Kevin Saving on
Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney
O'Driscoll, B., (Faber and Faber, 2008)
The 'Heaney Phenomenom' can exert a peculiar fascination, even to the detached observer. At a time when poetry is in the doldrums (in terms of sales, exposure and influence) one exponent - an Irishman and an academic, at that - is feted, honoured and held up as a exemplar. Can it be just a reviewer's cynicism, or are the two phenomena (triumphant Ulsterman/ moribund, politically-manacled art-form) somehow interlinked? Could it, truly, be a case of Heaney Astray?
Seamus Justin Heaney - not his real name, but more of that later - brings much to his position as poetry's elder-statesman: 'gravitas' (his word), intelligence, articulacy (strangely, not always evident in poets) and formidable net-working skills. Finally - a habit possibly acquired through rubbing shoulders with so many politicians- he's even becoming media-savvy. This book, possibly modelled on an earlier series of interviews with Czeslaw Milosz, represents an effective way of getting his side of the Story across, whilst maintaining some semblance of objectivity. Thomas Hardy, remember, was reduced to the pretence of writing his own biography and then trying to pass it off as the work of his wife. For these purposes, Mr O'Driscoll makes for an admirable 'stalking horse'. His (their?) title is taken from Heaney's Nobel acceptance speech (1995) in which the laureate spoke of 'a journey into the wilderness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one's poetry or in one's life- turns out to have been a stepping stone rather than a destination'.
This 'series of interviews' seems to have been 'conducted principally in writing and by post' - at Heaney's request. (The poet, it is revealed, eschews emails - a discipline Ruth Padel probably wishes she, too, had adopted). Two chapters were the result of a face-to-face exchange - or what is normally thought of in the context of the word 'interview'. One was recorded privately and one - publically - in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in April 2006. Not being present at the latter, I imagine O'Driscoll's 'interrogations' conducted in hushed, awed tones - hesitant, lest The Oracle be put off its stroke.
If O'Driscoll comes across as an admiring votary, the major surprise (at least early on) is that Heaney appears so relaxed, modest and sane. In his memories of his farm-boy upbringing (the first and easily best section of this publication) he speaks unassumingly about the local currier-service in poteen, about a series of his father's farm horses - and about the screams emanating from the local slaughterhouse, situated a bare half mile from home. Sometimes he even forgets to be 'Literary' (with a capital 'L').
Now and again we're offered a few choice scraps (from our position under The Master's table). We learn, for instance, that Heaney's first publication was in a journal called Irish Digest - its contention: that 'Jive' should be allowed into the canon of Irish Dance! We learn, also, that his first name is really 'Shamus' (a - possibly deliberate - misspelling on the Birth Certification obscuring 'the Irishness' of his parent's chosen appellation). After these early revelations Stepping Stones tends to degenerate into a kind of travelogue around 'The Poems' and a Debretts-style catalogue of MY POETIC MATES. The Titan is certainly goaded with some fairly asinine questions. In responce to one: 'Were you the kind of pupil whose essays were held up by the teacher as a shining example to the rest of the class?', Heaney admits that, at school, he had 'no particular gift for writing what were called "compositions" and no particular enjoyment of it'. We discover that the 'Grandfather' in 'Digging' was really great-uncle 'Hughie' - but this is hardly the most blatent fraud perpetuated in that particular leitmotif. Whenever I happen across
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
I'm invariably assailed by the image of a grown man attacking his allotment with a biro. Another -unintentionally - hilarious moment occurs when The Great Man discloses (a propos his attendance at the influential Belfast coterie, 'The Group') 'I don't think I considered myself "in competition" with anybody. Admittedly I may have been the cause of it in others, which only means, come to think of it, I was raising the standard without even trying'. To which the only, authentic rejoinder is 'Bejassus!'
There is a sense (self-promoted, certainly) of Heaney as a specimen of 'living history'. Lowell, Brodsky, Bishop, Larkin, Hughes, Milosz, Kavanagh: he knew them all and has the (occasionally) entertaining anecdotes to go with it. He, Heaney, made his way into the world (in 1939) just as the man with whom he is perpetually - and, frankly, seldom to his advantage - compared, left it. W.B.Yeats remains a kind of 'poetic lodestone' - as does G.M. Hopkins (towards whom he admits himself - with rare self-knowledge - 'a slave').
For all his showy erudition Heaney, the man, only really appears likeable on the (increasingly infrequent) occasions where the farm-boy 'kicks-in'. For all the sonorous weight of the much-honoured 'smiling public man', the 'cloth ear' that Philip Larkin was first to detect -in relation to the 'musicality' of language - lurks, disablingly in the background. His poetry (praised almost from the first) was always at its best when it actually had something to say, and - in its own way - this book follows the same downward trajectory. The weight of expectation - and the need to forge a living- must sometimes have been immense. If, deeper into the story, we're treated to too much literary gabble and too many 'insights' into the arcade-sideshow of sectarian, academic and 'poetry' politics -the real pity of it is that in all probability it's not completely the man's own fault. It's ours, too.
Kevin Saving © 2009