From rural beginnings to 'Nobel' ends

Britain's most celebrated poet discusses the "Nobel curse," balancing the political with the poetic, and the enduring power of verse.

distrtict book 88 298 (photo credit: )
distrtict book 88 298
(photo credit: )
District and Circle: Poems By Seamus Heaney Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 96pp., $20 It's often remarked that few Nobel Prize winners produce anything of note after receiving the nod from Stockholm. The burden of expectation - along with the time-killing ambassadorial demands on laureates - is considered fatal for creative energies. When Seamus Heaney was decorated mid-career by the Swedish Academy in 1995, fears that the 57-year-old would fall foul of Stockholm syndrome were rampant. Extra-literary concerns clearly contributed to the Nobel committee's choice of an Irish writer, coming on the heels of historic strides towards peace in Ulster. Yet the gesture was rare in recent Nobel history for attracting scant opposition. A decade on and three books deeper into his career, Heaney has proved himself immune to the Nobel curse. Following the death of his close friend Ted Hughes in 1998, he's now indisputably the most celebrated living poet in English. Eschewing the opacity of modernists like Eliot and Pound, Heaney's books are as popular as critically praised. They sell in the 100,000s - figures almost unheard of for poetry. In Britain, Heaney's work makes up two-thirds of the sales of living poets. His often-remarked-upon humility was similarly unaffected by "the Stockholm thing" or "the N-word" (as Heaney embarrassedly calls it). He continued to shoulder a full teaching load at Harvard University, where he was poet-in-residence. "I didn't want to seek special status because I was a poet - didn't want to confuse my calling with my profession," he says. Rather than just conducting poetry workshops, Heaney lectured in British and Irish poetry because, he explains: "I didn't want to swan about in the robes of my creativity." Heaney writes in an ascetic attic of his Dublin home, fitted with only a desk, a photocopier, a single bed and books. "I don't want to don the armor of ego or the costume of the stage poet, with my special set of pencils and handmade paper. I want a hand-to-hand engagement with myself - self-forgetfulness rather than self-consciousness." Heaney wears his learning effortlessly and unpretentiously, his commentary sprinkled with quotations from his heroes - Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost and W. B. Yeats. Commenting on the process by which a poem emerges, he quotes Frost's sketch: "sight, excite, insight." As Heaney explains: "By the time you start to compose, more than half the work has been done. The crucial part of the business is what happens before you face the empty page - the moment of first connection, when an image or a memory comes suddenly to mind and you feel the lure of the poem-life in it." He's also au courant with pop culture. Last year he made headlines for throwing his weight behind rap artist Eminem, who in one typical number asks his mother to "bend over and take it like a slut." Heaney likened the rapper to John Lennon and Bob Dylan for the linguistic brio he sparks in teens. Heaney's obsession with language has equally unlikely origins. Born in 1939, the oldest of nine children, he was raised in a three-bedroom thatched house on a cattle farm in Country Derry. He absorbed the mandatory Catholic litany and the cadences of the BBC shipping forecast, overlaid with the background rhythms of the potato drill. Heaney's parents were unbookish, even hostile to his literary leanings. His mother would provocatively garble the names of foreign writers like "Bertold Breck." At 12, Heaney won a scholarship to study in Belfast, thanks to the 1947 Education Act, which provided educational opportunities for Catholics in the rural North. "One part of me can still sit at the head of a farmhouse table, be the man I might have been had I not won a scholarship to St. Columb's College, and look from that distance at the person I've become as at a stranger," he says. While still a student, he met Ted Hughes, nine years his senior, who encouraged him to submit poems to local publications. Reading Hughes's View of a Pig, Heaney realized his rural background needn't be an albatross, but instead could serve as a rich wellspring for poetry. His 1966 debut Death of a Naturalist was swampy with the puddles and peat of his boyhood. The poems played with the mismatch between metropolitan articulacy and the laconic tendencies of his rural clan. Heaney contrasted his tool with that of his spade-wielding ancestors: "Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I'll dig with it." Published to rapturous acclaim, the book led Heaney to be critically anointed as heir to the Irish poet Yeats, who died the year of his literary son's birth. A small rump of reviewers disparaged the poems as conventional pastoral, upbraiding Heaney for eluding the sectarian clash bloodying his country. One reviewer carped: "Put on your wellies, here comes Heaney." During a teaching stint at Berkeley College, California, in 1970, Heaney observed how black writers compromised the independence required for their craft by pouring themselves into the civil rights movement. He was determined that the pressures to become a political mouthpiece in Ireland wouldn't have that same effect. In The Flight Path, an IRA militant assails Heaney: "When, for f**k's sake, are you going to write/Something for us?" He responds: "If I do write something, I'll be writing for myself." Yet with the publication of North in 1975, the so-called "troubles" of Northern Ireland started bleeding into his poems. It wasn't a sense of obligation that lead Heaney finally to tackle the tribal conflict: "I needed to do so in order to breathe more freely." Some, who previously saw him as shirking his obligations as an Ulster Catholic poet, were satisfied by the political turn. But Heaney also drew the ire of partisans who felt let down by the ambiguity of his political position. Other, mostly British, reviewers lauded his refusal to subordinate poetry to polemic. For the North poems are less about "the Irish thing" (as he terms it in the controversially titled "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing") as the artistic dilemmas they throw up. The friction between the prettifying impulse of poetry and the brutality of political violence surfaces in "Station Island," where Heaney stands accused by the ghost of a dead cousin for sanitizing his death: "You confused evasion and artistic tact/ The Protestant who shot me through the head/ I accuse directly, but indirectly, you." In 1972, when Heaney moved his family to a rural cottage in the Irish Republic, many partisans accused him of betraying his tribe. Whether his southward shift was politically motivated depends on which journalist he's talking to. Today he stresses that it was strictly non-political. "I got a letter from a woman offering me the use of a gate lodge on an old estate in Co. Wicklow. I went there for two weeks with my family, loved the place - its stone and slate fabric, its seclusion, the rightness of it as a retreat, a place to reculer pour mieux sauter - and came home to resign and relocate," he explains. Seeing Things (1991) marked Heaney's most dramatic shift of key since North. Despite the raging of the troubles, Heaney felt that sectarianism was exhausted as a theme. As well, Heaney wanted to show that the richness of experience couldn't be killed off by the bloodletting. So he returned to the more introspective tenor of his early work. Yet where he'd previously recoiled from visionary tones - words like "spirit" and "soul," which his early mentors taught him to avoid - Heaney here "exalt[ed] everyday miracles" (as the Swedish Academy put it). The earthy imagery of his early bogland poems ceded ground to transcendent descriptions of water and air. As Heaney writes in "Fosterling": "I wait[ed] until I was nearly 50/ To credit marvels." The recent deaths of his parents freed him to develop this ecstatic edge. "Call it the flight of the soul or the spirit. It helped me to lose my shyness of the vocabulary of eternity." Heaney returns to an ominous political backcloth with his new book, District and Circle, which examines "the post-9/11, post-Iraq invasion world of violent polarization, crack-down and reprisal." Memory remains the springboard for Heaney's poems, but is now infused with a piercing sense of threat. "The underground train journey which is the motif of the title sequence really starts in 1962, when I had a holiday job in London and rode either the District or the Circle line every day. What's different is the level of awareness. An underground journey now is shadowed with a certain menace. Not only do you have the archetype of the journey to the land of the dead, but you have the actuality of the bombings of the London tube train in July 2005." In "Polish Sleepers," Heaney's tactile descriptions are overhung by the spectre of the Nazi death camps. "The physical reality of railway sleepers is something I'd always have enjoyed writing about - the textures and bulk and reliability of them. But when sleepers from old railway tracks in Poland were supplied by a landscape gardener as curbs for a new lawn, I couldn't help thinking of what trains might have rolled over them in the 1940s." The title evokes Heaney's enduring preoccupation with the tension between the English and Irish facets of his identity. Heaney proclaimed his anti-assimilationist sentiments in the early '80s by refusing to be anthologized in The Penguin Anthology of British Verse. Yet he's long resisted being conscripted into the nationalist cause. And he never forgets that he's working within an English literary tradition, nor that his calling was nurtured by London publishers. "It's associations are primarily with London rather than Ireland or the countryside," he says of District and Circle. "I liked it because it's somewhat unexpected. But on second thought a reader might realize, 'Ah, yes, in spite of the London poem, in most of the others, he's circling his own district.'" Heaney harbors none of Shelley's illusions about the authority of his art, the 19th-century romantic having famously designated poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." What, in Heaney's view, is poetry's power? "To give pleasure. To draw the mind, as Eliot says, 'to afterthought and forethought.' To create a shared culture of inwardness and tenderness, conscience and skepticism. To help us recognize ourselves and how we are in the world." Yet when Bill Clinton toured Ulster in 1997, he treated Heaney's poetry like a road map for peaceable cohabitation. Clinton quoted lines like: "History says: don't hope/ On this side of the grave./ But then, once in a lifetime/ The longed-for tidal wave/ Of justice can rise up,/ And hope and history rhyme." Given his reticence about public affairs, one might envisage Heaney's discomfort at being treated like a living peace emblem. But his telling is subtler: "The opposite of war is not peace but civilization, so I'd like to be considered a representative of Yeats's hope: 'That civilization not sink,/It's great battle lost.'"