National Poetry Day: Talking to Seamus Heaney - Stepping Stones

It's National Poetry Day today in Britain, so, to celebrate, I thought I'd share some thoughts on Stepping Stones, edited by Dennis O'Driscoll, published by Faber. 

I'd started reading the late Dennis O'Driscoll's conversations with Seamus Heaney at the end of last year and I've been dipping into it for months (it's a big book), savouring the autobiographical narrative and the lively discussions on Life, Poetry, Irish politics and Everything.  But when Seamus Heaney so unexpectedly died, I went back to Stepping Stones and began reading again from the beginning with closer attention.  Suddenly, in the light of the poet's death, what he had to say seemed more definitive.

He addresses the question  'how should a poet live and write?  What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?'  The pronoun is male, but the prose is inclusive. It's a journey into what Seamus called 'the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one's poetry or one's life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination'.

I also bought Opened Ground - Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems - so that I could follow discussions of the individual poems, the histories of various collections, and the contexts of each piece of work. Somehow I managed to juggle backwards and forwards between the two books on my Kindle, absorbed in the poems and by Seamus' vivid account of the genesis of each poem and its reference points.

Seamus talks a lot about his childhood on the small farm in northern Ireland - the eldest of 9 children, living with parents and an aunt, crammed into accommodation that today would be thought suitable only for a family of four.  Brought up myself, on a small farm worked by horses, with no modern conveniences or machinery, I could see, effortlessly, the byres and the barns, the flagged floors and the old stoves.  I, too, lay awake listening to the horses stamping in the stable next door, the cows rattling their chains in the winter byres.  This is the stuff of Seamus' early poetry, the roots that nurtured him all his life. The farm kitchen is so real, I can smell the bread rising.

.... the sun stood
like a griddle cooling against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose's wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

He chose not to go to England to University and remained in Ireland, working initially as a teacher rather than an academic.  Though he accepted university posts as a poet in residence - notably in America and at Oxford - there's a marked distrust of academic life and the incestuous nature of the creative writing culture. Dennis asked him if he thought that a 'career-based life in the creative writing schools undermines poetry as a vocational activity'.  This is Seamus' response.

'For some people, certainly.  In the States during those sessions of questions from the audience when the visiting poet is asked about other poets he or she admires, the names given are rarely those of the great dead.  Usually you hear about people at other writing schools, people who are at the centre of webs, good enough representatives of the contemporary scene, but proof of what Donald Davie once termed - in another context - 'lowered sights and diminished expectations'.  There are times when you realise that the guild now consists as much of networkers as dreamworkers'. 

Dennis O'Driscoll asks the questions that readers want to have answers to, both public and private.  Where did Seamus sit in Northern Irish politics? What was his relationship with his family, his wife, the poetry community?  And the responses are beautifully  edited to preserve Seamus Heaney's natural voice - the flow of thought.

This is an autobiography - as told by Seamus Heaney to Dennis O'Driscoll - and it's not only magical to read, it illuminates the poetry.  Essential reading for all Heaney fans.  And - unlike some other expensive tomes - the Kindle edition is only £5.99.

Stepping Stones
Interviews with Seamus Heaney
Dennis O'Driscoll


  1. I haven't read Heaney
    I read so little poetry...
    your post makes me want to read more.
    Maybe once our house is more complete.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts