Writers & Company

To mark St. Patrick's Day, a conversation with Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney

The late Irish poet and playwright talked to Eleanor Wachtel in 2010 about his illustrious body of work.
Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet, playwright and translator. (Faber & Faber, Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode52:06

One of Ireland's great poets, Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. When he turned 70, Ireland celebrated with TV and radio specials, a documentary film, music inspired by his poetry and a 15-disc box set of his work. As Colm Toibin writes, Heaney "was not merely a central figure in the literary life of Ireland, but in its emotional life, in its dream life, in its real life."

Born into a Catholic family in Protestant Northern Ireland, Heaney grew up on a farm — the oldest of nine children. His poems engage with the immediacy and physicality of the natural world, starting with his first major volume, Death of a Naturalist, published in the mid-1960s. Among his numerous accolades, Heaney's 2010 collection, Human Chain, won the U.K.'s prestigious Forward Prize. It was the last book published before his death in 2013, at the age of 74.

In spring 2019, a new collection of Heaney's work titled 100 Poems will be released. The book is inspired by Heaney's own idea to bring together a range of poems from across his career — from his first collection to his last.

Seamus Heaney talked to Eleanor Wachtel from Dublin in 2010, shortly after the publication of Human Chain.

Memories of Mossbawn 

"My earliest memory of Ireland is of my foot touching the ground of Mossbawn, the County Derry earth, or rather a floor laid above the earth. I was in a cot made by the local carpenter, and the bottom of the cot consisted of slats of timber, little smooth boards laid on kind of ledges. They weren't nailed down — obviously you wanted to be able to lift them because the children would be peeing on them or doing worse. I remember lifting one or two of those boards and stepping off the bottom of the cot down onto the smooth, cool cement floor of the house. So that's my very first memory, undoubtedly.

"The house was a typical thatched, whitewashed, long, low country farmhouse of that era, part of the vernacular architecture of rural Ireland. It faced out to the local county road — and behind it, one field away, was the railway called the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, which stopped operating sometime in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But through the 1940s, the trains were running, and the big powerful noise would come over the field of a steam engine shunting up to the station at Castledawson." 

Pondering poetry

"I was first interested in poetry as 'poetry.' Early on I was familiar with recitation. We had little concerts at home as children, where we recited poems we'd learned at school of course. Then at Christmastime and at Easter, elder friends of my father's and mother's would be in, and there would be sing-songs. As I came into adolescence I would be asked to do a recitation. I knew several, such as The Shooting of Dan McGrew, The Spell of the Yukon and The Cremation of Sam McGee, all from Robert W. Service.

"When I went to secondary school, I began to get into English literature and poetry as a subject. Something came alive in me to the language especially by poets like John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and so on. In university, that conscious relish of language became stronger, but I was always shy of 'poetry.' I didn't quite know what it was. And I think it was right to be shy of it, because nobody knows quite what it is.

"I wrote some poems as every literary undergraduate does, but it wasn't until 1962, that something started in me. But it came from reading poetry by Patrick Kavanagh, an Irish poet with the same kind of background as myself, a wonderful sudden burst of energy from him; and likewise from Ted Hughes, who again touched on subjects that I thought were known only to me, such as dead pigs lying in barrows, and bulls in outhouses, and barns and so on. So that was, as they say, permission."

Poetics & politics

"The question of what a poet's responsibility is to address the politics is their time is one that I kept answering ad nauseum between about 1969 or 1970 and 1989. Almost everything that I've written in prose and much that's in verse is about that question. Poets of the 1930s in England especially felt that. I mean, Spender, Auden and Louis MacNeice — who's an Irish poet of course, but part of that British generation — spoke to and about the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism and so on.

"They were lyric poets, they had private subjects. They had love, Eros, sex, time, childhood and yet there was the big war and the need for commitment. Communism was flowering as an ideology. The attraction of working for the wretched of the earth was deep, moral and compelling. So what was the private lyric poet to do? Was he or she to just keep to the lyric matter of the self and beauty, or was there a bigger obligation?

"I grew up with an orthodoxy inculcated at the university that these poets made a mistake when they embraced anything propagandist or political. I think there was a confusion, perhaps, in my mind and in the minds of some of my teachers between the propagandist and the political. Political was kind of inculcated as a bad word in relation to art, poetry and so on.

"So that was a predisposition. But all of us hung between a sense of the art object or that poetry wasn't detached from life but it it wasn't there for opinion."

Seamus Heaney's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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