Poems As 'Stepping Stones': Remembering Seamus Heaney

The poet Seamus Heaney died Friday. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and has been described as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats." Heaney was 74 years old. Host Jacki Lyden spoke to Heaney in 2008, and has this remembrance.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney died this week at the age of 74. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and has been described as the most important Irish poet since Yeats. After he learned of Heaney's death, Irish politician Ammon Gilmore said in a statement: His poetry explained us to ourselves. In his work, the dignity and honor of everyday lives of people came to life.

I spoke with Seamus Heaney on this program in 2008, and he told me of a poem inspired by his childhood in Northern Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

SEAMUS HEANEY: Mossbawn, my first house, was beside the railway. And along the railway, there ran telegraph wires. And along the telegraph wires, there used to run raindrops. And we used to think the telegrams were sent in the raindrops. So this is called "The Railway Children."

(Reading) When we climbed the slopes of the cutting / We were eye-level with the white cups / Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires. Like lovely freehand they curved for miles / East and miles west beyond us, sagging / Under their burden of swallows. We were small and thought we knew nothing / Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires / In the shiny pouches of raindrops, / Each one seeded full with the light / Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves / So infinitesimally scaled / We could stream through the eye of a needle.

LYDEN: In a genre that can be overlooked, Heaney managed something special. Ordinary readers loved him. And even as he grew as a public figure, Heaney said his writing was still intensely personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

HEANEY: I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one's own sense of oneself. Every now and again you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing. The challenge for the writer, book by book, is to conjure a stepping stone that carries you forward.

LYDEN: As we ended our interview, Heaney recalled one final poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEANEY: This poem is about discovering joy just in writing again. It's called "Fosterling." It begins remembering pictures in school that I went to.

(Reading) At school I loved one picture's heavy greenness - horizons rigged with windmills' arms and sails. The millhouses' still outlines. Their in-placeness still more in place when mirrored in canals. I can't remember not ever having known the immanent hydraulics of a land of glar and glit and floods at dailigone. My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind. Heaviness of being. And poetry sluggish in the doldrums of what happens. Me waiting until I was nearly fifty to credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans the tinkers made. So long for air to brighten, time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

LYDEN: Seamus Heaney speaking on this program in 2008. He died on Friday in Dublin. He was 74.

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