Ed Herman: Welcome to Poetry Lectures, a series of lectures by poets, scholars and educators presented by poetryfoundation.org. In this program, we hear a conversation with Seamus Heaney. Arguably the most popular poet in Great Britain, Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in Northern Ireland. He resigned from teaching in 1972 to live with his wife and family in a small cottage, and to work full time as a writer. He later took a part time teaching position at Harvard, and in 1989 was elected to a five year term as a professor of poetry at Oxford University. He has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Heaney often writes about life in rural Ireland. His poems sometimes refer to Irish history and conflict, but his work is not overtly political. His work as a translator of early Irish and Anglo Saxan poetry has also influenced his own poetry. For more insight on Heaney’s work, we invited Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine, and Don Share, Poetry’s senior editor, to share their thoughts on Seamus Heaney.
Christian Wiman: You know Don, Seamus Heaney represents the rarest of phenomena these days; a poet who’s become not simply popular but sort of a rockstar figure among poets. I was in England not long ago, and someone told me about a survey that’d been done, and his books were selling I don’t know, 2/3 of every poetry books sold. Why do you think that is?
Don Share: The other thing is his readings are real events. Everybody has to come to a Seamus Heaney event. I’ve thought a lot about this, because I too was greatly affected by his work when I was younger. Lines like “My grandfather cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toner’s bog” may sound very particular to a given place, a place in Ireland that Heaney knows intimately, but he’s a perfect example of a poet who’s able to take the real particulars of a life, including getting down in the dirt and what’s buried and grown there, and making it universal. It sounds cliche, but he really does this over and over again.
Christian Wiman: t’s what people crave in some way.
Don Share: It really is, and no one’s better at it than he is. He’s always present in his poems.
Christian Wiman: Those lines that you quoted are from an early poem called “Digging”. That poem was actually the first poem as Seamus Heaney said in which he felt his voice, he felt some stirrings rise up to make him into a poet. That’s a particularly salient poem for him.
Don Share: In everything he does, Seamus Heaney is a great teacher. He’s talked a lot about this poem and the experience you described. He talks about the lesson he learned from Patrick Kavanagh — in some ways this poem owes a lot to Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”, where Heaney has said he realized from Kavanagh that you can write a poem about ordinary things. About digging in dirt, about being a farmer, being a bachelor. A certain kind of life that didn’t sound like a great subject for a poem really would be a great subject for a poem is something we learn from Kavanagh and many times over from Heaney.
Christian Wiman: You’ll hear that poem in the program that follows. You might also hear that this is a very obviously early poem from Seamus Heaney. Some of the connections that are made are made brilliantly, some are made crudely. He’s been criticized for a line in here, “snug as a gun”, because he loved sounds so much. Some people have said it occurred to him when it wasn’t really applicable to his life. I don’t know about that. He was in a situation of violence, there was violence around him
Don Share:— A lot resting on that line.
Christian Wiman: At the end of the poem … The way it starts is “Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pin rests snug as a gun”. It ends, “Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pin rests, I’ll dig with it”. You see a whole career following from that. My point was that there’s a very blatant, obvious connect he’s making here. These become brilliant and transcendent in his later work. He’ll make a connection, he doesn’t even have to make it like that, and suddenly it’s full of all these spiritual ramifications. He achieved that early on in some of those early books, Field Work, The Hall Lantern. And he’s developed it further as he’s gone on.
Don Share: Well, and he circles back to the pen in a very recent poem called “The Conway Stewart” which is a poem about a pen his parents gave him when he was leaving for college. I just love the way Seamus Heaney always circles back to those formative and very deep experiences.
Christian Wiman: It’s a career with great integrity in all the meanings of the word. It feels very much of a whole, but it has integrity too. In the middle of his life he said that he was heading toward one kind of life as a poet. He had a job as a teacher, he was really thriving, getting translations, doing things. He said he had to put himself more at risk. He’s written about this. He went off to a cabin where he wrote those sonnets in Field Work, Glanmore it must have been because they’re the Glanmore sonnets.
Don Share: We’re lucky to have him, he’s still digging with that pen.
Ed Herman: That was Christian Wiman and Don Share, the editors of Poetry Magazine. Now we’ll hear an interview recorded live at the Poetry Prom 2010, organized by The Poetry Trust. You can find more podcasts on the poetry channel at thepoetrytrust.org. Here is Seamus Heaney, speaking with the poet Michael Laskey.
Michael Laskey: Seamus, the epigraph to “Singing School”, you quote the prelude “I grew up fostered alike by beauty and by fear much favored in my birthplace”. Could you perhaps tell us a little about your birthplace?
Seamus Heaney: Well, it was in the country in South Derry, typical small farm but forty acres, thatched house, one story, stable at one end. So actually I’ve always thought of my life as first of all the memory basis in County Derry at a farm called Mossbawn. It’s packed in there, vacuum sealed. Then in my 20s I began to write, and the little sigh of the vacuum opened up.
Michael Laskey: So you’re early education was in a the village school?
Seamus Heaney: Yeah, it was a country school. We walked about a mile to school. It was in two Nissen huts. The actual school had been knocked down to make room for the air drones at the beginning of the war. I went to these Nissen huts in 1945. They were still using the old forms where you sat in rows with ink wells and pens. In fact, it’s given me a great attraction to using ink ever since, fountain pens and so on.
Michael Laskey: Then you won a scholarship to go to Saint Columb’s College in Derry?
Seamus Heaney: Yes, that was a moment of change, definition I suppose. I had a difference. I was the eldest of 9, I think it was about the 30th of August 1951. A car pulled up on the street belonging to a friend of my fathers, Jim McKenna, who was a cattle dealer also. My father, my mother and myself got into it and drove to Derry. Both they and I knew that something different was happening. I think that was a real moment of change. Then of course getting a scholarship to the University, of course. Getting a degree at the university, and then going on to be a school teacher. After that going on to be a teacher at a training college, and after that going on to teach at Queen’s University, where I’d only lately graduated as a student. I was upwardly mobile from the beginning.
Michael Laskey: You tell a nice story in “Stepping Stones” about a first piece of writing you did called “The Day at the Sea Side”.
Seamus Heaney: This was at the Nissen hut school. We were asked to write a composition as it was then called, an essay, on a day at the sea side. I knew exactly what you were supposed to do at the sea side. So I had bought a bucket and spade and I’d swum. Of course I couldn’t swim. My mother though buckets and spades were catchpennies. What she did, she bought us each a wooden spoon, which we could dig in the sand. But she could take the wooden spoon home afterward and use it in the kitchen. I covered up on the wooden spoon, and wrote about the colorful buckets and spades and so on. I realized later on in life that the wooden spoon is the real thing, it’s the interesting part. So I got the wooden spoon at the end.
Michael Laskey: First poetic influences? First poems that you loved?
The first poem that I loved were probably rhymes, like local rhymes. “Too late too late shall be the cry, the Bellaghy bus goes sailing by”. (LAUGHING). Actually, the older I’ve got the more I respected it. It’s got all kinds of sadness and elegy in it. But of course in school I learned poetry, and serious poetry. In elementary school before the age of 12, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines” — That was all there.
Michael Laskey: Your first book, The Death of A Naturalist came from this period in your life, right?
Seamus Heaney: Absolutely.
Michael Laskey: Give us a feeling of this life. Perhaps you could read “Digging”.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
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.
Michael Laskey: You’ve given an awful lot of readings. Were you always comfortable with poetry readings?
Seamus Heaney: When I listened to myself early on, my voice is very highly pitched, I gradually learned to slow down. I remember the Scottish poet Ian Crichton Smith said to me after I read a poem called “Mossbawn Sunlight” he said to me, you’re a very slow poet, he said. (LAUGHTER). I learned to bring it down to my own natural speaking voice, and to keep the accent of the place. I’m sure that had to do with listening to Ted Hughes read, for I thought in his reading his Yorkshire voice was retained. And the accent in the sense of the meter rhythm, the given cadence, was retained. The clarity of articulation which came with his change from Yorkshire to Cambridge and London, that clarity of articulation was there, but it was alike to a regional type accent, and that seemed to me to give the readings a terrified authenticity. Of course, he was a magical reader. Voice was a tremble and could cast a spell, really.
Michael Laskey: Well although you’re Ulster born and bread, you’ve always felt more Irish than British, yes?
Seamus Heaney: But that is possible in Ulster. Ulster is in Ireland (LAUGHING).
Seamus Heaney: But of course it’s also hidden. That was part of what we grew up in with through by, grew up against in the end. Grew up to grow against it. In sense, what I think our generation of poets did — Jane Simmons, Michael Longly, Derek Martin, then a little later on Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, Maeve McLaughlin. We saw the fact that we were poets together. We saw that this sectarian thing did not operate. We understood it completely, but we were able to understand it as a condition.
Michael Laskey: Do you think looking back on it that poetry may have helped in the trouble?
Seamus Heaney: Well it helped something. It helped the poets, it helped the poetry I think, there was good poetry written. We say the troubles, we’re talking about a period from 1961-1994, and at the same time, we’re not talking about 150 years of sectarian life before that. From the plantation of Ulster on from the 1620s, we aren’t talking about that. This is the end of a long condition. Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was no friend of a provisional IRA, but Cruise O’Brien said at the beginning of the business in Derry in 1968, he says “this isn’t a matter of changing an election anomaly or a gerrymandering situation, it’s a matter of changing the relationship between the victorious and the defeated, which is quite a difficult job”. Enough of that maybe.
Michael Laskey: Alright, so the life of the poet. Rilke said you must change your life. Have you changed your life?
Seamus Heaney: Well, once certainly. When we went from the North Wicklow, I was the age of 33. I resigned my job in the university. I was very happy at Queens, it was a good department and I had very good friends. But I had published at that stage three books, the books had been well received, and I didn’t feel however that I had become a poet, whatever that meant. I had written poems, and I had put together collections, and I had the excitement of feeling the joy of feeling that something has been done that is you and is different from you, but I think to say you are a poet you have to earn it in some sort of way. That was my feeling, anyway. It came to a moment when I thought you should commit yourself. So we were offered a cottage in County Wicklow, and I gave myself a job to translate a middle Irish text, Buile Suibhne, and I had started on poems for a book called North. I ended up there for four years. Then the family was older and schooling had to start so we moved back into Dublin, but that was one definite change.
Michael Laskey: So here you are. You’re a great celebrity. I wonder how you cope with that. How hard is it to balance your public responsibilities with the responsibilities to live your own life?
Seamus Heaney: I wonder about that myself actually, constantly. I was in the teaching profession. I was going around conferences, I was going to schools to talk to kids, I was going to teacher courses and things like that. So my formation was of that kind of serviceable nature to the profession. Then readings came along in the 60s, 70s, 80s, it just became a rhythm. it probably got too much, alright. I agree.
Michael Laskey: So what would you say you needed to keep private, keep in tact for yourself?
Seamus Heaney: Well the house we rented for 4 years, I always felt that we had reneged or something when we went for the family’s sake, for education’s sake, to Dublin. But by great good luck, we were able to buy that cottage in 1988. It came at a time when I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed. Our own house was becoming a combination of telephone exchange and travel agency. This house, no phone, nobody in it except ourselves, and it has remained so. It’s a secret and safe place.
Michael Laskey: I wondered, can you say what’s poetry for? How does it make a difference? What’s it’s value?
Seamus Heaney: Well, I can only speak as a reader. I think it’s strengthens your inwardness. It’s a steadying of consciousness generally for the culture. A shared history of poetry running from Beowulf down through Chaucer, down through Wordsworth, down through Eliot, down to our own generation, the sense of a layered culture and consciousness is there in that. But I fundamentally think the purpose of poetry is to produce more poetry. Eliot called it sublime entertainment, and “it must give pleasure” said Wallace Stevens. Wordsworth talked about the grand elementary principle of pleasure. That pleasure is different at different stages of your appreciation of it, I think.
Michael Laskey: So the last book, Human Chain, the new book, has that been a difficult, painful book to write?
Seamus Heaney: Well, it’s been quite intimate. I wouldn’t call it difficult to write, a lot of the poems were written quickly. If it had an epigraph it would be an epigraph from Eliot, “See, see, they depart, the faces and places with the self which as it could love them, to become renewed, transfigured in another pattern”. I think the older you get, you can look back at what happened to you and reprise. There’s an element of reprise I suppose in this book.
Michael Laskey: Perhaps just to close, could you read the poem about the pen your parents gave you when you went away to college so that you could write to them?
Seamus Heaney: Yeah. That day, we left home and went home to the college. We all went over the boarder to Buncrana in Donegal, which is a seaside resort. I was bought a fountain pen, a Conway Stewart fountain pen. This goes back to that moment. It’s kind of “Digging”, revisited in a sort of way.
The Conway Stewart
“Medium,” 14-carat nib,
Three gold bands in the clip-on screw-top,
In the mottled barrel a spatulate, thin
The nib uncapped,
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,
Letting it rest then at an angle
Giving us time
To look together and away
From our parting, due that evening,
To my longhand
To them, next day.
Michael Laskey: Thank you very much.
Ed Herman: That was Seamus Heaney, speaking with Michael Laskey. Their conversation was part of The Poetry Prom which took place on August 26th, 2010 at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk. The recordings was kindly provided by The Poetry Trust, which sponsored the event in partnership with Aldbrough Music. Seamus Heaney has written more than a dozen books of poetry, from Death of a Naturalist published in 1966, to Human Chain, published in 2010. He is also active as a translator of poetry from Irish and other languages, and is the editor of poetry anthologies. You can read more about Seamus Heaney, and some of his poems, at poetryfoundation.org. You’ll also find articles about poets and poetry, an online archive of more than 9,000 poems, and other audio program to download. I’m Ed Herman, thanks for listening to Poetry Lectures from poetryfoundatin.org.
Seamus Heaney in conversation with Michael Laskey, fellow poet and co-founder of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. This is an edited version of an interview recorded live at the Poetry Prom 2010 organised by The Poetry Trust. Enjoy more podcasts on The Poetry Channel at thepoetrytrust.org.