ‘a man whom the audience always applauds’. Yet what is wrong with a diplomatic poetry, an art that strives for fluent patience, for ways to live amid rivals’ quarrels – not only the rivalry over political Ulster, but the rivalry, as Heaney has it, between earth and air? Who else could write such an equable – yet, at its best, still disturbing – poetry, that gives weight to two sides of each question, neither of them ironised? What would we miss, should Heaney abandon these goals? One goal, since Seeing Things, has been ease: the poet who compared verse-making to ploughing and digging, to a blacksmith’s heavy labours, has tried to make his later balancing act, his airborne lines, seem without strain. Such has been the impression the finished poems give. But making them – making them what they are – must be exhausting: the stroke he had in 2006 must have been horrifying, to him and to all his friends and family, but it is no surprise to hear him call his convalescence a ‘rest cure’, not when we learn from O’Driscoll that he cancelled his speaking engagements for a full year. If there is something extra that we owe to our best poets once they are prominent, it is the opposite of what we owe early on: young poets wither or curdle without attention, but Heaney deserves some time and space to breathe free.
Listen to Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss Seamus Heaney in their Close Readings series on the LRB Podcast.