An Interview with Seamus Heaney
By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
The following interview with Seamus Heaney took place in New York on April 13, 1996 on what was the poet’s 57th birthday. It was his six months after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
—This poem was cited specifically by the Nobel Prize Committee
Seamus Heaney was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm, Sweden, last November, and all of Ireland was proud. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been Irish writers who had taken the prize before – W.B. Yeats, G.B. Shaw, and Samuel Beckett had all been honored – but the confirmation of Heaney was different. Such institutions as the New York Times, who consistently refer to Shaw as British, who also subliminally lay claim to Yeats by labeling him Anglo-Irish, and place Beckett outside the realm of Irish, could make no such claim of Heaney, as both the work and person are unmistakably of Ireland.
The award was given to Heaney “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” And as a poet he returns again and again to excavate the rural landscape of his upbringing.
Born on April 13, 1939, the eldest of nine children, to Margaret and Patrick Heaney, at the family farm in Mossbawn, County Derry, the poet remembered his upbringing in his Nobel acceptance speech:
In the 1940s, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural County Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingles with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other….
After attending the local school at Anahorish, Heaney studied at Queens University in Belfast –his father referred to him as a “scholarship boy” – and graduated with a degree in English in 1961. He earned a teaching certificate at St. Joseph’s College in Belfast the following year, and went on to lecture in English at the same school. It was during this time that he began to write, publishing in school magazines under the pseudonym Incertus.
In the mid-1960s, Heaney published Eleven Poems. He married Marie Devlin in 1965, and a year later became a lecturer in modern English literature at Queens University, the same year that Faber and Faber published his collection Death of a Naturalist, which won the E.C. Gregory Award, the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
During this period Heaney and his wife had two sons, Michael (1965) and Christopher (1968).
Heaney struggled long and hard with the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland at the time, and eventually decided to leave his home. “What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology,” he said.
In 1969, his second of 10 volumes of poems, Door into the Dark, was published, and in 1970 Heaney and his family moved to Berkeley, California, where he was a guest lecturer at the University of California. He returned to the North in 1971, but a year later resigned his position at Queens University and moved to the Republic.
“So it was that I found myself in the mid-1970s in another small house, this time in County Wicklow, south of Dublin, with a young family of my own,” Heaney said.
In 1972, Heaney published Wintering Out, and the following year his daughter, Catherine, was born. During this period, Heaney won many awards, gave readings in England and the U.S., and edited two poetry anthologies. He began teaching at Dublin’s Carysfort College in 1975, and six years later took the position of visiting professor at Harvard University. Three more collections of his work were published during this time—Field Work, Selected Poems, and Preoccupations: Selected Prose.
By 1984, Heaney’s Station Island had been published, and he had been elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard.
The deaths of his parents—his mother in 1984 and his father in 1987 – had a great influence on Heaney’s work, and were reflected in The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991). His series of sonnets titled “Clearances” were written as a memorial to his mother.
Although Heaney has not lived in Northern Ireland for some 25 years, there has always been a link between his writings and the tragic situation which plays itself out there, and it seems only fitting that lines from his 1990 play, The Cure at Troy, should come to embody the hope of a nation in the wake of the IRA and loyalist cease-fires in 1994:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Heaney spoke of “poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”
Seamus Heaney, for many years, has given voice to a struggling nation. Patricia Harty spoke with him in New York.
IRISH AMERICA: How has your winning the Nobel Prize affected your life?
SEAMUS HEANEY: It hasn’t changed my life, it has intensified aspects of it. Over the last 10 years the demand to give lectures, to be present at cultural events, to open exhibitions, to do social and cultural duties – all of things that come with the business of being a writer – have multiplied drastically. So luckily I had got myself set up to deal with all that. I have a place [in Wicklow] where I go to get away from it. Marie and I do have privacy at home [in Dublin] because the decorum of people is magnificent. There’s acknowledgement and recognition, but a minimum of intrusion.
Of course, something has changed because the word “Nobel” is a magic wand that is waved over you. But the actual day-to-day is just more busy, busy, busy.
IA: What does it mean to call yourself a poet?
SH: I think that if you call yourself a poet it means that you live by it, so to speak, and for it, in a very serious way. There’s a phrase of Ted Hughes which I like very much. He said that the true poem emerges from the place of ultimate suffering and decision in us, and I think if you call yourself a poet, you publicly consecrate yourself to living somehow by the places of suffering and decision.
IA: How does it feel to have the world reflect back at you that yes, indeed, you are a poet?
SH: I think the discipline which writers must perfect is the discipline of doubting the world, the discipline of self knowledge and self-castigation. Certainly the activity should induce a sense of vigilance – it’s a kind of spiritual exaction to be a writer. But the answer is that I accept the recognition in good faith.
IA: I find that reading your poetry can sometimes evoke painful memories. Is the creation itself painful?
SH: No, the creation of it is pleasurable. I’m sure that Beckett enjoyed doing his most painful work too. I think the sine qua non of the activity is some form of joy in the actual doing—it’s the bringing into alignment of the form, of delight and expression, bringing that together with the actual endured reality of life that gives you the balance. Take a novel by John McGahern where there is a kind of undertow of suffered life and a certain desolation, but there’s also the cello music of the writing itself. Composition is a pleasure when it’s going right, but when it’s not working it’s just sheer agony because then you’re having the dry hoaks.
IA: Did you always have an instinct that this was what you wanted to do?
SH: I didn’t have an instinct, no. When I look back on that long ache that was my adolescence (and everybody else’s adolescence) I realize that I certainly had some artistic yearnings. I had a real desire to be able to play music, and I remember just wishing – there was no resentment here, by the way – wishing for access to music, to be able to play the piano, maybe. I was also in my late teens and early 20s working with marquetry – making pictures from wood and so on – so there was some desire for artistic expression.
Writing poems did give me a sense of myself, it verified something in me. There’s a psychic verification that artwork performs for the artist, and gradually I realized that writing was something that I could do.
IA: What was it that allowed this talent to flourish?
SH: Acceptance early on by editors I didn’t know when I was totally unknown myself. My first poems were written in – “obscurity” is the wrong word – just nowhere-ness. Obscurity somehow implies that you are being kept out of the light.
I was in Belfast, I had no literary contacts, but I had aspirations. And the fact that the poems were accepted by the Irish Times, Kilkenny Magazine, and the Belfast Telegraph in three months was terrific. Publication for a young writer is a crucial transition, it’s a rite of passage. You go from the unwritten state to the slight mystery of seeing your name in print. I was very lucky in that even my book was sent for, I didn’t have to tout it. Faber, before I had a manuscript ready, wrote to me.
IA: How did that change things for you?
SH: When your book is published and then well-received, you have created a textual creature with the same name as yourself and it’s recognized as a reflection of you, then you begin to be discussed as that creature out there. Now, in the beginning that is gratifying but gradually it becomes a haunting, and you have to develop a second relationship with that doppelganger, one of nonchalant indifference. In fact, you have to eventually discover a place to live completely separate from it – to let him continue his life in the world. That’s where I am now.
IA: Is it affecting you now?
SH: Yeah, I have to continue in spite of it, you know? But it’s not, as my mother used to say about pregnancy, a killing condition.
IA: Can you tell me about your mother?
SH: My mother was very strong – very unruffable, steady on the emotional keel. Righteous and majestic and vulnerable, her McCann family were terrific, they had the volubility of protest – they were democrats. My father had a different kind of majesty, the country farmer’s silence and hauteur.
My mother had an unbending thing which she shared with women of that generation, a child a year in eight, nine, 10 years. The giving-birth factor involved, I suppose, a willful adherence to the compensations of Catholicism – the cult of the suffering mother of Jesus, the cult of the suffering Jesus, and the cult of St. Anne, the mother of Mary. These were actual real psychic resources for sublimation in the lives of women. In particular, for ones who were going through, without much consolation or understanding, the solitude and exhaustion of childbirth and child-rearing and the biological entrapment of being in a place with no birth control. Nowadays I remember that affirmative bold outcry of prayers from women in church as a cry of rage and defiance. My mother wouldn’t have put it that way – she would have seen it as a form of transport and endurance.
IA: Was it hard being a different type of man than your father?
SH: Well, I suppose there are two answers. It was not at all hard socially, because there I was the scholarship boy, going to boarding school, and that path was mapped out. My father would just have said, “The teachers say he’s a smart chap.” Now, my father never, never advised me about anything, but I had a sense of his vigilance, his instinctive judgement – not judgmental, more concerned and wise. He had a protective care. After I reached the age of 14 or 15 he just assumed I would choose my path, so there was no difficulty. Any difficulties were actually of the species rather than the biography—of sons growing up and fathers being there. It’s a Freudian generality I suppose.
IA: How did you manage to break with tradition and leave the farm?
SH: I never actually experienced it as a break. Whatever your background, poetry is going to be an extra-ness and a strangeness. Each poet is alone with his or her chances at the end as much as at the beginning. In some way, the farm background is like a mythic possession; you know what neolithic life was like if you have known rural life in pre-modern Ireland. And that is a great creative resource. A kind of dream-knowledge. I mean, creative is such a cant word, it’s just the ability to make something of the game—to keep moving it along, wakening it up and shifting it. Joseph Brodsky said a marvelous thing about poetry, that it wasn’t merely an art, it was an anthropological necessity because it prompted new possibilities for the destiny of the soul.
IA: Were you surprised at the Poem that was cited by the Nobel Committee, “Lightenings”?
SH: You mean the one about the monks at Clonmacnoise have the vision of a boat in the air above them? I was delighted with that, because the thing is a kind of image of poetry itself. It’s about the negotiation that goes on in everybody’s life between what is envisaged and what is endured—between the dream up there and the doings down here. It has the mysterious purchase of a good story but also it’s pregnant with suggestion. I think it’s about poetry, maybe that is why they cited it.
IA: There seems to be something in the Irish that makes them partial to poetry.
SH: There’s a tradition, a value system which is given, an historical myth or truth that predisposes us as a community and as individuals to trust in poetry. It’s a reality, there’s no doubt about it. If a poet published a poem in a newspaper in Ireland the judges will read it, the afternoon drinkers in the pub will read it, the Taoiseach will read it, the Protestant bishop will read it, the Catholic bishop will read it, the hostesses will read it, the gossip columnists will read it, and the name of the poet will be a possession. I think it’s a matter of some indifference whether they are equipped in any special literary way to read or judge poetry. We are talking about the actual role of the poet in society, and in Ireland there is no doubt that that role is alive and it contrasts vividly with what will happen in a poet publishes a poem in the Times of London, or in the New York Times. So fearful as I am of talking up romantic notions about Ireland, I think you have to concede that there is public, psychic and artistic reality in this which is a genuine positive cultural possession of the country.
IA: You are the first Irish Catholic to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. How important is Catholicism to you?
SH: I realize now that from the age of dawning of consciousness to the age of reason, or from about six months to age twelve, I was totally immersed in the religious sense of the world. In the world I grew up in, the mass was the social event of the week. The priest was one of the ruling class. And then when you went to college, you were already dealing with a mini-Maynooth. The whole sense of morality, right and wrong, everything was based on Catholicism, and it continued when you went to confession, weekly or monthly (in college it was communion daily), right through till your early 20s and the next drama of consciousness began as you started to secularize yourself in response to the world.
Obviously, I could talk until the cows come home about the minority status of Catholics in the North of Ireland, but that ground has been gone over a lot. I would say that the more important Catholic thing is the actual sense of eternal values and infamous vices which our education or formation gives us. There’s a sense of profoundness, a sense that the universe can be ashimmer with something, and Catholicism – even if I don’t like sentimentalizing it – was the backdrop to that whole thing. The world I grew up in offered me a sense that I was a citizen of the empyrean – the crystalline elsewhere of the world. But I think that’s gone from Catholicism now.
IA: You led a double life in that in addition to writing you also taught school. How did you manage both?
SH: I never conceived of a way of life where my writing vocations would actually be my whole life. This may have been a mistake – I’m talking now about a given ethic or attitude, one that didn’t deconstruct in myself. In the world I came out of – and it was inside me from the beginning and almost to the end – the general idea was that you worked for a living. You earned your keep, you asked for no special favors and you then prayed that grace would visit you. Laboring at your job doesn’t infuse you with the grace of poetry, but I thought of them as two separate things – one is the mystery of gift, and the other is getting on with it, conducting yourself as a citizen. I certainly didn’t think that if you were involved with the mystery of writing you had any right to expect better treatment or any special status as a citizen. That was a solidarity, I suppose, with the kind of unliterary life that I lived in the beginning. And then while I was teaching there was a desire to prove that poetry wasn’t effete or a betrayal of loyalty to humble origin. So my teaching at school was a defense of poetry as part of the fabric of the usual life. You demystified it, you toned it down and you called people towards it by saying, “look, it’s quite simple.”
I have now come to realize that this too is misrepresenting things and that you should stand up for strangeness, the otherness and the challenges of this stuff. Whereas at the beginning I was more interested in bringing an audience towards it and calming their nerves, now I’m more interested in saying, “Down on your knees, this is the goods!”
IA: Did you enjoy teaching?
SH: I never enjoyed thinking about it, but I actually enjoyed doing it. It takes a long time for teachers to get over their self-preoccupation – will I be able to do it? People underestimate the sickening dread that can be in somebody as they stand up on a podium to begin a class. It’s hard for me to do a lecture to this day. I’m tense and I’m worried and I’m up early preparing it. So the answer to the question is ambivalence. I enjoy doing it when I’m doing it, but I don’t enjoy thinking about it.
IA: In terms of your own writing, are you very disciplined or do you wait for the muse?
SH: I’m not very disciplined, no. I’m half disciplined. I’m not a person who gets up every morning at the same time and sits at a desk and plunges into it. Prose writers have to do that. On the other hand, the older I get the more I feel that you should peg out a pitch and provide space for the game to be played, mark out a landing place for the muse if she wants to come down. So time, time alone, when the pages are in front of you, or you’re reading, time is what’s important. In the beginning, I used to say to myself anything that’s worthwhile forces itself through. And to some extent that’s true. But my life has become so besieged with different responsibilities…
The last decade and a half of lecturing and teaching at Harvard and Oxford – it’s also just a matter of growing older – the world places many, many demands on you so you have to be wary and in resistance to it and secure a space where poetry can come through. My redemption has been Wicklow, the actual house is 45 minutes from my Dublin home – it’s both a physical reality and psychic image of retreat. When I go there I feel gathered and safe and under cover.
IA: After the ceasefire was announced you write that you felt 25 years younger, but you were angry also at the 25 years of loss. You mentioned the inroads that were being made before the violence, when both traditions were finding “room to rhyme”.
SH: I felt the whole set of nascent politics has been obliterated from memory by what happened. There had been something in the air – it was the 60s taking on a special shape in Northern Ireland. There was a political shifting. This much younger generation of unionists was coming along – God knows they wouldn’t have been ideologically soft – but they had a social conscience of a different sort.
But I think the other thing that happened to me after the ceasefire was some kind of anger that I had suppressed in myself for years. It wasn’t anger at any one person or group, it was just the conditions – there’s a poem in The Spirit Level called “Mycenae Lookout,” which is written from the point of view of the watchman during the Trojan war, and it was written out of this feeling. I always wanted to write about the watchman and I now realize that this poem is angry.
IA: How do you feel now?
SH: Obviously I think that the British government has been thick-witted and caught in a cultural and political posture that they can’t shake. I thought that the two months after the ceasefire offered a moment of genuine historic possibility which everyone expected Major to grasp. Reynolds and Hume were grasping the hands of Adams – they actually deliberately and tactically said “Let’s go.” And of course, Major hesitated and then hesitation became a funk. But for a while a possibility that had lurked in the political unconscious of the unionists allowed itself into their consciousness. They were aware that some change might be about to happen, and if that moment had been grasped history would have moved along. Now all that is past and I think that is the real tragedy of it. Now we’re just in the realm of mess and while mess is admittedly preferable to atrocity, I think it’ll drag on tediously, demeaningly. It’s just the usual tactics of politics, hacking it out along party political lines; they harry each other from the touchlines of their own positions. It’s so exhausting for the citizens and it’s so unpromising, but it’s the usual. I don’t think anything will be quickly resolved, everything will be messily deferred and deferred.
IA: Do you have any regrets about leaving the North?
SH: No, I’ve no regrets. It was actually transitional at the time I left – I had to make a move.
IA: Do you feel like James Joyce who went off into exile?
SH: Well, he went off in dudgeon. I didn’t leave in any form of dudgeon or resentment; I left because of a desire to be freer within myself, or simply to be more alone. This was not political, this was artistic and domestic. Moving to Wicklow was a crucial moment. Our own lives (I mean Marie’s life as well as mine) were reconstituted emotionally by going into a lonely place together. And it was very fortifying for the two of us. You took the measure of things again and started up again.
IA: Tell me about California.
SH: They were the best years of our lives, 1970, 1971 – very important. It was the first time we had lived outside of Ireland, and Berkeley was a place of great promise and merriment. A place of reorientation after Belfast – Belfast was so radical, so downbeat, so corrective of any form of flourish – it was great to go to California where flourish was encouraged, where instead of refusal and irony there was indulgence. It was like going into a hot-house for the spirit.
IA: Did you ever think of staying there?
SH: Never, no. But I loved California, partly because it was such a helpful year for us.
IA: Do you think it’s essential to your poetry to live in Ireland?
SH: I don’t think it’s essential but – I don’t know the answer. The last 25 years have been so stressful and crucial it would seem to me that I couldn’t have knit myself into something workable without staying in Ireland.
IA: Do you still see yourself as a citizen of the North?
SH: The image I have is of the ripple going out, which is an image you can find in Joyce’s work. For him it was Sallins, Kildare, Ireland, British Isles, Europe, the universe; for me it was Derry, St. Columb’s, Queens, Berkeley, Wicklow, Harvard, Oxford – it’s the same sort of ripple. There’s a part of you that’s still an extension of the original self moving at the circumference of your adult cognition and realization. There’s something out there that is actually continuous with your first awareness. Your consciousness is such a strange, strange thing; it’s hard to talk about the inwardness of it – it’s both fixed from the beginning and yet at the same time it’s capable of taking in experience and newness. So I see myself as a big set of ripples, because if you look at the ripples in a pool when the stone is first thrown in you can see them going out in big rings, but then at a certain point it looks like they are also going in towards the center. The circumference represents some form of knowledge. On the other hand, you always have to work with that which was there at the core from the beginning. I’m still writing about that. It’s just your perspective on your imaginative possessions changes. Your perspective on your cultural and emotional possessions changes. This negotiation between the center and the circumference, that’s where I live anyway.
From Whatever You Say Say Nothing
‘Religion’s never mentioned here,’ of course.
‘You know them by their eyes,’ and hold your tongue.
‘One side’s as bad as the other,’ never worse.
Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung
In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable. The famous
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate the first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wide: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, out palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
And some time to make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the unearthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the years since this interview was conducted, Heaney continued to write prolifically, turning more and more to classicism, spirituality, and returning to the mysteries of modern life as manifestations of ancient tropes.
If he was not a household name before, his riveted Anglo-Saxon word hoard was unlocked when his 2000 translation of Beowulf became a rapid bestseller in the U.S. and U.K. Since Beowulf, Heaney also began translating in earnest, publishing seven more translations, including Sophocles’s “Antigone” (The Burial at Thebes, 2004) and the classic Middle Scots The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables (2009).
In 2001, Electric Light was lauded for solidifying Heaney’s command of the modern elegy and broadening his allusive range to include classical references, particularly to Homer and Virgil. 2006’s District and Circle won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the most prestigious prize in the U.K., and Colm Toibin wrote for the Guardian that Heaney’s most recent volume, Human Chain (2010), was “his best single volume for many years.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said his death was a “great sorrow to Ireland” and, according to the Irish Times, that perhaps only Heaney himself could describe the import of his own death to the nation. “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.”
Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins, who is also a published poet, said “Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus’ poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organizations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.”
That republic of conscience has flourished in Heaney’s writings in the last decade, where he has made the business of loss as much his subject as memory, aging, or the pastoral, and his elegies have become more a focal point in his last two collections. As he wrote during the Troubles without polemics, so too in later verse did he seem to instruct as much as learn from the subject of death. Not that the grief of his death may be totally assuaged by his immense contributions to our understanding of mourning, but as NYU Professor Gregory Londe eulogized, “It’s a strange comfort when someone dies who has taught you so much about how to mourn.”
Heaney is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Marie, and their children: Christopher, Michael, and Catherine Ann. ♦