Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney
by Dennis O'driscoll
Reviewed by Adam Kirsch
The New Republic Online
"Remote on the one hand from the banal, on the other from the eccentric, his genius was calculated to win at once the adhesion of the general public and the admiration, both sympathetic and stimulating, of the connoisseur." So writes Thomas Mann about Gustav von Aschenbach, great writer and national institution, in Death in Venice; and the description applies unexpectedly well to Seamus Heaney. Heaney is in obvious ways unlike Mann's Apollonian aesthete, but he too has managed to win the love of the many and the esteem of the few, in a way that no American poet since Frost has managed. As Heaney observes in this important book-length interview, designed to serve in lieu of a memoir, "In the United States, there's a great crop of ripe, waving poetry -- but there's no monster hogweed sticking up out of it." But he has always been that hogweed in the small but teeming field of Irish poetry, and for the past forty years Heaney has led the richly burdened existence of the responsible artist.
"What I've said before, only half in joke, is that everybody in Ireland is famous," Heaney modestly remarks in Stepping Stones. "Or, maybe better say everybody is familiar. Since I was a schoolboy, I've been used to being recognized on the road by old and young, and being bantered with and indeed being taunted." But of course few people in Ireland are as familiar with fame as Heaney; and few poets, in an age when poetry is benignly neglected across the English-speaking world, have so conscientiously integrated their public and poetic selves. Near the end of the book, Dennis O'Driscoll -- an excellent poet and critic, and a deeply informed and probing interviewer of his longtime friend -- asks Heaney about the publication history of "Anything Can Happen," a post-September 11 poem based on a Horatian ode. Before it was included in his most recent book, District and Circle, the poem "appeared first in The Irish Times; then you introduced it in a lecture to the Royal College of Surgeons and published it in Translation Ireland; finally you republished it...in a booklet in support of Amnesty International."
The reason for this recycling, Heaney explains, is "ongoing civic service, I suppose. The requests for contributions to different series and different causes is unending." And "for better or worse, I was never a person who preserved myself for my writing. In fact, I do believe that your vocation puts you in line for a certain amount of community service, so to speak." Again Aschenbach comes to mind: "Almost before he was out of high school he had a name. Ten years later he had learned to sit at his desk and sustain and live up to his growing reputation, to write gracious and pregnant phrases in letters that must needs be brief, for many claims press upon the solid and successful man. At forty, worn down by the strains and stresses of his actual task, he had to deal with a daily post heavy with tributes from his own and foreign countries."
Heaney was not yet forty years old when Robert Lowell proclaimed him "the best Irish poet since W.B. Yeats," but already he was no stranger to anointings. The oldest of nine children, he grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland, and the labors and pleasures of that rural life have been an inexhaustible subject for his verse. At the age of twelve, Heaney was sent off to a Catholic boarding school, St. Columb's College, whereupon "I shifted," he recalls, "into a kind of separateness, but also a kind of privilege." "I was being 'educated,' and that meant being set a bit apart."
The separateness would only deepen as his career progressed. In 1965, Heaney's first collection, Death of a Naturalist, was accepted by Faber and Faber, the premier publisher of poetry in the English language. At twenty-six, he had vaulted past his Northern Irish contemporaries, talented poets such as Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, to join a list that included Eliot and Auden. In 1975, North, his collection of poems inspired by Northern Ireland's Troubles, made his name known across the English-speaking world. In 1982 he received the first of his many honorary degrees and became a professor at Harvard. At every stage, life vindicated the intuition of giftedness that he expresses in "The Diviner," a poem from his first book:
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
By the time Heaney won the Nobel Prize in 1995, he had long experience of the "claims [that] press upon the solid and successful man." Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Heaney, however, is how completely impossible it is to imagine him finally cracking under this burden of responsibility, the way Aschenbach so spectacularly does. When Heaney learned that he had won the Nobel Prize, he relates in Stepping Stones, he was away in Greece, in the sensual south -- not with any Tadzio, but with Marie, his wife of thirty years and the addressee of his moving, unillusioned love poems. (When his son told him the news over the phone, the first thing he said was, "You'd better tell your mother.") And he encountered the prize not as a holiday, but as another onrush of obligations: "I was in a sweat, literally and figuratively. I couldn't think clearly, because suddenly there were a dozen things to be done."
This is a truly Mann-like response to fame: the supreme conscientiousness, the duty to art and nation coming before egoistic pleasure. Mann would certainly have appreciated the image of writerly obligation that Heaney offers in "Weighing In":
And this is all the good tidings amount to:
This principle of bearing, bearing up
And bearing out, just having to
Balance the intolerable in others
Against our own, having to abide
Whatever we settled for and settled into
Against our better judgment. Passive
Suffering makes the world go round.
Yet Mann's suffering was never totally passive, for he took revenge in his work on the "principle of bearing" that made the work possible. His fictional avatars are always collapsing under their selfimposed burdens -- contracting a deadly illness, or falling in love with exotic women or boys, or committing suicide. As a result, the outward respectability of Mann's own life came to seem like the most exquisite irony of all. Goodness, he seems to suggest by example, is a role, even a pretense. The more admirable the writer, the more costly his concealment.
The strength -- and the enigma -- of Heaney's work is that he never distances himself from his own goodness in this way. The responsibilities that he has sought or accepted over a long life -- as son, husband, father, artist, Catholic, Irish national conscience -- are the major subject of his verse; but if they are weights, they are never intolerable ones. They are rather, as another image from "Weighing In" has it, like the weights on a balance:
Stamp and squat and square-root of dead weight.
Yet balance it
Against another one placed on a weighbridge--
On a well-adjusted, freshly greased weighbridge--
And everything trembled, flowed with give and take.
This desire to hold, or to be, the balance between competing claims and impulses can be seen in every phase of Heaney's work. It is present, to take a small but significant example, in the titles of his major critical works, the two lecture series published as "The Redress of Poetry" and "The Government of the Tongue." Other poets would have used "and" in those titles, to emphasize the tension between redress and poetry, government and the tongue -- both of them restatements of the pair of opposites Yeats called "reality and justice." "They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice" was Yeats's justification for the mystical schemes of "A Vision," and the obsessive, outlandish detail of his system is an index of how much pressure it took to keep those opposites yoked together.
For Heaney, however, the "and" of tension gives way to the "of" of reconciliation. The golden tongue of the poet, one might suppose, is helpless before the leaden weight of power -- as Heaney acknowledges, "In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil -- no lyric has ever stopped a tank." But he goes on to insist that "in another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed. " The allusion is to the moment in the New Testament when Jesus, confronting a crowd that wants to stone a woman taken in adultery, "stooped down, and wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not," before issuing the challenge, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." We do not know what Jesus was writing on the ground -- nor, Heaney implies, does it matter. What matters is the fact of writing, which like poetry "holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves."
Heaney's parable attempts to recover for poetry the ethical, even political force that Auden famously denied it when he wrote that "poetry makes nothing happen." Heaney is much too experienced a man to believe that poetry can make something happen. But instead of lamenting poetry's nothingness, he chooses to redeem it through metaphor, turning it into an empty "space," a "focus," where it can produce spiritual -- which is to say, actual -- effects. This is perhaps the best case that can still be made for the edifying value of art. And it proceeds, in typically Heaneyesque fashion, not by weighing in on either side of an old antithesis -- the beautiful versus the good -- but by reconciling them in a tentative synthesis: beauty sponsors goodness. Heaney admires Czesaw Miosz, he tells O'Driscoll, because "his intellect wasn't forced to choose between 'perfection of the life or of the work' -- it was forced to meld them." In his sense of the reconcilability of poetry with goodness, Heaney is perhaps Miosz's greatest disciple.
Yet it is possible to admire the nobility and the ingenuity of Heaney's reconciliations without completely assenting to them. Does poetry really have the function of "concentrating" us on ourselves, of shocking us out of our prejudices the way Jesus shocked the stone-throwers? (And is that, in fact, what the Gospel story describes?) Do we return from "To Autumn," or "Lycidas," or "The Emperor of Ice Cream," better equipped to make moral decisions? Consider even a poem explicitly concerned with political ethics, such as Heaney's "Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces," with its famous lines:
I am Hamlet the Dane,
smeller of rot
in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
murders and pieties,
coming to consciousness
by jumping in graves,
What this poem powerfully does is to capture the confusion and oppression of political violence. It is able to do this because of Heaney's mastery of the seemingly most abstract element of verse, its music: the short lines, with their dense consonants, impede speech the way turmoil impedes thought. What the poem does not do, I think, is help the reader in any way to decide the rights and the wrongs of the particular political situation that inspired it, or of politics in general. The line "dithering, blathering" seems to encapsulate this paradox: almost childishly gratifying to say and hear, it is about being unable to say or to hear anything meaningful, anything useful.
This ultimate disjunction between beauty and goodness is why, as Heaney observes in Stepping Stones, "the true aesthete would perceive himself...as a subversive." And Heaney is anything but a subversive. Some of the most moving moments in the book are his earnest, unfashionable avowals of the duty of the poet to uphold rather than to deconstruct. "There's a good deal of humour in me, I hope; and I have a kind of sardonic attitude to a lot of things," he says. "But for better or worse, when I sit opposite to the desk, it's like being an altar boy in the sacristy getting ready to go out on the main altar. There's a gravitas comes over me."
The allusion to the church of his boyhood is significant. While Heaney is no longer a believing Catholic, he acknowledges Catholicism as a continuing influence, above all on his sense of the value of "passive suffering": "But the idea that your own travails could earn grace for others, for the souls in purgatory, for instance, was appealing: my mind worked on those lines all right, my sense that there was value in selfless endurance." Indeed, the "discipline" at St. Columb's, "when all's said and done, was essentially a preparation for religious vocation." Even in the more worldly environment of Queen's College, Belfast, Heaney recalls ruefully, "everybody was provided with their own inner priest."
The inner priest survives in Heaney the poet not in any dogma or doctrine, but in his sense that it is his duty to fortify, to offer consolation. His strongest statement of this principle comes in his essay "Joy or Night," where he considers Philip Larkin's exceedingly unconsoling poem "Aubade": "Being brave/Lets no one off the grave./Death is no different whined at than withstood. " Heaney endorses Miosz's criticism that Larkin has defaulted on the poet's obligation to be "on the side of life." "'Aubade,'" Heaney writes, "does add weight to the negative side of the scale and tips the balance definitely in favor of chemical law and mortal decline. The poem does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld."
Another way of stating Heaney's objection is that he blames Larkin for telling the plain truth about death, rather than wreathing it in metaphor. But what Larkin says about death and the afterlife in "Aubade" is not substantively different from what Heaney himself says in "Clearances," his sequence about the death of his mother: "The space we stood around had been emptied/Into us to keep." Here, as for Larkin, there is no soul and no afterlife, except in the memory of the survivors. What makes "Clearances" seem like a more affirmative poem than "Aubade" is only the metaphor which turns the absence of an empty space into a presence that can be "emptied into us," the way a wine bottle is emptied by pouring out its contents into a cup. Heaney offers what he calls, when discussing a different poem in Stepping Stones, "a sensation of 'scope'...it's still susceptible to the numinous."
This is the distinction upon which he insists in "Joy or Night": "In order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit, it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstances of its time and place." But this interdict against poetry as "a printout" is, no doubt by design, deeply ambiguous. It can be read aesthetically, as an insistence that the language of poetry be heightened from the language of life -- that it possess what Heaney calls "forcibleness," "the attribute that makes you feel the lines have been decreed, that there has been no fussy picking and choosing of words but instead a surge of utterance." But it can also be read ethically, as a warning not to set down the truth if the truth is not conducive to "radiance."
The problem with this second interpretation becomes clear in Heaney's Nobel Lecture, "Crediting Poetry" (which appeared in these pages), where he declares:
Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we
want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly
wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but
a retuning of the world itself. We want the surprise to be
transitive, like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores
the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets
the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm. We want what
the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad, standing
there blue with cold and whispering for fear, enduring the terror
of Stalin's regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she
could describe it all, if her art could be equal to it.
This is a revealingly partial interpretation of the section "Instead of a Preface" that begins Akhmatova's great sequence "Requiem." For what the suffering woman demands of the poet, during "the terrible years of the Yezhov terror," is simply "Can you describe this?" And Akhmatova's response is simply "I can." There is nothing "transitive" about the poem -- no sense that, like a defibrillator, it can correct the mortal ailment it diagnoses. The poem can only tell the truth -- or, one might say, offer a "printout" of its horribly wounded "time and place." This is what it means for poetry to be "equal to" evil: not in the sense of an opposing force of equal strength, but in the sense of a candor, a purpose, that does not flinch. Akhmatova describes the stranger's response to her terse affirmative this way: "Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face." It is not unlike the smile that we ourselves might smile when agreeing with Larkin that "death is no different whined at than withstood": the honest but helpless registration of sympathy with a fellow sufferer.
It is very characteristic that Heaney's interpretation of the Akhmatova story rests on this ambiguity in his use of the word "equal." What he intends as a healing reconciliation between the two senses of the word can appear, to a resisting reader, more like an equivocation. At its most extreme, Heaney's desire to "show an affirming flame" leads to writing that he describes, in Stepping Stones, as "public in the megaphone sense of the word," like the much-quoted lines from "The Cure at Troy," his translation of Sophocles's Philoctetes: "once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme." This passage was a favorite of Bill Clinton, who alluded to it in the title of his book Between Hope and History. Yet Heaney acknowledges that they belong "in the realm of pious aspiration."
In his best and most serious work, however, Heaney is pious in another, more provocative way: he is reverent toward language itself. Near the end of their conversation, O'Driscoll asks Heaney, "What has poetry taught you?" The poet replies with another reconciliation or equivocation: "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, consolantia and claritas." Or, as he puts it in the Nobel Lecture: "The resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors...has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem's concerns or the poet's truthfulness."
Perhaps only a poet whose capacity for pleasure is as great as his sense of responsibility could place such trust in the convertibility of the ethical and the aesthetic. For as these lines suggest, Heaney's greatest power is not to strengthen and to console -- Larkin, precisely because of his hard lucidity, is a more consoling poet -- but to celebrate. This, too, can be a kind of sacred task, but it requires the poet to be less a priest than a magus or a shaman -- public figures both, except that they have less regard for their audience than for the spirits of nature that inspire them. It makes sense that in Stepping Stones Heaney names D.H. Lawrence and Ted Hughes as important early influences. If Heaney has not elaborated a pagan mythology the way those poets did, he certainly shares their rapt attention to things and creatures. His poems, like theirs, often take the form of hymns to the inanimate and insentient: "A Bat on the Road," "Badgers," "Mint."
Both Lawrence and Hughes, too, could have written poems titled "The Guttural Muse," as Heaney did in Field Work. Heaney is capable of many registers -- he can be courtly, argumentative, or rhetorical as the occasion demands -- but his characteristic style, the one that makes his lines so instantly recognizable, creates a chthonic music out of dense consonants and mouthed vowels: "I love this turf-face,/its black incisions,/the cooped secrets/of process and ritual." A key ingredient in this music is the Ulster dialect, even the local place-names, that Heaney makes use of so often and so unapologetically. O'Driscoll asks Heaney about one such line, "Where kesh and loaning finger out to heather": "Did you expect non-Ulster readers to engage in some research or was it your hope that context and cadence would provide sufficient illumination of the meaning?" To which Heaney gives a refreshingly insouciant answer: "I didn't think at all of the reader's problem when I wrote the line. The joy was in solving my own writer's need."
Heaney, in other words, like all great poets, does not hold himself answerable to the reader in the first instance. He serves the reader, to be sure -- but by holding himself responsible to his subjects and to his language. This is the process that he describes and enacts in the early poem "Gifts of Rain":
The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consort,
bedding the locale
in the utterance.
To make the world spell itself, to turn locale into utterance, is the most fundamental purpose of poetry, and the most joyful. The true significance of Heaney's goodness, it may be, is that by satisfying his conscience, he could shelter the unaccountable space where this transformation happens. He refused to be subversive so that he could permit himself the felicity of the aesthete. Does Heaney not tell us as much in "North"?
It said, "Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain....
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known."
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor at The New Republic.