Seamus Heaney

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Out of Ireland have we come, Great hatred, little room, Maimed us at the start. . . --W.B. Yeats

Back when Seamus Heaney was still young enough to believe in Santa Claus, he found a kaleidoscope under the Christmas tree. The Irish Catholic farm boy who lived by the Londonderry bogs decided that morning to see what Ol' Saint Nick had brought his Protestant neighbor.

Seamus found the lad sailing a new toy battleship in a nearby water drain. "I was so disappointed," Heaney recalled recently, "that I sailed my kaleidosscope in the muck with him. You might say I abused my gift."

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Heaney, Ireland's foremost living poet, still faces hard choices between battleships and kaleidoscopes, between the muddy and the visionary.

"It's the artist's dilemma of being stretched between the contemplation of a motionless point and the command to participate actively in history," said Heaney, who, like many in Northern Ireland, is trapped in the violent cross fire of sectarian politics. Irish nationalists brand him traitor for refusing (as did poet William Butler Yeats) to write marching songs against the British; militant Protestants denounced him as a "papist propagandist" and deliver death threats to his door.

Heaney's cousin, Colum McCartne, was killed by a Protestant gunman, and just two years ago Seamus's neighbor, Francis Hughes, became the second Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger striker to die in prison.

"I find myself very, very deeply challenged," Heaney told an interviewer last winter in Cambridge, Mass., where he is poet-in-residence at Harvard. "There is some kind of perhaps too-scrupulous refusal to get involved with what was essentially a Provisional IRA propaganda campaign . . . when you move, you move in behalf of those guys -- you're part of the war machine now, and in a way you have lost your mystery.

"On the other hand, if you do shut up . . .[y]ou live out, or live in, this really useless little tremor of liberal conscience. You're left with Margaret Thatcher. You're speaking, not with forked tongue, but with forked silence."

Back in Londonderry, when neighborhood lads were taking up arms to fight for the warring Unionists and the IRA, Seamus quietly picked up the pen. He was the oldest of nine children, and neither of his parents had gone past grade school. Nevertheless, he managed a public scholarship to Queen's College in Belfast, the "man-killing parish," where he felt "lost, unhappy, and at home."

There the Bogside boy discovered the lyric lurking within.

In Belfast, Heaney wrote a poem called "Digging," which he now refers to as "one of my first noises." He describes watching his father digging potatoes in Northern Ireland:

"By God, the old man could handle a spade./Just like his old man. . .But I've no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests/I'll dig with it."

The Bard of the Bogs, as he is called, now teaches in Dublin and lives by the waterfront with his wife, Marie, and three children. Seamus (which rhymes with "Amos") is the author of five volume of poetry and is now completing "Station Island," an autobiograpical, Dantesque epic. Four months of each year he teaches the Harvard poetry workshop once tutored by the late Robert Lowell. The American poet once called his friend Heaney the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, a burdensome superlative for any working poet to shoulder.

Heaney's reputation has grown swiftly on both sides of the Atlantic, and Lowell's mountainous praise, said Heaney, has unfortunately made him "a fall guy ," an easy target for those who jealously snipe at "Seamus Feamus."

Being knighted successor to Yeats "is terrible," Heaney says. "It creates all kinds of hostilities among your peers and readers. They assumed you rigged the critical blessing. The writer lives like some kind of sacred king who will be executed by the next king. One of my dramatist friends says: 'Everything's a test, even praise.'"

At the moment, Seamus Heaney appears to be a poet in search of a proper silence.

"You know all this talk is bad for me. I should be silent," said Heaney, leaning his elbows on the worn oak table. He squints into the late afternoon light, captivated by a swirling galaxy of dust particles.

"There is a certain mythical glamour, magic, attached to the poet. But he loses it once he begins to talk about himself."

Heaney had just completed a two-week poetry workshop near San Francisco and, before returning to Dublin, was spending the weekend at the home of Berkeley poet Robert Tracy, whom Heaney met in 1970 while teaching at the University of California.

"The role of the poet is to write poems," Heaney said, gazing back over his shoulder with his warm but watchful peat-brown eyes. "I'm ashamed to be talking about this at all. The most potent writer is the writer whose works you know and who doesn't appear. Salinger, in one way. Shakespeare. The invisible imagination."

Heaney's manner is rumpled and unpretentious. His shoes are scuffed, his shirt is ripped slightly. A handerchief flaps from his back pocket. A portly fellow, he frequently strums the perspiration from hiis fleshy neck with the back of his fingers. Occasionally he lets out his belt another notch for comfort, or brushes back the thinning gray hair matted against his damp brow.

"A poet is a public figure, that requires enormous stamina," said Heaney in his earthly brogue. His percussive consonants seem to explode from his lips. "Yeats managed somehow to live amphibiously in the world of inner hope and outer skill. Joyce was a visible artist and the invisible man. And 60 years after the publication of 'Ulysses' it remains a much more vivid examination of the Irish question than any political tract.

"I have written poems which are [politically] explicit. But a part of me says, 'Forget that.' The function of great poetry is to rejoice and show us the possible riches of the spirit. I can do that writing about a leaf. Forget Belfast. Get me to the leaf.

"Sometimes, however, lyric poets take moral shortcuts to beauty. Beauty has to earn its place in the world. If it comes through a sensibility that doesn't know suffering, and doesn't pay its dues to the world, its efficacy is lessened somehow."

In an essay on the modern Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, crushed by the repressive Stalinist regime, Heaney wrote: "Language is the poet's faith and the faith of his fathers . . .Poetry may indeed be a lost cause . . . but each poet must raise his voice like a pretender's flag. Whether the world falls into the hands of security forces or the fat-necked speculators, he must get in under his phalanx of words and start resisting.

"I see my function as a kind of register of stresses," Heaney said, tugging at one of his sideburns. "I espouse many of the cultural bases implicit in the IRA, but I don't espouse the demonic methods.

"Irish militants, at home and abroad," said Heaney, "expect a certain kind of performance out of me, which they aren't going to get. On the other hand, you can't buy the British coloring of the world because you feel to stand up for Irish values is to espouse terrorism."

Heretical as it may seem for an Irish Catholic, Heaney admits, "I feel a large obligation to the Protestant community. They have been punished politically, but culturally they should be made at home in Ireland. The Protestants' reaction to the IRA and to anything smacking remotely of Irishism is bound to be pathological. They loathe the idea of Ireland despite the fact that they've been there for 300 or 400 years.

"The Catholics of Northern Ireland may be a dispossessed minority, but they should welcome the Protestants constantly at that cultural, imaginative level. I would never write anything that would giver Protestants the feeling they were excluded."

Not long ago Heaney wrote from Dublin: "The current of feeling that runs through this whole society carries people toward a political position and also draws with it a kind of imaginative, cultural, artistic application. My poetry represents the illiterate, lived, unexpressed, twisted, real sectarian Northern Ireland experience below the level of books . . . Poetry is now part of the cultural landscape . . . ."

"English authors write better than Americans," American writer Dorothy Parker once offered, "and Irish authors write better than anybody."

The Irish cherish their words and syllables -- so much so that Ireland is said to be the laat place in the world where conversation is not dead. Gaedhealg, Ireland's indigenous tongue, however, is all but buried. And, despite Ireland's bitter struggle for independence from Britain, the nation and its writers have long nurtured an open love affair with "the conqueror's tongue, " English.

"About 1890," estimates James Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner in his new book, "A Colder Eye, The Modern Irish Writers," [the Irish] commenced to seize contol of [the English language] and to define the first of the literary dialects in which it has since been specialized. The conspirators who brought it off included Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Synge, O'Casey . . . others, up to Beckett and beyond."

Some scholars wouuld even argue that when Joyce wrote "Ulysses," one of this century's pivotal books, he actually kidnapped the English language.

Seamus Heaney shares the Irish adoration of English and well-crafted words. But does he feel oddly uncomfortable, even alein, thriving on the "language of the oppressor"?

"That's academic," he replied, "when you stop to consider that your father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother all spoke English. We still use the Irish language to make a political point, but we can't use it as an excuse for not writing well.

"In my teens, I was much enamored by the idea of the lost Irish language. We thought we were robbed of our proper expression. I remember coming upon in an Irish dictionary the word lachtar.m It means the chicken that runs after a hen in the yard. I said to myself: "This word is a lifeline to the true culture and proof that we belong to an ancient, archaic, earth-sprung native population. In effect, I was saying we had indigenous language and needed to disinfect it of alien sensibilities.

"Then about five years ago I remembered another word also associated with the farmyard. The word was 'incubator,' a technical, Latinate word for a farm mechanism. Within my emotional, existential life, incubator is as fragrant with attachment as was lachtar.

"So it's not the culturally indigenous quotient in the word itself that matters, but the amount of human feeling it can house. In other words, the English language, at its most abstract -- incubator -- is an instrument which even the most pious of Irishmen can be attached to."

Heaney pays particular tribute to America and its poets, notbly Robert Lowell , Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Theodore Roethke.

Heaney first came to the United States 13 years ago to teach at Berkeley and later described the journey from his "physically smaller, morally tighter Ireland" to the West Coast: "To go out of that tied-down place and reach the utter weightlessness of California was like a spacewalk.

"It was the shock of walking from a place of profound stricture and disappointment to a place of profund permission and trust. In the poetry of [ Gary] Snyder and [Robert] Bly, the culture of the earth was almost a matter of cosmic politics. I found my own subject matter and culture were archaic. But here in the Bay Area, the most up-to-date flash point in the Western world, I had what they wanted. Coming here was a confirmation.

"The second influence on me was reading a poet like William Carlos Williams and the actual looseness or openness, freedom, permission in the American Poetic voice."

What is his attachment to Harvard and the East Coast?

"Harvard is a very good address. But for me it's not so much the Harvardiness, but more the Lowelliness of it. Lowell was a classic, a kind of father-figure for me. I met him in London in 1972 and never got over the awe. The more you talked to him, the more you realized he was writing out of his own life. It was confirmation of the solitary endeavor -- putting trust in your experience and carrying it off.

"When I was younger, I was interested in a simple-minded way in Frost, because he wrote about the country. The longer you read Frost, the more you realize his are works of verbal art, beautifully made poems of wisdom and insight. Yeats said at one point in his career, very early on: 'I think I have written a poetry of longing and dream. I wish someday to write the poetry of wisdom and insight.' That was Frost at his best."

What role does his wife play in his work?

"She's a natural editor. I've always shown her poems as soon as I've written them. I know immediately whether she like them or dislikes them. Sometimes she's wrong, but her first reaction is always honest. She's mostly afraid of me indulging my habits. Writing too richly. 'Cut that out! Kill those darlings!' she always says. It enrages me at times. The most important thing over the years has been her emotional stamina, support, and honesty."

Which of the other arts feed his imagination?

"Painting. I never go to concerts, although I like the idea of going to concerts. I know a number of painters and every time I walk into their studios I realize how dedicated an artist has to be. In a metaphorical sense, you're stepping into a painter's inner life. You get a sense of dedication and hard work. There's something invigorating and pleasing in their distress and passion of getting it right."

Any favorite painters?

"Van Gogh has a voltage. The work of the Spanish painter [Antonio] Tapies has what Eliot said the 'auditory imagination' was to poetry. It's a uniting of the most ancient and most civilized mentality. I love Cezanne's obstinate intelligence of engagement, the sense of struggle and difficulty overcome, the moral destiny in his work."

Abruptly Heaney lifed his nose and turned toward the kitchen door. Robert Tracy's wife was roasting a garlic-stuffed turkey on the backyard barbecue. As fond of the gab as Seamus may be, when the aromatic previews of dinner wafted into the interview the poet called for one more question.

The conversation turned to his ambitious work-in-progress, "Station Island." As in Dante's "Divine Comedy," Heaney uses the three-line stanzas and tackles everything from politics and religion to nationalism and literature. He calls it his "confrontation of the self."

In "Station Island" he makes his own pilgrimage to the island of Donegal -- where St. Patrick is said to have fasted -- with friends, enemies, and past Irish literary figures.

At the close of "Station Island," James Joyce counsels Heaney from the opposite shore: Your obligation is not discharged by any common rite. What you must do is done on your own so get back in harness. The main thing is to write for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust that imagines its haven like your hands at night dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous. Take off from here. And don't be so earnest, let others wear the sack-cloth and the ashes. Let go, let fly, forget. You've listened long enough. Now strike your note.

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