Issue 114 |
Spring 2011

From the Archive: An Interview with Seamus Heaney by James Randall

Reprinted from Issue 18 of Ploughshares, Fall 1979.?
(guest-edited by James Randall)

Seamus Heaney has been at Harvard University teaching two writing courses during the Spring semester. The interview took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Michael Mazur’s studio with James Randall and Seamus Heaney seated on a couch, tape recorder between them, and Michael Mazur working on sketches of Heaney for a monotype to be used for the cover.

Randall: I’d like to start with a political question. Is it possible for a poet to live in Belfast now?

Heaney: Of course it’s possible for a poet to live in Belfast still, if he chooses to do so. Longley has made a very definite choice to live there, so has Paul Muldoon, Frank Ormsby and a number of younger poets. But those three I mention are at a stage of self-consciousness where they are doing it as an act of choice. I think their motivations for staying on would vary. I left in 1972 not really out of any rejection of Belfast but because... Well, I had written three books, had published two, and one was due to come out. I had the name for being a poet but I was also discovering myself being interviewed as, more or less, a spokesman for the Catholic minority during this early stage of the troubles. I found the whole question of what was the status of art within my own life and the question of what is an artist to do in a political situation very urgent matters. I found that my life, most of my time, was being spent in classrooms, with friends, at various social events, and I didn’t feel that my work was sufficiently the center of my life, so I decided I would resign; and I now realize that my age was the age that is probably crucial in everybody’s life—around thirty-three. I was going through a sort of rite of passage, I suppose. I wanted to resign, I wanted to leave Belfast because I wanted to step out of the rhythms I had established; I wanted to be alone with myself.

JR: Did you feel a sense of guilt about leaving?

SH: Well, I suppose the violence and the crisis in the public domain and the demand that was made on every writer heightened and made more urgent a lot of questions I had been thinking of for myself. I ended up in Wicklow partly through chance because Ann Saddlemeyer owned a cottage there and she’d heard from someone that I was thinking about moving. We had actually thought about moving into County Derry—still in Northern Ireland—but we were certainly going to leave Belfast. Then Ann sent us a letter saying she had this cottage in County Wicklow and would we like to rent it. Undoubtedly I was aware of a political dimension to the move south of the border, and it was viewed, I think, with regret by some, and with a sense of almost betrayal by others. That was because a situation like that in the north of Ireland generates a great energy and group loyalty, and it generates a defensiveness about its own verities. Some people felt rejected by my leaving, but it wasn’t a matter to me of rejecting anyone but of my own growth. The crossing of the border had a political edge to it because we were opting to go into the Republic. But I was quite content in a way to accept and undergo that political dimension because I had never considered myself British. If I’d gone to London, there wouldn’t have been a murmur about it—at least among my Ulster contemporaries. I had no doubt about the rightness of the move itself but I was bothered by some of its consequences, such as seeming to break ranks with my friends there.

JR: Who are the Protestants and who are the Catholics in this group?

SH: Longley is Protestant and so is Derek Mahon—but Derek was never entangled with the Belfast faithful, as it were. I always think of Derek as the Stephen Dedalus of Belfast, the man who is an ironist and who refuses to serve that in which he no longer believes, whether that covers family, church, regional loyalty or whatever. I feel uneasy talking in these terms—Catholic and Protestant—but I suppose it’s worth it. Muldoon and Ormsby are Catholics. James Simmons lives in Coleraine and is also part of the Ulster twilight, as I sometimes call it, and he’s a Protestant. In the 1960s there’ was for a while, I think, a sense of discovery and exhilaration among my generation that we were moving an inch or two past the old pieties, and rigidities, and the old divisions. It was a liberal as opposed to any kind of radical political action, a coming together. But it wasn’t advanced on the kind of banter and suspicion of the earlier generations. The older generation in Belfast made jokes with each other about priests and ministers and eating fish on Friday. It was all a kind of backslapping, hearty, uneasy, jovial, but they never really approached each other intimately or really approached the matter of what was wrong in the society. I think that we felt that we were carrying things a little further than that in our own lives to start with and that we would maybe eventually find some way of behaving that would be exemplary for everybody.

JR: Was it the Trouble that caused this sudden flourishing of poets in Belfast?

SH: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a positive fact like that. I met Longley and Mahon in 1962-64, and that’s four or five years before things started. I think it was as simple as this: we were a first draft of young writers, Derek, James Simmons, Michael Longley and myself. We had books published one, two, three, four in about four years. Suddenly for young aspiring bright writers about the university and province there were published poets, speaking their own idiom, their own dialect. Young writers could see that a book was something that the man walking around the same streets had made up; it wasn’t something awesome and different, or impossible. So I think there was a direct effect, almost a sociological effect, on their confidence in their own abilities. Paul Muldoon and Frank Ormsby were students of mine at the University and although I’m not saying that my class was a big influence on them as poets I think they got some self-confidence in seeing a member of their own community on the University staff and publishing books. There was almost a literary professionalism about for the first time, and the Troubles were contemporary with it. There is a connection at a deep level perhaps between the public demons and the private demons that were possessing people. The writers registered that connection but everybody in the place felt it within themselves.

JR: How do you feel about Yeats, about his aristocratic attitudes, about his poetry and its dangers for young poets?

SH: Well, the poetry is a magnificent brave gesture, brave in the heroism of the posture and finally braver still in accepting the defeat of that heroism. He was great as a craftsman, as a rhetorician, as a man of enormous creative energy not only within his own work but in the organizational things he did—like inspiring Synge to take a central role in the Abbey movement. George Moore, even though he scoffs at him, finally respects him enormously. I think Moore says somewhere that the Irish Literary revival sprang from Yeats and returned to him. I have nothing but respect for the purity of motive in his life and the enormous effort and amount of work that was done by him. Yeats’s hack work of the 1880s and the ’90s is awesome, the amount of work he did on fairy tales, on Celtic literature, on propaganda for Irish literature, on internal politicking on controversial local literary matters—that ambition to create an audience. This is all cliché ridden, about creating an audience, but when you see the actual committee work he did, the articles, and so on—I have enormous respect for him for that.

JR: And what about the posture of the man and the poems?

SH: He was always talking about the rancorousness of public life in Dublin and about opinion and how it makes a stone of the heart, and this is true to a large extent. But he also had the prejudices of his caste. He was against O’Connell for his rancorous mind but O’Connell, for God’s sake, gathered the whole historical Irish Catholic nation together. Yeats’s Catholic figures are interesting. For instance, there’s Red Hanrahan, the devil-may-care poet, the beggars, the fishermen, and there’s Paidín. Now Paidín stands for all that was trying to discover itself in 19th century Ireland; that is, the Irish Catholic middle-class was trying to move out of the penal laws of the 18th century toward all the rights that go with a republic in the 20th century—which was a hell of an advance on 150 years of living in the hedges. Now, Yeats’s vision of culture was pure and patrician and all that, but it was peremptory and arrogant—it disdained history to a large extent. It disallowed middle-class life and set its face against all things commercial and selfconsciously modern. Read “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” and that last advice “Irish poets, learn your trade!” The Irish Literary revival was powerful and it did create a myth that is still operative in people’s minds: the dignity of the nation of Ireland and the dignity of Irish literature. And these people creating the myth were mostly from the Protestant caste. They went about it within their own lights, and fair enough.

JR: One of the early books that Yeats edited was a collection of Carleton stories.

SH: That’s right. But you can contrast Carleton to Yeats; what Carleton hears when he puts his ear to the soil of Ireland and its underworld, he hears this rosary of almost exhaustion and patience, very different from whatever Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory hear. When Synge goes to Aran in the late 19th century he hears the keening, almost a pagan cry, and Synge takes this wild, heroic pagan outcry against the universe and takes that as the spirit of Ireland and describes it in The Aran Islands, the wildness, the brutality and so on. That was perhaps a mystification. The real thing was much more deprived and defeated. And you have to go from Carleton to Kavanagh in rural Ireland before you get the authentic thing picked up.

JR: It is picked up in Kavanagh?

SH: Yes, I think so. It’s interesting to link Kavanagh’s Great Hunger with Carleton and with Brian Merriman’s poem “The Midnight Court” in Irish. Brian Merriman’s poem is a much more delightful work of art, more energetic, much more sexually and spiritually liberated than Kavanagh’s. You see in Merriman what was lost in the 19th century. Then Joyce puts in everything again. Joyce takes Paidín for his subject. Yvor Winters, a very wrong-headed kind of critic in many ways, said that if you read Yeats you’d think that Ireland was a country dominated by country houses, populated by beggarmen, and people riding horseback. You’d never think that if you read Joyce.

JR: It is true I think that Yeats’s poetry and vision was dominating other poets for a long time.

SH: Yes. You see that in a poet like F.R. Higgins, a man who was once described as writing “a kind of crepuscular Leinster pastoral.” He’s a nice poet, but Kavanagh did a devastating article on Higgins, talking about the way the word “gallivanting” appears throughout his works. He used that as a stick to beat him with. There was too much fake Irishry in Higgins for Kavanagh, and Yeats was indeed responsible for that.

JR: You feel now that Yeats isn’t dangerous as a figure to modern Irish poets, in the way that Milton was, say, to 18th century poets?

SH: I don’t think so. No, I think that he’s an enormous help in this way: he shows that by dint of fierce commitment to the art you can pay into the public life. And yet Yeats wasn’t as beyond rancor or beyond politics as he pretended to be. Denis Donoghue very rightly points out that Yeats always disdains opinion and disdains politics and says “we have no gifts to set a statesman right” but that’s an English statesman he’s talking about. He was never afraid to set Irish people right. So, I think Yeats’s example as a man who held to a single vision is tremendously ennobling—he kept the elements of his imagery and his own western landscape, the mythological images, and he used those and Coole Park, he used those as a way of coping with contemporary reality. I think that what he learned there was that you deal with public crisis not by accepting the terms of the public’s crisis, but by making your own imagery and your own terrain take the color of it, take the impressions of it. Yeats also instructs you that you have to be enormously intelligent to handle it.

JR: In terms of—to move away from that slightly—but in terms of Philip Hobsbaum, the Englishman who taught in Belfast, what did he mean to you, bringing in the Edward Thomas kind of thing, basically an English kind of approach?

SH: I would say that I began to write, first of all, before I met Hobsbaum; my sense of literature was necessarily a sense of English literature. I had very little sense of Yeats, at all, only some of his early stuff. The poetry that meant most to me was Hopkins. It was only when I started to teach Yeats after about 1966 that I began to think about him and it was not really until 1970-75 that I confronted him in any way. And as far as my, so to speak style is concerned, as far as my ear was educated, it wasn’t educated by Yeats, it was educated by certainly by Hopkins, Keats...

JR: Who else directly influenced you?

SH: When I was at college and later at university it was poetry with a thrilling physical texture I loved. I remember the first time I read John Webster’s plays responding to them with enormous pleasure, and there is in Webster that very dark brooding violence in the imagery, very physical, scalding, foul images. I took great pleasure from that. When I started to teach them in 1962, I remember getting Kavanagh’s work for the first time. I was now twenty-three years of age. And I read The Great Hunger, that was a thrill to me. Suddenly my own background was appearing in a book I was reading. And then I remember the day I opened Ted Hughes’s Lupercal in the Belfast Public Library. And that was again a poem called “View of a Pig” and in my childhood we’d killed pigs on the farm, and I’d seen pigs shaved, hung up, and so on. So again, suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life. I had had some notion that modern poetry was far beyond the likes of me—there was Eliot and so on—so I got this thrill out of trusting my own background, and I started about a year later, I think. I had some poems here and there, in the Irish Times, Belfast Telegraph, and Kilkenny Magazine—a poem called “Mid-Term Break—and Philip Hobsbaum was in university. I forget how we got in touch, but anyhow he started the group. Longley wasn’t in that to start with—I didn’t know Longley at this time at all—he was either in Dublin or had just come up from Trinity College in Dublin. The same with Derek Mahon. Sooner or later I urged Hobsbaum to get Longley to come along—about a year or a half-year later. And we met, I remember, in Hobsbaum’s class. Derek only went once or twice, but I saw Derek with Michael often. We met in Longley’s flat quite a bit, just casually. Three young poets, and Edna [Longley] and Marie [Heaney]. Yet Philip Hobsbaum was really the one who gave me the trust in what I was doing and he urged me to send poems out—and it’s easy to forget how callow and unknowing you are about these things in the beginning. From a literary point of view, Derek and Michael were more sophisticated about what to do. They had read Louis MacNeice, they had met MacNeice, and they had met other poets. I had never met anybody. They had more a sense of controversy with Hobsbaum and Hobsbaum didn’t go for their work because he thought it was too elegant. He was a strong believer in the bleeding hunk of experience. So there was an edginess therefore, and I was favored and they weren’t.

JR: Actually, they were maybe at an even more developed state. Was he sort of particularly interested in more metrical stanzaic rhyme?

SH: No, he didn’t have any particular rhyme bent—he was quite happy with poetry that thumped along in iambics or in open forms. But there was, I suppose, in the air at that time—since I was reading mostly contemporary British poetry just then, Norman McCaig from Scotland, Ted Hughes, R.S. Thomas, and then the general atmosphere just of magazines and so on—there was a tail-end of the so-called “Movement,” and the metrical thing was there. But, of course, my sense of poetry was drawn from my reading in university: conventional English literature. My ear was kind of baked from the beginning into the iambic pace. And it was also inclined to, as I was saying, the kind of sprung rhythms and the knottier textured kind of writing. We all, in some ways, took our first note from that neat-ish, late fifties-early sixties British writing, but I don’t think Hobsbaum consciously fostered that—unconsciously, maybe. I never had the slightest doctrinal problem about meter or non-meter. In fact, one of the things I think about and used to worry about was an American hang-up about meter.

JR: How did you see that?

SH: Oh, you know, that meter was dead and so forth. As Thom Gunn says, meter is an abstraction until it is embodied in a poem, and there are successful poems in meter and there are unsuccessful ones in meter. I think one of the greatest collections of poems in the last fifty years was Lowell’s Near the Ocean. Which is a kind of triumph of meter, of intelligence, and of morality.

JR: But Lowell has gone both ways. And what about you yourself?

SH: Well, I wrote a fairly constricted freeish kind of verse in Wintering Out and North in general, and then in the new book Field Work, I very deliberately set out to lengthen the line again because the narrow line was becoming habit. The shortness of a line constricts, in a sense, the breadth of your movement. Of course, a formal decision is never strictly formal, I mean it’s to do with some impulsive thing, some instinctive sense of the pitch you want to make. And with North and Wintering Out I was burrowing inwards, and those thin small quatrain poems, they’re kind of drills or augers for turning in and they are narrow and long and deep. Well, after those poems I wanted to turn out, to go out, and I wanted to pitch the voice out; it was at once formal but also emotional, a return to an opener voice and to a more—I don’t want to say public—but a more social voice. And the rhythmic contract of meter and iambic pentameter and long line implies audience. Maybe I’ve overstated that.

JR: What I want to ask you along that line is, I think there is more commitment in your poetry, a social commitment.

SH: Yes. Certainly Wintering Out and North were attempts to go on from a personal, rural childhood poetry, attempts to reach out and go forward from a private domain and make wider connections, public connections. But I didn’t want to start plying the pros and cons of the Ulster situation in an editorializing kind of way. I had no gift for that anyway, and while I did have a fair hoard of resentment against the Unionist crowd, I still felt hesitant about hammering a sectarian job, declaring udi for the Catholic/Gaelic sensibility. That would only have ratified the sectarian categories which had us where we were. I wanted to find a way of registering refusal and resentment and obstinacy against the “Ulster is British” mentality, but at the same time I wanted my obstinacy to leave the door open for repentant Unionists. But apart from the politics of the thing, I was incapable, artistically, of breaking with my first ground and my first images. So Wintering Out tries to insinuate itself into the roots of the political myths by feeling along the lines of language itself. It draws inspiration from etymology, vocabulary, even intonations—and these are all active signals of loyalties, Irish or British, Catholic or Protestant, in the north of Ireland, and they are things that I had an instinctive feel for, as a writer and as a native of the place. So you have those language and place-names in Wintering Out, like “Broagh” and “Anahorish” and, in its own way, “The Other Side.” And I think those poems politicize the terrain and the imagery of the first two books. And I think when you get to “The Tollund Man” in Wintering Out, you can see a similar development of the possibilities of “Bogland” which was the last poem in Door Into the Dark. There was a definite attempt to widen the scope of the thing. But you know, I want to pull back from all that because I have begun to feel a danger in that responsible, adjudicating stance towards communal experience. I just feel an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head.

JR: And what about this bog-people idea, is that communal?

SH: Well, I’ve gone over this ground so often by now I’m a bit self-conscious about it. You see, the bog was a genuine obsession. It was an illiterate pleasure that I took in the landscape. The smell of turf-smoke, for example, has a terrific nostalgic effect on me. It has to do with the script that’s written into your senses from the minute you begin to breathe. Now for me, “bogland” is an important word in that script and the first poem I ever wrote that seemed to me to have elements of the symbolic about it was “Bogland.” It was the first one that opened out for me, that seemed to keep going once the words stopped, not really like the other poems that were usually pulled tight at the end with little drawstrings in the last line or two.

JR: Often with a moral?

SH: Yes, clicking shut like little boxes. Then this poem came drifting past me and instead of putting it behind me, I followed it, and it led me to P.V. Glob’s archaeological study of peat-bog burials in Iron Age Jutland. A marvelous book called The Bog People, full of photographs of these victims, men and women who died violently and were ritually inhumed in the peat. One of those finds in particular has had an enormous effect on anybody who ever looked at it, the head of a man called now The Tollund Man. The Tollund Man seemed to me like an ancestor almost, one of my old uncles, one of those moustached archaic faces you used to meet all over the Irish countryside. I just felt very close to this. And the sacrificial element, the territorial religious element, the whole mythological field surrounding these images was very potent. So I tried, not explicitly, to make a connection between the sacrificial, ritual, religious element in the violence of contemporary Ireland and this terrible sacrificial religious thing in The Bog People. This wasn’t thought out. It began with a genuinely magnetic, almost entranced, relationship with those heads. I wrote “The Tollund Man” and it was an extremely important poem for me to write because the first line of it said, “Someday I will go to Aarhus / to see this peat-brown head.” And when I wrote that poem I had a sense of crossing a line really, that my whole being was involved in the sense of—the root sense—of religion, being bonded to something, being bound to do something. I felt it a vow; I felt my whole being caught in this. And that was a moment of commitment not in the political sense but in the deeper sense of your life, committing yourself to something. I think that brought me a new possibility of seriousness in the poetic enterprise.

JR: This came mainly through The Bog People?

SH: That was a growth period, all I’m saying is that. I’m very angry with a couple of snotty remarks by people who don’t know what they are talking about and speak as if the bog images were picked up for convenience instead of being, as I’m trying to take this opportunity to say, a deeply felt part of my own life, a revelation to me. Then I went to Denmark—this whole period of my life was one of richness and at the same time of unease.

JR: But the experience of going to Denmark fulfilled what you hoped it would?

SH: Yes, it fulfilled it within my life, and the rest is a matter of the poems, isn’t it? I’ve perhaps talked too much around and behind the poems here.

JR: It does seem an area that poets often would rather not discuss.

SH: Yes, but it’s six or seven years ago now. I don’t like, as Paddy Kavanagh says, “viewing my soul from the outside.” But when it’s become a ring on the tree maybe you can inspect it more easily.

JR: You were looking for some kind of metaphorical release, and you found it very satisfactory?

SH: Yes, and that was 1969. The year 1970-71 I spent in Berkeley and that was also a releasing thing. I didn’t meet or become friends with the West Coast poets, but I became very conscious of the poetry of Gary Snyder. I saw Snyder; and Bly was living in Bolinas that year. He read a couple of times around the Bay Area. The whole atmosphere in Berkeley was politicized and minorities like the Chicanos and Blacks were demanding their say. There was a strong sense of contemporary American poetry in the West with Robert Duncan and Bly and Gary Snyder rejecting the intellectual, ironical, sociological idiom of poetry and going for the mythological. I mean everyone wanted to be a Red Indian, basically. And that meshed with my own concerns for I could see a close connection between the political and cultural assertions being made at that time by the minority in the north of Ireland and the protests and consciousness-raising that were going on in the Bay Area. And the poets were a part of this and also, pre-eminently, part of the protest against the Vietnam war. So that was probably the most important influence I came under in Berkeley, that awareness that poetry was a force, almost a mode of power, certainly a mode of resistance. Then the second thing was this mythological approach that Snyder and Bly were advancing: as far as I was concerned, their whole doctrine was too programmatic, but it suggested new ways of handling parts of my own experience. And then the third thing was a release I got just by reading American poetry, in particular coming to grips with Carlos Williams. In the poems of Wintering Out, in the little quatrain shapes, there are signs of that loosening, the California spirit, a more relaxed movement to the verse. It isn’t as tightly strung across its metrical shape. The first poem I wrote when I came to California is the last poem in the book, a strange poem about weightlessness and drifting. This was just after the first moon shots.

JR: What direction do you think you are moving in now?

SH: I remember writing a letter to Brian Friel [Irish play-wright] just after North was published, saying I no longer wanted a door into the dark—I want a door into the light. And I suppose as a natural corollary or antithesis to the surrender, to surrendering one’s imagination to something as embracing as myth or landscape, I really wanted to come back to be able to use the first person singular to mean me and my lifetime.

JR: And what kind of subject are you taking up?

SH: There are basically three blocks in the book. The poems are much more open, I think. I called it Field Work chiefly because I couldn’t find another title. I think the poems in the book are quietly pitched. But I hope they aren’t slack. There are a group at the beginning which are semi-public poems, elegies, meditations. Three of them, for example, are elegies for people who were shot, one of them a second cousin of my own who was shot arbitrarily. He was a carpenter in Armagh and he wasn’t involved in anything at all political but was just coming home from a football match in Dublin. Then a man named Sean Armstrong whom I knew at Queens and who had gone to Sausalito where he became part of the commune-pot smoking generation—he came back to Belfast in the early seventies to get involved in social work and worked at children’s playgrounds. And he was shot by some unknown youth. And the third elegy of that type was for a man I knew very well called Louis O’Neill, who used to come to my father-in-law’s public house in County Tyrone; he was blown up on the Wednesday after Bloody Sunday.

JR: You had a kind of pub relationship with him?

SH: Yes, but closer than that term usually implies, for we had a natural, sympathetic understanding of each other. And those elegiac poems are surrounded by other elegies and by meditative poems. There is a poem called “The Badgers” which I’m very fond of—a kind of bridging of the inner and outer life. It’s literally badgers, but they began in my mind to stand for the night-self, the night part in everybody, the scuttling secret parts of life. Just as in a sense the Provisionals are the nightlife of the Catholic community. The skunk is a more sexual creature than the badger, and there’s a poem called “The Skunk,” another bit of night-life.

JR: You know the skunk in Lowell’s poem?

SH: Yes, in “Skunk Hour”—but the creature I was imagining was a kindlier, slinkier one altogether.

JR: What else is in the new book?

SH: The middle of the book has some Glanmore sonnets which are really looking back on all we’ve been talking about. And then the last section of the book is love poems, more domestic. There are a number of elegies in it for artists too: Sean O’Riada, Robert Lowell, and an Irish poet named Francis Ledwidge who died in the First World War; and it ends up with a translation of part of Dante.

JR: You were with Lowell about a week before he died, weren’t you?

SH: Yes, and for the last few years, anytime he was over in Ireland with Caroline in Castletown we met them. There was a certain trust and intimacy. He had a great gift for making you feel close, and he had tremendous grace and insight. And I felt honored by that a lot.