Dennis O’Driscoll. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (2008)]

[Note: This file contains an accumulation of passages in the work named as they come to our attention. BS.]

SH: [on going to QUB, not UCD or TCD:] Dublin didn’t mean University College and Trinity College; it meant Croke Park where the All Ireland football final and the All Ireland hurling final were played. […] For Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, the situation was very different. Their school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, had a long history of sending its pupils to Trinity. The Inst.-Trinity axis was as natural ans the St. Columb’s-Maynooth one, and for the same reasons - cultural [42] and religious bonds, teachers in the school who were graduates of the university, a general sense that this was the tradition. (pp.42-43.)


DO’D: I wonder if Kinsella’s remark that the idea of a “Northern Ireland Renaissance” in poetry was “largely a journalistic entity” affected your relations at a personal level?
SH: I don’t think so. For one thing, we didn’t see all that much of the Kinsellas, although they welcomed us when we first moved south and later on when we moved to Dublin in 1976. There was never any great closeness, more a kind of springy, cheerful bluffness whenever we happened to meet - which meant that I was gratified indeed when Tom included a few of my poems and Derek Mahon’s in his Oxford Book of Irish Verse … I always took his downgrading of the “Ulster Renaissance” to be in part a payback for Edna Longley’s attack on his early work, although that may be too petty an explanation. In fact, it should be said that nobody was more aware than the Northern poets themselves of any glamour the media were conferring on them. Their scepticism anout their importance in the scheme of things was always in good order. (p.165.)


DO’D: How difficult is it for contemporary poetry to accommodate language which is not essentially plainspoken?
SH: Maybe the plainspoken poetry that's truly poetry, not just chopped porse, is presuming to be heard in dialogue or in contrast with some older unheard ‘poetic’ note. Ashbery, for example, is sporting with all kinds of traditional sublimities. Alternatively, you have the case of a colloquialist like Christopher Logue seeking the upthrust of Homer. American poetry is generally readier to elevate the proceedings: when I think of Louise Gluck, say, or Jorie Graham, not to mention Lowell, I think of voices not embarrassed to try for higher scales and dictions. But still, on this side of the ocean, you have Derek Mahon, who can rise to a magniloquence that has high canonical sanction. (p.196).


DO’D: Do you find more visionary gleam in Kavanagh’s Monaghan than in Yeats’s “Byzantium”?
SH: Not as a reader, no. The carrying power of the ‘Byzantium, stanzas is phenomenal. There’s no Kavanagh music to match them. Yeats’s quest is conducted in burnished armour, the lance rings on the door, he’s like William Blake as he appears in “An Acre of Grass”, the Blake ‘Who beat upon the wall / Till Truth obeyed his call’. There’s something out of this world about Yeats’s imagining, but the poetry itself still bears the brunt of the physical. Even in those two short lines I’ve quoted, you can feel the full blast of Blake’s spirit-force, but you can also feel his fist meeting the solid wall. Still, you’re right to imply that I’m much closer to the fundamentally Catholic mysticism in Kavanagh. My starlight came in over the half-door of a house with a clay floor, not over the dome of a Byzantine palace; and, in a hollowed-out part of the floor, there was a cat licking up the starlit milk.

DO’D: Do you take any interest in Yeats’s A Vision? Would you care to undertake some similarly synoptic work?
SH: All of that began for Yeats – according to his own account –because, deprived of religion in his youth, he proceeded to put together a do-it-yourself religion out of ‘a fardel of old stories’. I realize this is much too neat a reduction of his account of what happened, but it suggests a neat answer to your question – which is this: far from being deprived of religion in my youth, I was oversupplied. I lived with, and to some extent lived by, divine mysteries: the sacrifice of the Mass, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come, the whole disposition of the cosmos from celestial to infernal, the whole supernatural population, the taxonomy of virtues and vices and so on.

No doubt Yeats would cite Blake and say that I was enslaved by another man’s system and was failing to create my own. But I suppose – like many Catholics, lapsed or not – I am of the Stephen Dedalus frame of mind: if you desert this system, you’re deserting the best there is, and there’s no point in exchanging one great coherence for some other ad hoc arrangement. Having said that, however, it must also be said that Yeats’s construction, bare-handed, of a [318] cosmology and a psychology, if if not a theophany, was first of all another proof of intellectual power and secondly, as is universally acknowledged, a great scaffolding, a kind of theatre of memory which provided him with a sense of psychic and historic back-up. He was proud of his unchristened heart, as he calls it, but at the same time he wanted the equivalent of apostolic succession, he wanted endorsement and access to the wisdom of the ages. When he had constructed his system, he was satisfied that he had achieved this.

DO’D: Would you see some connection between “Squarings” and your ‘fardel’ of Catholic beliefs?
SH: Undoubtedly.

DO’D: Even if the very first poem is firm in its conviction that there is no afterlife?
SH: But it’s also firmly grounded in a sensation of ‘scope’, of a human relation to the ‘shifting brilliancies’ and the roaming ‘cloud-life’. It’s still susceptible to the numinous.

DO’D: Writing the sequence must have been a great boost to your artistic morale.
It was. I felt free as a kid skimming stones, and in fact the relationship between individual poems in the different sections has something of the splish-splash, one-after-anotherness of stones skittering and frittering across water.

DO’D: You employed similar terms in your lecture at Wolfson College in 2002: ‘I thought of them in terms of speed and chance ... I tried to make myself wide open to whim.’ Did it trouble you at all that, in being spontaneous, you might also be unintentionally private, that many readers might not know, for instance, what a ‘particular judgement’ is?
I didn’t worry about that at the time, nor have I worried since. When I was writing the twelve-liners, I experienced something halfway between a stiffening of linguistic resolve and a dissolution of it. Many of the lines just wafted themselves up out of a kind of poetic divine right. ‘The music of the arbitrary’. ‘Where accident got tricked to accuracy’. ‘Do not waver / Into language. Do not waver in it’. ‘Particular judgement’ may be an archaic technical [319] term even for Catholics, but there’s a strict phonetic clip to it and I’d rely on that to suggest a moment of final spiritual reckoning. (pp.318-20.)


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