Seamus Heaney On His Life And Work

The Nobel Prize-winning poet talks to host Jacki Lyden about his life and work. He turns 70 next year and reflects on his life so far in the new book Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney is preparing for a milestone in the New Year, his 70th birthday. The Irish poet is out with a new book about his life. It's called, "Stepping Stones." I asked Heaney to start our conversation by reading a poem. He chose one about his childhood set at Mossbawn, the family farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland.

Mr. SEAMUS HEANEY (Poet and writer; Nobel Laureate, Literature): Mossbawn, our 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."

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 traveled 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: Over the past few years, Seamus Heaney has recounted the scenes of his life to his friend and fellow poet, Dennis O'Driscoll. The book, "Stepping Stones," is a sort of conversation between the two. O'Driscoll asked the questions, Heaney answers them. I asked Heaney about the book's title.

Mr. HEANEY: I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in ones 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. Also, this was autobiographical recording, as it were. I wanted to leave a record just of some stages of life.

LYDEN: Well, it's very beautiful, and it does wander over 500 pages of riveting conversation about your life. Let's begin with your early childhood, which you recount in an almost molecular way, as you often do in your poetry - with of course, the family farmhouse called Mossbawn in County Derry. There's a lovely image of you tearing the wallpaper off the walls to have something to write on. That was one of my favorite parts.

Mr. HEANY: That's right. That was true. I lay close to the wall - my side of the bed was close to the wall, and I remember tearing off the wallpaper. And it was an old farmhouse. It had been white-washed inside for years, so when you took off the paper, that was about 80 or 100 years of soft lime wash, and with your fingernail, you could poke right into that. But I suppose it was the start of reach out and reach in, which poetry itself is.

LYDEN: Later in this book, you're taken to Belfast and Queens University, where you discover the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was also a Catholic priest, and you recall that the experience of reading Hopkins gave you gooseflesh. Could you talk about that a little bit for us, please?

Mr. HEANY: Well, it was the actual sound of the language. The language had a physical effect upon me.

(Recites part of Gerard Manley Hopkin's poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame")

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells, Stones ring; As each tucked string tells, Each...

Mr. HEANY: Bum bum bum(ph). Your mouth was full of consonants and vowels which kind of salivation almost - a physical rejoicing in the physicality of the language. So that actually wakened me in a way that other poetry hadn't. And when I started to write, that's the kind of thing I wanted to do myself. I wanted to make the language thick and give it that kind of physical texture. So that kind of ambition was there, thanks to Hopkins.

LYDEN: I wanted to ask you about the Irish Civil War, known in Northern Island as The Troubles. You lived through them. You've written poems about Bloody Sunday on January the 30th of 1972. And there is a recounting in this book, "Stepping Stones," that is not a poem, but a story - a terrifying story really, about some men in a van who are stopped by another group of men who are masked and armed.

Mr. HEANY: That's right. This was a true story with a kind of fable or fabulous parable wake(ph) to it. They're ordered out at gun point, out of the van, and they're lined up along the side of the van in the dark of the early evening. And the gunmen say, are there any Catholics among you? And these men all are loyalist Protestants except one man. So the guy goes to walk out and the person beside him catches him by the hand and indicates in the dark by squeezing his hand not to move. In other words, don't move, we'll not let on that you are Catholic. Just stay still. But the man, at the same time, feels he has to be honest and own up, so he steps out, expecting to be picked off, but in fact, what happens is they're Provisional IRA, and they assassinate the other group of men standing at the side of the van, shoot them down, and the guy himself is let free. It's a total desolation. And I used that little squeeze of the hand as what we depend upon. The contraction of that Protestant Loyalist's hand on the Catholic Republican's hand is the only promise we had, at that time, of something better.

LYDEN: Did it find its way into any of your poems or does this just make you think about a poem of yours that you might like to read for us, following this story?

Mr. HEANEY: Well, actually what I would like do is read a poem that came out at the end, or towards the end, of The Troubles. When, you know, all the writers in Northern Ireland, poets in particular, felt somehow obligated. The society was riven. People were being killed in hundreds. There were 3,000 people dead at the end of the 25 years. So you felt answerable, you felt responsibility. And at the same time, toward the end of it all, I thought, there's nothing more I can say, and I'll just go back and write the poetry. And this poem is about discovering joy just in writing, again.

LYDEN: Mm hmm.

Mr. HEANEY: It's called "Fosterling." It begins remembering pictures in school that I went to.

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 imminent hydraulics of a land of glaur and glit and floods at Delagon(ph). My silting hope, my lowlands of the mind, Heaviness of being. And poetry, sluggish in the duldrums of what happens. Me, waiting until I was nearly fifty To credit marvels that could treat clock of ten times(ph), the Tinkers(ph) made. So long for air to brighten, time to be dazzled, and the heart to lighten.

LYDEN: Absolutely beautiful. Poet Seamus Heaney. He's just talked to us about his book, "Stepping Stones," interviews done by his friend, the poet, Dennis O'Driscoll. It's been our very, very great pleasure.

Mr. HEANEY: Thanks a lot. Thank you.

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