Poetry is not some grand institution, insists Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney. It's "born out of the quarrel with ourselves."
oping into the hall overflowing with fans, Seamus Heaney climbs nimbly onto the raised platform. Out of breath and florid with the risen Irish blood flush in his face, the poet surveys the room with a bemused expression. At 57, the athletic Heaney still manages to fit infrequent bicycle racing and the odd amateur rugby matches in between shuttling from a teaching chair at Harvard and his harborside home in Dublin. Although his thatch of white hair looks as wild and mussed as if he’s just come off a rugby field, Heaney has escaped nothing more exhausting than an admiring mob of autograph-seekers gathered here at the Paris book fair around the 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.
“These authors’ forums remind me of a form of spectator sport,” he wryly observes. “Inevitably, there’s bound to be a lot of hot air to them.” Hot air is the last thing you think of when Seamus Heaney takes the stage. In his lectures at Harvard, students are sometimes moved to tears. In Dublin, accompanied by a harpist, the audiences respond in rapt silence as Heaney reads aloud a 16th-century Polish poem he translated, about a father lamenting the death of his daughter. The poem suggests the death of Heaney’s own younger brother, elegized in “Mid-Term Break,” an understated handling of grief that ends describing the corpse:
. . . Paler now
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
The Paris audience is not disappointed. Heaney speaks with an effortless, lyrical profundity that dazzles.
“Each person is on Earth to make sense of themselves and for themselves and to bring the inchoateness of this self into an expressible state,” he reflects. “These are the essential and redemptive steps of poetry.”
How has winning the Nobel Prize changed your life, asks someone in the audience? Has it made you a spokesman for morality in Northern Ireland?
“I hope not, not a voice in that sense” replies the rural Ulster native. “Anyway it’s a bit too late to be thinking of morality there. What the Nobel Prize has done, however, has given me a carelessness I have long desired,” he adds with a roguish grin.
Later, in a conversation with SALON, Heaney’s focus swings thoughtfully, sometimes playfully, from the “stealthy relationship” between fathers and sons, to the inspiration he draws from the recklessly passionate stance of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, to the translator as buccaneer, pirating words from one language to another and with luck, improving the meaning. Always, hovering close by like a hawk floating on the updrafts, is the specter of the violent conflict between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland.
At one time or another, Heaney has been attacked by both sides. Unionists have excoriated the Catholic poet as a “well-known papist propagandist.” Republican sympathizers have faulted his political ambivalence, blaming him for not taking an unequivocal stance supporting the movement for independence from Britain. Still others misinterpret his comparison of the present-day conflict to prehistoric religious strife and blood sacrifices as an apologia for violence.
Yet it is his insistence on seeing conflict from all sides — Protestant and Catholic, political and personal — that gives his work universal scope and allows it to sound out mythic and literary resonances. When he implores the ancient Roman historian Tacitus to return to Ireland to witness “how we slaughter for the common good,” Heaney takes no sides, fixes no blame, but unflinchingly depicts an inexorable blood thirst that transcends religion. His allegiance is not to a cause, but an aesthetic. His seeming detachment serves his poetic vision; taking sides would dilute his perceptions to speechifying. “Poetry is born out of the quarrel with ourselves,” Heaney maintains, quoting Yeats. “The quarrel with others is rhetoric.”
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Heaney evoked the image of a bombed bus with a dying Protestant man reaching out to shake the hand of a Catholic. “It is a fragile gesture, far from having the same impact as a shot, but it symbolizes the power of art,” he observed. “The mission of art, of poetry, is not to make peace. Art is peace.”
“Requiem for the Croppies,” a lyric he wrote 30 years ago, before the current violent resurfacing of the 300-year-old Anglo-Irish “Troubles,” is now misread, to Heaney’s dismay, as “a code poem in support of the IRA. “Beware of the fallout of your words,” he says ruefully.
Never facile, Heaney’s poems, brisk sellers in more than a dozen volumes, are widely accessible. They capture precise images of mundane events — fishing with his father, for instance, or marking a football field with friends — then suddenly, miraculously telescope to scenes of mythic proportion. In the salmon fishing poem, the last line suggests Aeneas carrying his father Anchises to safety from burning Troy, an image that reverberates back to the beginning of the poem, heightening Heaney’s tender memory of his father into an event of timeless universality.
Heaney experiments with the physicality of words, their origins and layers of historical association, squeezing every letter for significance — how an “H” sounds harsher than an “L” in the ear, for instance. He poses the alliterative tradition of modern English against the end-stopped Irish phrasing, “the guttural muse,” he calls it, that harks back to the era of Viking invaders.
“Eurokids may have their tickets for Amsterdam, but their ears are tuned to the local dialect,” says Heaney. “You will only reach them if you are tuned to that dialect. Poetry is more a matter of cadence than content. Intonation is its deepest mystery.
“Like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ who locates himself successively in a town, a county, Ireland, Europe, the world, the universe, I believe poetry dwells in the parish and the universe. It fails if it misses the universe.”
The eldest of nine children growing up on a potato farm in County Derry, the young Seamus drew on butter churning, blacksmithing and other rituals of his childhood for his earliest poems. It was a Brueghelian childhood, he recalls, “set in what you might call mythic surroundings: well water and harps and scythes and sickles.” His career as a poet began “when my roots were crossed with my reading,” mingling William Wordsworth with Gerard Manley Hopkins and Patrick Kavanagh. Yeats, Dante and Osip Mandelstam came later.
In the 1970s, living with his wife and two children in a borrowed cottage in Wicklow in the Irish Republic, Heaney remembers the “huge excitement” generated by his first encounter with Mandelstam’s work. “I was drawn by the rapturousness of his phrases; it was the opposite of the dispassionate voice of (T.S.) Eliot. I found myself in the presence of the heroism of his life.” An outspoken opponent of Stalin, the Russian poet disappeared in 1938, probably in one of Siberia’s gulags.
“The house he shared with (Russian poet) Anna Akhmatova represented the intimacies of Russian literary life — the mixture of the kitchen and the cosmos. You realized that literature was not a grand institution. It was a scruffy fighting place. The two were projecting this mix from their domestic life to the universe.”
Early on in his career, Heaney drew support from a group of aspiring Belfast poets spearheaded by Philip Hobsbaum, an enthusiastic, sometimes overbearing mentor determined “to disrupt the decorums of literature,” the poet recalls. Among the group were Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon, who provided “nurture and vigilance,” the one balancing the other.
“Unless poetry is talked about from one reader to another, it loses life,” explains Heaney. “Go back to the stricken Eliot recuperating from a nervous breakdown, to the young Pound. They were just like we were in that group in Belfast, none of them quite convinced of themselves. They needed to express their uncertain thoughts by breaking the old cadences.”
Around the same period that he discovered Mandelstam, Heaney stumbled across P.V. Glob’s 1969 book, “The Bog People.” The book recounts the archaeological finds of the ritual sacrifice victims of a Stone Age people some 2,000 years ago, eerily preserved in the peat bogs of Jutland in Denmark.
“When I saw photos of Tollund Man for the first time, I had the same impression as if I had opened a chestnut and found a truth and palpable beauty hidden inside,” the poet recalled in an interview with the French magazine, L’Express. “The man had been killed as a fertility sacrifice. He could have been one of my ancestors. In a flash, I realized the connection between the mutilations of that long-ago epoch with the martyrs of the Easter 1916 uprising in Ireland and all the reprisals and repercussions visited on both communities.”
To Heaney, the bog victims, with their leathery skin and terrible beauty, became archetypal symbols for neighborly treachery, for the enduring need of communities to exact blood sacrifice, to justify yielding up scapegoats for the common good. Repulsive as these impulses may be, the poet’s task is not to condemn, but to draw back and examine the historical reasons and psychological consequences behind them, “making art out of the victims of violence,” as Heaney biographer and critic Thomas C. Foster notes.
Against this prehistoric backdrop, Protestant and Catholic are both interlopers, relatively recent newcomers supplanting Ireland’s pagan ancestors, but doomed nonetheless to repeating the cycle of Heaney’s “tribal, intimate revenge.”
Raised a Catholic, Heaney reserved a healthy religious skepticism for much of his adult life. “Like all my generation of Catholics, I had to secularize myself totally,” he recalls. “But when I reached 50, I thought: ‘My God, that was a mistake!”
In his work, Heaney rarely indulges in self-confession. When he does dwell on his private life, it is with an eye toward a broader historical point or psychological insight. Poems about marital discord during a summer in Spain, for instance, echo and accentuate the bloody riots occurring at the same time in Northern Ireland.
In “Follower,” a poem about a father growing dependent on his once-dependent son, Heaney explains that: “My father and I, like all fathers and sons, had a stealthy relationship. The father is both protection and target. The young man must go straight through the bull’s eye to come out clean on the other side. In that poem, the son follows the father and then the father follows the son.”
For most of his life, Heaney has held various teaching posts and now spends four months of the year at Harvard, where he has taught since 1982. He no longer writes about “County Derry and the days of the churn.” “It would have felt like connivance with a slightly folksified reputation,” he observes dryly. “Your literary innocence evaporates, and if it doesn’t, it should. As Eliot says, we hope to write the poems appropriate to the stage of life that we’re at.
The distance and the slight permissiveness, the slightly gravity-less life that I have had in America has freed me in some ways to be more chancy in writing.”
During his appearance at the Paris book fair, someone asked him: “Is poetry something you lose as you grow older?” Momentarily taken aback, Heaney reflected a bit. “Not at all. All the evidence is that you get better,” he replied in deadpan earnest. The audience broke into laughter. “I’m not joking. Well maybe there was the case of Wordsworth who got distinctly worse,” he allowed in grudging good humor. “And perhaps Homer as well,” he concluded, a sheepish smile spreading beneath the crown of white hair, as if to say, not me my friends, little fear, here I am the proof of long-lived poetic vitality and surprise, defying any Wordsworthian slide into sentimentality.
Richard Covington covers cultural subjects and the arts from Paris. More Richard Covington.
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