INTERVIEW: SEAMUS HEANEY
SEAMUS HEANEY is the Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University. He has published eight books of poetry, including ``Death of a Naturalist,'' ``Door Into the Dark,'' ``Wintering Out,'' and ``North.'' A leading Irish poet, he writes in the tradition of Yeats. Just as artists often wear paint-spattered clothing, Mr. Heaney carries himself in a way that betrays his profession - even in conversation his words form carefully crafted sentences that glow with a fine patina. A melodious and rhythmic Irish accent punctuates the singular beauty of his speech.
Robert Frost once said that a poem ``begins in delight and ends in wisdom.'' Can the same be said for a poet's career?
Well, I would say that it begins in delight and ends in self-consciousness. I don't know whether that's wisdom or not. You begin to inevitably hear about a creature with your own name. If you've any sort of intelligence and gumption, you're going to end up more self-aware.
That's why poets keep coming back for more, why once it happens, they want it to happen again. It's because of that sense of fulfillment, that sense of climax, that is both an obliteration and a clarification. It's the one reward to the writer that the reader doesn't get. That climax has to do with the sense of form being achieved. And it's a delight that isn't just self-congratulation - it's a delight at the otherness of the thing. What playing with poems does for people, really, is reinforce their sense of freedom within language.
Often one learns the most by teaching others; what have you learned through teaching? What are the drawbacks?
Because of teaching, I know Wordsworth and Harding and Lowell. They are like rings in the tree of my memory. You become more secure in your possession of poetry by teaching, so that it becomes almost a part of your personality. That has been really the gift.
But I finish the term usually exhausted and hating poetry. That's one of the dangers of the situation.
Most people read poetry because they want to and because they read it to be silent with it. When you get into a professionalized teaching situation, your freedom as a reader is doomed.
How should the reading and writing of poetry be taught?
One of the functions of the educational establishment is conservation and preservation, and a handing on of the heritage.
Poetry has been equated with nature as a therapeutic act, as a ``feel good'' device.
It is partly that, but not essentially. Essentially it is an art form, and one of the responsibilities of a civilization is to preserve its heritage of art.
The teaching of poetry is not necessarily a ``feel good'' job, it's a ``listen-to-this'' job. At its best it fills the memory with things which are cherishable, are delightful.
The educational process and the artistic process are two different things, and the great danger is a confusion of the two.
I have worked as a teacher all my life, first of all in the high school, and then in the teacher training college, and then in the university, and then again in the teacher training college - 16 years of working as a conventional teacher of literature.
For teaching purposes, in a children's school, a child should contribute anything. [Any poem] is a little victory, and has to be saluted. But when you begin to embrace your destiny as a writer, you should feel that it has to be good.
How do you advise the student who has talent as a poet?
I believe that it is a wonderful gift to students to have a play area in the middle of the other tasks, and that play area is available to people who can play seriously.
I as their teacher prefer to have nothing to do with their destiny as a writer. I will enter upon areas which aren't as intimate as that. I will keep it at the level, as I say, of play. This is a university course, for which they are getting a grade. That's the fundamental educational fact.
Poetry is taught by the doer of it. What a workshop offers, what a senior person offers, is an audience and a nurturing. You have to read to write, and then you have to have some set agenda. Then the attention of somebody whom you respect and can listen to is a help. But [this is] after a certain stage.
If they need the money, people have to work for a living. I believe it is an abuse of poetry to think that you can live unaided as a poet. I myself was four years as a free-lance writer. At that time I was depending to some extent on poetry readings as a means of earning my daily bread.
[However], I think to be reading your poetry as a breadwinning activity ... it commits some sin against the freedom of poetry. I do believe that poetry is in the realm of the gift and in the realm of the sacred.
Poetry is earned spiritually. It's earned with silences. It's earned, it isn't arrogated.
And after your students graduate? Where do they go? What of you do they take with them?
I don't encourage my undergraduates to think of the next move as getting into a graduate school. There was one character - I thought he had a gift that just is very rare, irreplaceable, unnecessary. I advised him not to take too many writing courses as a freshman. It's very difficult to survive competence.
All the writing schools exist to promote competence, adequacy, and a late-20th-century version of good taste. What is promoted is a kind of consensus about what things should be. The generally strong talent - I would like to see her or him going a bit to the side. But I am wary of interfering, even advising.
What I cherish about the engagement with these groups is precisely their ``ships-in-the-night'' quality. It's a little raft journey between one place and another. It isn't a path toward a career. I couldn't bear to be, as it were, bringing a poet forward over three years. I don't know how that would be done.
The biggest gift a teacher can give to the gifted student is a transmission of some kind of confidence. What you gain from contact with another writer whom you respect is unnamable - it doesn't necessarily always involve a discussion of your work or his work.
When I spent time here in 1979, I met Elizabeth Bishop. We never really discussed each other's poetry, but there was some kind of ... respect. There was a mutual recognition of standards, attitudes, humor, and all that. And so one felt without ever addressing the subject of poetry that one's poetic activity was being ratified, and verified, and permitted.
What sorts of assignments does Seamus Heaney, the professor, give?
In one of my classes students are translating an Anglo-Saxon poem so that at the end they have their own translation, but they also have a sense of tradition. They have done the work - in the old-school scientific definition of work: moving a certain mass through a certain distance.
Fireside Always there would be stories of lights hovering among bushes or at the foot of a meadow; maybe a goat with cold horns pluming into the moon; a tingle of chains on the midnight road. And then maybe word would come round of that watery art, the lamping of fishes, and I'd be mooning my flashlamp on the licked black pelt of the stream, my left arm splayed to take a heavy pour and run of the current occluding the net. Was that the beam buckling over an eddy or a gleam of the fabulous? Steady the light and come to your senses, they're saying good-night. Seamus Heaney
Shoreline Turning a corner, taking a hill In County Down, there's the sea Sidling and settling to The back of a hedge. Or else
A grey bottom with puddles Dead-eyed as fish. Haphazard tidal craters march The corn and the grazing.
All round Antrim and westward Two hundred miles at Moher Basalt stands to. Both ocean and channel
Froth at the black locks On Ireland. And strands Take hissing submissions Off Wicklow and Mayo.
Take any minute. A tide Is rummaging in At the foot of all fields, All cliffs and shingles.
Listen. Is it the Danes, A black hawk bent on the sail? Or the chinking Normans? Or currachs hopping high
On to the sand? Strangford, Arklow, Carrickfergus, Belmullet and Ventry Stay, forgotten like sentries. Seamus Heaney `Fireside' and `Shoreline' from POEMS 1965-1975, by Seamus Heaney. Copyright c. 1966, 1969, 1972, 1975, 1980 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.