‘Unhappy and at Home’, Seamus Deane interviews Seamus Heaney, in The Crane Bag, 1, 1 (1977), pp.66-72.

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Seamus Deane: Do you believe there is a recognisable northern group of poets, recognisable that is, in the literary as opposed to merely geographical sense? And secondly, do you believe that this can be legitimately connected with the northern troubles?

Seamus Heaney: I think there is a recognisable group in the literary sense. This would include Simmons, Longley, Mahon, Muldoon and others; I’m not sure whether I would include you here, for I’m talking of a certain literary style which arose from the ‘well made poem’ cult in English writing in the late fifties and sixties. Though harking to different writers all of us in this group were harking to writers from the English cultural background. In that sense, there is a kind of tightmouthedness which might be considered ‘Northern’ by many in the South, but which is really the result of a particular literary apprenticeship.

SD: And can the emergence of this group be related in any way to the Northern crisis?

SH: I think that this is a much more imponderable kind of subject. There is certainly no direct or obvious connection; but this poetry and the troubles emerged from an intensity, a root, a common emotional ground. The root of the troubles may have something in common with the root of the poetry.

SD: Can you give me an example?

SH: Well, in my own case, the very first poems I wrote, “Docker” and one about Carrickfergus Castle for instance, reveal this common root. The latter had William of Orange, English tourists and myself in it. A very inept sort of poem but my first attempts to speak, to make verse, faced the Northern sectarian problem. Then this went underground and I became very influenced by Hughes and one part of my temperament took over: the private county Derry childhood part of myself rather than the slightly aggravated young Catholic male part.

SD: Speaking more generally, do you think that this fidelity of the poet to his community needs to be catered for in some political way, especially within the context of the Northern crisis, even though one would not want to be prescriptive about this. [66]

SH: I think so. But again, you can only speak from the inward side of your own notion of what it is to be a writer; and that is changing as you change; and you change in relation to the situation. Certainly, in my own writing of the last ten years it is obvious that while the mode of writing, that is, the imagery, language and general intonations of the verse, remained the same, they had to strain to face the reality of the happenings and the subterranean energies which produced these happenings.

SD: In view of the inevitability of facing the Northern situation, or of bearing some imprint of its experience, do you think that there are any grounds for agreeing with Conor Cruise O’Brien’s view that the link between art and politics constitutes an unhealthy intersection?

SH: Yes, I think he is correct ....

SD: Even though he meant this as a criticism?

SH: I can only speak of myself from the notion I have of my own work. Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self. But that self in some ways takes its spiritual pulse from the inward spiritual structure of the community to which it belongs; and the community to which I belong is Catholic and nationalist. I believe that the poet’s force now, and hopefully in the future, is to maintain the efficacy of his own ‘mythos’, his own cultural and political colourings, rather than to serve any particular momentary strategy that his political leaders, his paramilitary organisation or his own liberal self might want him to serve. I think that poetry and politics are, in different ways, an articulation, an ordering, a giving of form to inchoate pieties, prejudices, world-views, or whatever. And I think that my own poetry is a kind of slow, obstinate, papish burn, emanating from the ground I was brought up on.

SD: But at the same time, you’d be very anxious to refrain from taking any outright political stance in your poetry?

SH: I think about that more and more since I did North. I always thought of the political problem - maybe because I am not really a political thinker - as being an internal Northern Ireland division. I thought along sectarian lines. Now I think that the genuine political confrontation is between Ireland and Britain. Yet it is my own sensibility and heritage of feeling which is the basis for the feeling of the poems, and I never had any strong feelings, for example, about the British army; it was always the RUC, the B Specials, and so on. Now that may have been politically shortsighted, but poetry emerges from the beat coming off images, from the aura surrounding certain words.

SD: Do you think that if some political stance is not adopted by you and the Northern poets at large, this refusal might lead to a dangerous strengthening of earlier notions of the autonomy of poetry and corroborate the recent English notion of the happy limitations of a ‘well made poem’? And furthermore, do you feel that this disdain of poetry for all that would break its own autonomy could lead to the sponsoring of a literature which would be almost deliberately minor?

SH: I think it could ....

SD: Do you think it has?

SH: Most poetry is inevitably so ....

SD: But not deliberately so! [67]

SH: I think that the recent English language tradition does tend towards the ‘well made poem’, that is, towards the insulated and balanced statement. However, major poetry will always burst that corseted and decorous truthfulness. In so doing, it may be an unfair poetry; it will almost certainly be one-sided.

SD: Politically one-sided?

SH: Yes, I think it has to be. As I said earlier, the poet incarnates his mythos and must affirm it. Montague’s The Rough Field is a poem which affirms the mythos and, in that sense, is a poem which has come to stick, to stick politically in one direction, and against many others.

SD: But, is not such political fidelity contradicted, in some sense, by the poet’s aspiration towards an equipoise and balance of form? There is a statement by Adorno which says that the conciliatory nature of art is in direct relation to the rage which produced it. In your own case, my own feeling is that the language of much of your poetry has a good deal of violent and physical implication; and yet the poems themselves have a certain poise and balance, even sometimes to a self-conscious degree. Now do you think that the balance of poetry is something you have to achieve for the sake of art, even though it might begin in the imbalance of hatred or sectarian feeling?

SH: You are touching there the very root and intimacy of the poet’s act. There is a poem in North which is a metaphorical consideration of this. I think it is a dangerous poem to have written - a poem called ‘Hercules and Antaeus’. Hercules represents the balanced rational light while Antaeus represents the pieties of illiterate fidelity. Overall, I think that in the case of almost every Northern poet, the rational wins out too strong. This poem drifts towards an assent to Hercules, though there was a sort of nostalgia for Antaeus ....

SD: A nostalgia for Antaeus, but an assent to Hercules & rationality?

SH: Yes, but I think that is wrong now.

SD: You mean that if rationality is to be worth the name it must confront and take account of Antaeus’ bigotry, or must lift itself clear of it?

SH: Yes. But this is a seesaw, an advance-retire situation. There is always the question in everybody’s mind whether the rational and humanist doom in which produced what we call civilisation in the West should be allowed full command in the psyche, speech and utterance of Ulster.

SD: Do you not think that your own poetry and that of Mahon and Montague imply that this humanism, represented by Hercules, which has moulded Western civilisation, is a dangerous feature because the nature of humanism is always to detach itself from that out of which it initially arises?

SH: Yes, absolutely …

SD: And do you think that the kind of humanism which Conor Cruise O’Brien sponsors is precisely that kind of humanism, totally detached from its atavisms, which, though welcome from a rational point of view, renders much of what he says either irrelevant or simply wrong. Particularly in relation to the North where bigotry is so much a part of the psyche?

SH: I don’t know where or what O’Brien’s atavisms are …

SD: I mean that in order to be rational O’Brien tends to renounce atavisms I whereas the thing about poetry is that to survive it cannot renounce them.

SH: Yes, I agree partly. But I think there is a dialogue. I think the obstinate voice of rationalist humanism is important. If we lose that we lose everything too, [68] don’t we? I believe that Conor Cruise O’Brien did an utterly necessary job in rebuking all easy thoughts about the Protestant community in the North. It is to be seen in this way: 7 or 8 years ago there was tremendous sentiment for Catholics in the North, among intellectuals, politicians and ordinary people in the South. Because of his statements O’Brien is still reviled by people who held those sentiments; yet now these people harbour sentiments which mirror O’Brien’s thinking, and still they do not cede the clarity or the validity of his position.

SD: But surely this very clarity of O’Brien’s position is just what is most objectionable. It serves to give a rational clarity to the Northern position which is untrue to the reality. In other words, is not his humanism here being used as an excuse to rid Ireland of the atavisms which gave it life even though the life itself may be in some ways brutal? Is it not a very bourgeois form of humanism?

SH: O’Brien’s force doesn’t lie in the North. His real force and his proper ground is here in the South and I think it is entirely right that there should be some kind of clarity in southerners’ thinking about the Protestant community in the North. And it is not enough for people to simply say ‘ah, they’re all Irishmen’, when some Northerners actually spit at the word Irishman. There is in O’Brien a kind of obstinate insistence on facing up to this kind of reality, which I think is his contribution.

SD: To return then to the more specifically literary scene. We have already spoken of a possible Northern group of Irish poets. Could we now drop the epithet ‘Northern’ and say something about the movement of Irish poetry as a whole, with particular reference to its mentors, Yeats, Kavanagh or otherwise? Would you see yourself as writing in what could be recognised as a twentieth century tradition in Irish poetry? Or do you think that the poet in Ireland is forced to range eclectically for his poetic, and perhaps ultimately make one for himself?

SH: I think we are both agreed that every tradition borrows eclectically and thereby develops and strengthens itself. However, I think we can by now speak of an Irish tradition because there is a mounting confidence in the validity and importance of our ground. If only because people are killing one another. There is a strong sense in a number of poets that the crosschannel tradition cannot deal any longer with our particular history. Discussion of what tradition means has moved from a sort of linguistic nostalgia, a puerile discourse about assonance, metres and so on, to a consideration of the politics and anthropology of our condition. I think that every poet in earnest in this country is scanning for an exemplar, Irish or otherwise, and different poets look to different people - Montague looks to David Jones, you look to Neruda. Kinsella is by now I suppose his own firm and major man. He is the poet who affirms an Irish modernity, particularly in his treatment of psychic material which is utterly Irish Catholic. In this sense he is somewhat akin to the Joyce of The Dubliners [sic] who found a form for that unspoken world. Kinsella has found a language which is both at ease with exemplars like Joyce and Eliot, and also capable of speaking very much out of his own world and intellect and with his own voice.

SD: It is interesting that you name Kinsella here, for Kinsella of all poets is perhaps most interested in articulating for himself in his own work the sense [69] that there is a specifically Irish tradition in literature, one part of which is in the Gaelic language, another part of which is in the English language. Do you agree with this notion of a specifically Irish tradition? And secondly, do you think that for a poet to write he has to have the confidence that such a tradition exists or is at least possible? Or do you think one can live in a hand to mouth manner?

SH: I don’t think that the poet can keep living in the hand to mouth manner. I do think there is such a thing as an Irish literary tradition, using tradition here in Eliot’s sense. We need only look to Kinsella’s translation of the Táin sagas and myths which Yeats and, to some extent, Ferguson used before him, not as a picturesque manifestation of the otherness of this culture, but as an ordering structure for his own psychic materials and energies. In “The Land of the Dead”, for example, he brings the ancient mythic shapes into conjunction with his disjointed, alienated and essentially artistic consciousness. In his actual writing Kinsella affirms the root and his own theorizing about tradition merely serves to nourish and clarify it.

SD: Are you not intent on a similar kind of enterprise to mould your own psychic disposition into a sort of cultural landscape which could be stereoscopically viewed? And are you not also, like Kinsella, obsessed with the desire that this landscape be distinctly of this culture, not in the chauvinistic sense but out of an ultimate fidelity and ultimacy which you would consider necessary for poetry if it is to achieve its validity?

SH: Yes, I think I came to this notion in the writing of the Wintering Out collection, particularly in the place name poems: “Anahorish”, “Broagh”, and so on. I had a great sense of release as they were being written, a joy and devil-may-careness, and that convinced me that one could be faithful to the nature of the English language - for in some senses these poems are erotic mouth-music by and out of the Anglo-Saxon tongue - and, at the same time, be faithful to one’s own non-English origin, for me that is County Derry. That glimpse is enough to convince me that this is a proper aspiration for our poetry. The difficulty is of course to repeat such experiences. I think that it was the quest for such a repetition that led me to translate Buile Shuibhne. In this Sweeney story we have a Northern sacral king, Sweeney, who is driven out of Rasharkin in Co. Antrim. There is a sort of schizophrenia in him. On the one hand he is always whinging for his days in Rasharkin, but on the other he is celebrating his free creative imagination. Maybe here there was a presence, a fable which could lead to the discovery of feelings in myself which I could not otherwise find words for, and which would cast a dream or possibility or myth across the swirl of private feelings: an objective correlative. But one must not forget the other side of the poetic enterprise which is the arbitrariness and the innocence of the day to day poetic impulse. And again the question is how far should the mythic scheme dominate the private felicities and discoveries of the everyday occasional things. I’m speaking of the lyric impulse. The quick and the purity of the inward act has to be preserved at all costs, however essential the outward structures may be for communication, community and universal significance.

SD: But is there not the danger that in yielding to the private day to day impulse, the Irish poet, while writing some very felicitous poems, will ultimately feel frustrated in being unable to see his poetry as an oeuvre, belonging to a [70] larger whole or tradition. It is my view that most poets wish they could constitute en masse some sort of thing-in-itself, which would also and at the same time be a thing in connection with other things which occurred during its generation and production. When you talk therefore of your fascination for the Sweeney saga, or of Kinsella’s for the Táin cycle, or of Montague’s for Gaelic lore, do you not think that it is significant that all three of you have shown interest in a poetry that is structurally epic, whereas your basic tendencies would seem to be towards the lyric? In other words, are you not in a sense looking for a tradition which would provide you with an epic impulse, not native to the modern Irish conditions but essential to your poetry?

SH: Yes, But then several poets in the English tradition have nurtured me - Frost, Hopkins and Ted Hughes, for example. Yet the real strength for me has come to lie in the Irish tradition of Yeats and Kavanagh. Yeats has created a body of work which stands resonantly on its own ground and is superior, I think, to anything in the modern English tradition. On the other hand, Kavanagh challenges everything that Yeats stood for. He has, as Montague put it, liberated us into ignorance. No writer since has been free from whatever Kavanagh did to the air of consciousness. It is to do with a confidence in the deprivations of our condition. It is to do with an insouciance and trust in the clarities and cunnings of our perceptions. Yeats and Kavanagh point up the contradictions we have been talking about: the search for myths and sagas, the need for a structure and a sustaining landscape and at the same time the need to be liberated and distanced from it, the need to be open, unpredictably susceptible, lyrically opportunistic.

SD: Could you not say that Kavanagh is a dangerous exemplar in that he, above all others is the one who espouses the ignorance of the day to day? And are you not now speaking of an Irish tradition with two entirely opposite dimensions: a twentieth century day to day Kavanagh, and a mythological oeuvre directed Yeats?

SH: I think we must be faithful to kindred points here. On the one hand Kavanagh with his sense of ‘home’ and his almost extreme realisation of the disobedience and peremptoriness of creative nature, on the other Yeats with his platonic rendition of ‘heaven’, and of what can be made of this in terms of deliberated poetic effort. You need both. North saw the shades of a possibility of such a union. The two halves of the book constitute two different types of utterance, each of which arose out of a necessity to shape and give palpable linguistic form to two kinds of urgency - one symbolic, one explicit. I don’t know whether it succeeded, but I am pleased that it appeased and hardened out into words some complex need in me.

SD: You would say then that in writing North with this dual motivation, a certain organic form evolved which you are unhappy about when critics tend to transmogrify it into a single scheme? Is this the kind of resolution you are trying to achieve between Kavanagh and Yeats: a poetry that would be neither a matter of the day to day spontaneities alone, nor of a schematic mythologising alone, but a matter of making the day to day become a form embedded in the day to day from which it arises?

SH: That is exactly it.

SD: It is like what someone said of the American landscape reflecting the whole [71] continent in its smallest portion. Is this what you are seeking in your poetry - a kind of singular universal?

SH: Yes, but it is a damnable problem. The more one consciously tries to convey this imprint the more it seems to elude you. You see, the lift-off and push of the innocent creative moment can never be fully schematic. Indeed, a too conscious awareness of the experience which gave rise to a poem can very often impede its creation. The all-important thing here is the emerging authority which one senses in the poem being written, when you recognise that there are elements in the poem which are capillaries into the large brutal scheme of things, capillaries sucking the whole of the earth.

SD: The strange sense of unhappiness in your poetry, expressed in the now well known phrase ‘lost, unhappy and at home’, seems to me to have a lot to do with the particular struggle in your poetry. If happiness is being sheltered from the world then doesn’t your poetry seek to acknowledge that the shelter was once there but is there no longer? Isn’t your poetry trying to convey that kind of exposure which will also reveal what the shelter had been? And isn’t there a sense of fear that this exposure may be intensified into a public glare so blinding that it could prevent you from recreating any longer in your poetry the sense of the lost shelter?

SH: That is very true. But you have to make your own work your home. If you live as an author your reward is authority. But of course the trouble is how to be sure you are living properly. [72; End.]

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