Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney is regarded as possibly the finest poet of his generation. Although I find some of his writing rather dense and impenetrable, many people have been enriched by the sheer depth and creativity of his clever verse. While his poetry has been analysed and critiqued, this book is the first portrait of the man and his life. It’s a lovely book and comes across as lively, eloquent, reflective and honest as it charts his life through a number of interviews supplemented with a range of photographs.
Heaney sheds personal light on his poems, translations and plays and on the artistic and ethical challenges that he faced during the complex years of the Ulster troubles. There is a kind of animated conversation here – gathering together a diverting and absorbing story of reflections, opinions and recollections.
Through these interviews we are brought more closely into a meaningful relationship with his work through the person. There is a helpful glossary, chronology and a number of maps which ground the places that Heaney talks about.
The language of Heaney’s response to O’Driscoll’s questions is quite splendid. He shows an ability to improvise sentences which are at once spontaneous and shapely, playful and profound, beautiful and, to this reader, true. What is uncovered is the rhythm and patterns of the Heaney life – a calendar of customs and Feast days, Agrarian cycle and ecclesiastical rites. There is a shape and a pattern to his life and living which is shaped by the uniqueness of Irish culture.
O’Driscoll performs the role of prompter rather than interrogator reminding his reader that this book is not a summing up but a number of stepping stones because the stream is in full spate.
Here are a number of my favourite bits of wisdom from the book:
“A wise man’s wisdom needs to be extracted” (Brecht)
“Truth is related to silence, to reflection, to the practice of writing. Speech is not a font of truth but a pale and provisional version of writing” (J.M. Coetzee, pg xi)
It is very intriguing what one needs to uncover if one is to understand another individual and their life. O’Driscoll offers us a closer examination that reveals a treasure of reflective wisdom and a considered life – drawn out by careful questioning that prods and searches and gently interrogates the subject and his work. As the pages uncover themselves we get to know a man of tremendous strength and perception.
On R.S. Thomas
“His later poems about language, God withdrawn in consciousness like a tilted satellite dish, full of potential to broadcast and to receive, but not quite operating” (pg 113)
“I learned what inspiration feels like but not how to summon it. Which is to say that I learned that waiting is part of the work” (pg 320)
“Poetry is a ratification of the impulse towards transcendence…. Poetry represents the need for an ultimate court of appeal. The infinite spaces may be silent, but the human response is to say that this is not good enough, that there has to be more to it than neuter actions” (pgs 470-1)