Seamus Heaney: The Words Worth Saying

THERE are few poets of this century who have received as much critical acclaim and public scrutiny as Ireland's Seamus Heaney. In reviewing his recent collection, "Seeing Things," a London Times critic compared its arrival with "Keats' `Odes' and Milton's 1645 collection." Mr. Heaney bristles visibly at the mention of this - not simply because of his inherent modesty; as a professor of literature, he regards the past masters too highly to count himself comfortably in their company. Ironically, the great expectations his work has generated serve to appropriate some measure of his freedom - something too hard-won and cherished to be easily surrendered.

From his earliest books, he was hailed as "the new Yeats," an honor which carried with it an enormous burden. As a native of County Derry, he felt pressure to write more about "the Troubles" of Northern Ireland. He was virtually accused of abandonment when, seeking the solitude to further his work, he moved his family south to the Irish Republic. Eventually he began to spend a portion of each year teaching at Harvard University. He is considered today, quite simply, one of the finest writers in the Engli sh language. And he has used his prominence to introduce American and European audiences to a whole host of new Irish talents.

Aside from the masterful craftsmanship and utter dignity of his verse, what I find most remarkable about Seamus Heaney is the way, through all the pressures, he has determinedly steered his own intuitive course, creating a body of work that is scholarly enough to include translations from the ancient Irish, Latin, and Greek, and personal enough to offer us lyrics of astonishing beauty about family, friends, the battles of conscience and the landscape of his homeland. His protests notwithstanding, the int erlocking poems of "Seeing Things" will indeed be considered one of his most memorable achievements, an intimate yet universal vision. Heaney remains a solitary player on literature's grand stage; we in the audience can take pleasure from the rich music of his poetry and take heart from the persistent labor of his spirit.

Steven Ratiner: With teaching, lecturing, and international readings, yours is a very public literary life. Does all that help or hinder the writing of the poems?

Seamus Heaney: Well, I think your social self and your writing self is a very puzzling relationship. I mean, I don't know what the relationship was between the Shakespeare that you met in the tavern and the Shakespeare who wrote. This is the real problem for a poet especially - to find access to that which is not your usual self, to find access to that which is not codified, to admit up through the organized and efficiency-levels, the more free-ranging and sportive level... .

I have had the belief that the ... busy life puts the other part on its mettle... . I don't know what is the correct proportion between will and waiting in lyric poetry. There is evidence that if you are a Yeats, that the will to keep it moving is very important. There's evidence that if you are not a Yeats, that the will is just cranking out material. Every act of poetry is some kind of strategic engagement between the passive and the active parts.

I think there are few poets today who have as pronounced a musical charge to their verse as you do. Clearly the ear is as important as the eye in reading your poems.

I would have to say this - that verse is a physical phenomenon. The sound of poetry seems to be preeminent. If it doesn't have a melody or a rhythm or a meter or some kind of physical emanation, then it just becomes a set of semantic signals on the page. It doesn't hold as verse.

Verse is justified differently from prose. Prose is justified by a printer. The printing term to "justify" means that you print from one straight edge to the other ... . Each printer can justify a piece of prose in a different way, and the rhythm of prose doesn't depend on the justification of the writer at all. Whereas verse depends, verse is justified by the line ending of each line, and it justifies itself by that term. The word does mean "the turning of the plow," the [Latin] versus. The verse mea ns the turn at the end of the line, and the turn into the next line. And that, whether it's traditional verse in couplets or tetrameters or opener forms of free verse, still it is a physical torsion that we're involved in. And I can't imagine any [poet] not feeling it within the body.

And that's a slightly different thing from the actual sounding. I can only say that my sense of poetry is based as most people's is, I think, on reading the traditional canon. When I read Shakespeare or Marlowe or Hopkins or Keats or Eliot or Yeats, the extra voltage in the language, the intensity, the self-consciousness of the language was what I associate with poetry. ... It mightn't be rich diction, but it's a principle of over-languaging the language. I mean, poetry is born under the superfluity of l anguage's own resources and energy. It's a kind of overdoing it. Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry... . This extra may be subtle and reticent, you know. Or it may be scandalous and overdone. But it is extra... . Certainly you see my early poetry is much in love with the richness of language itself, and quite consciously sought for a physical richness. I don't do that so much now.

Reading even the new poems aloud gives you the sense of almost chewing on the lush syllables. "Hazel stealth. A trickle in the culvert./ Athletic sea-light on the doorstep slab,/ On the sea itself, on silent roofs and gables." The word sounds are a musical accompaniment to the imagery.

But this isn't peculiar to me. This belongs to the language. I think everybody, whether or not they're conscious of it, responds to these things, you know ... that sound carries something more with it within any signaling structure within the English language collective. We have certain associations with certain sounds. And so what a poet is doing is unconsciously working with that. I am very devoted to T. S. Eliot's notion of the "auditory imagination." ... Eliot talks about the feeling for syllable and

rhythm reaching below the conscious levels. You're adding the most ancient and most civilized mentality.

I feel that about the word "culvert." It's got the kind of dark-hole-under-the-ground within it. And for everybody that has ever heard - stored in the system, in the big archive of every ear, is a moment when they heard a very thin trickle of water in the big, faintly echoey under-place. ... Keats says, "It strikes you as a remembrance." The collusion between the verbal thing and the human store in the reader - that's the mysterious place.

In re-reading "Seeing Things," I was astonished by the wholeness of the material, from the section of individual poems to the 48-poem sequence called "Squarings." Each piece seems to amplify the vision of the others.

Well, I'm glad you felt that. I think that there is a lot of interweaving. ... I had a year to myself more or less when I was doing a lot of these things, and I just let them swim around... . I gave myself over to impulse, but there was this set of metaphorical predispositions which were in me when the thing was being done - images of "the light," the "crossings," the little boats here and there, and so on. And it was the first time I think I had given myself over so freely, just to a whimsicality, almos t, of invention. And that had to do with the arbitrariness of the twelve-line form.

I wrote a poem in 1988, at the end of August. I was in the National Library in Dublin. ... I had been working very hard at a selection of Yeats... . I had six weeks of a battened-down sense of being nose-to-the-grindstone. You know, "lament, lament, no freedom!" And then the sense of the weight lifted, the sense of coming through, and I wrote this poem which is the first one in the sequence. I don't know where it came from. But it came up with a terrific sense of surety, and it was a different idiom for me. ... And I went, "Hey, this is nice, you know. And I'll do another. I'll make it a dyptich." And then one thing led to another and I thought, "Hey, try 12 twelve-liners." And then ... the word "squarings" came up in one of them and I got the idea of twelve by twelve. And I was sort of ready for it. I knew that. But these things are - to go back again to what we were talking about, you see - that's a discovery, it's an energy, it's a delight factor, it's a surprise factor. And then the will can work and t hen, you know, the things that have been waiting to get said, get said.

Did you sense something bigger in the task when you began to put them together? There are two large formulations you appear to be working on: One is the building of a house, the way you move back to the cottage in "Glanmore Revisited." The "Squarings" sequence also begins with the images of building, and you even talk about the sort of house your father would have made. The second task seems to be some sort of reconciliation with the loss of your father. It felt to me as if you were building a place for his memory and from which you could go on with your life.

That's very well said, I think. I mean, it is all after the death of my father. But very important underneath the poems, not specifically a theme in them, ... has been getting into a house, a particular house, where we lived for four years in the early '70s in County Wicklow... . It's not the home I live in with my wife and family now. ... It's in effect a studio, you know. But it's not a studio with neuter origins. It's the place of writing for me. My life changed and was invested in this house in the e arly '70s, and I feel completely enabled by being in it. It's a lay-by, but it's also a center.

In the "Glanmore" poems, you reluctantly let your wife put a skylight in the cottage. And all through "Squarings," you are breaking down physical barriers and constructing openings to the light. It's like a receptivity to a different sort of experience, perhaps a renewed mystery.

You're right. I mean, you've read it ideally for me. And the image of roofs coming off and light coming in. And there is one of my favorite poems in the sequence, the one of the boat from the sky, the apparition, which is described in the annals. But this sky-place is a kind of mind-place.

This sense of uncovering the marvelous is enmeshed in so many of the new poems. There was one poem about St. Brigid's Day where, by custom, the people step through a straw hoop, in order to enter the new life. It seemed as if this was a perfect description of what poets offer to society. We take a nothing, the mundane stuff of language, and make it into a something. Yet this insubstantial something is capable of changing how we experience our lives.

Aye, aye. I agree there's a sense of refreshment ... that would be my sense of it, that the world is "glamourized" by language... . The first meaning of "glamour" is "to be snatched into the world of the fairies." And returned. So if somebody has glamour on them, they have that radiance... . And I guess [Polish poet Czeslaw] Milosz talks somewhere about, he takes this idea that "to be is to be perceived," you know, the old Latin esse es percipi. So, in a sense, the being of the world, the fullness of it is realized and emphasized and confirmed by being seen in language.

I know it is a danger to equate Seamus Heany with the speaker in the poems, but it feels as if this book navigates you through a crisis. It's as if, in losing your mother and father, you were compelled to question your whole belief system and to redefine your own spiritual place.

I agree, I mean, that is the sense of the roof coming off again. This is a book by somebody who has been at two deathbeds, and who remains unchanged and completely changed by that. Because it's immensely mysterious and mercilessly ordinary. Now in one moment there is life, now there is not life. And what has parted? It gives you a lack of shyness opposite words like "spirit," "soul," "life," whatever. So that is the turn, the crisis and the emboldening of language towards the ineffable areas.

But you know, most individuals remain mute through these sorts of experiences, because we fear we don't have the language to attend to such feelings. When a poet creates something like this, in a sense you do it for the whole human community, the whole circle. You create a hoop that we may step through, so that we too are confirmed by that experience.

Well, that is deeply gratifying to hear. And that is, of course, what I believe about the function of art... . You hope, of course, for the kind of response that you have most gratifyingly given. But I mean, I'm very shy of saying what I think has happened there. I trust these poems. And then it's up to them. [Laughs.]

You've spoken of the sorts of "gifts" you feel you've received from the work of other writers, poets like Milosz. What's the gift you'd hope is offered within your poems?

My friend, Derek Mahon, a wonderful poet from Ireland, [wrote]: "The ideal future shines out of our better nature." And that better-naturedness and assent and jubilation. If not jubilation, adequacy to the difficult things. A sense that there should be something fortifying - I would like that in the work. On the one hand, to help delight. And on the other hand, to help survive the test, you know. When I read poetry, I like to feel that the writer is clued in, so to speak, knows the score, has encountered

the negative ... and taken the measure of it and said: okay, we know all that ... But granted that, this - this is still worth saying.

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