A new book of interviews with Seamus Heaney shows us a genial, complex man who can scarcely believe his own success at times—but who has throughout his life never wavered in his belief in the power of poetryby Frieda Klotz / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll (Faber and Faber, £22.50)
When the 20-year-old James Joyce first met WB Yeats, it is said that he told the older poet: “you are too old to help me.” Seamus Heaney’s first meeting with the poet Patrick Kavanagh makes a telling contrast. They encountered each other in a Dublin pub as Kavanagh—35 years Heaney’s senior, and an established eminence of Irish poetry—was on his way back from the gents’ toilets. Heaney, aged 28 and already something of a success, asked: “Mr Kavanagh, can I buy you a drink?” Kavanagh at first said “no.” But when a friend told him who the person offering to buy the drink was, he changed his mind: “Kavanagh says to me, ‘Are you Heaney?’ rhyming me with Rainey, as people did in the country at home. ‘Well, I’ll have a Scotch.’ So I took that as a pass.” The two poets then talked for a short while; they would meet again just once.
The anecdote illustrates both Heaney’s geniality and his humility, traits that appear consistently through Stepping Stones (and that differentiate him sharply from both the abrasive Joyce and from Kavanagh himself, a notably touchy poet). These interviews took place over five years, and the result is both an illuminating record of Heaney’s poetic development and a store of some lesser known facts about his life. Readers expecting it to document a spontaneous dialogue may be disappointed, however: O’Driscoll (likewise a poet, and Heaney’s long-term friend) notes in the preface that, at Heaney’s request, “the interviews were conducted principally in writing and by post.” The result is carefully measured, but never stilted. As a young man, we learn, Heaney took pride in his skill at herding cattle. He spent time as an MC for Irish dancers (that’s fear a’ tí in Irish, or “man of the house”), occasions on which, he observes, no priest was on duty because “it was a time when everybody was provided with their own inner priest.” At different points Heaney worked as a waiter, and at the British Passport Office in London. His first piece of work published in a national paper was not a poem, but an article arguing that jive should be incorporated into Irish dancing.
The Heaney who emerges from this book is a lively figure. His friends are musicians and artists as well as writers,…