The Harvest In - Seamus Heaney

With the thousands of reviews, articles, interviews and full-scale studies that Seamus Heaney’s work has already attracted, it is hardly necessary here either to introduce Heaney or to use Stepping Stones as a mere stepping stone back to the familiar squabbles over his poetic territory – whether the land is over-grazed or over-green, whether he should have moved out of the area entirely, whether a diploma in experimental farming techniques might not have been advisable at some stage, whether he is drawing attention away from other worthy neighbours, whether he has reinforced the traditional confinement of women’s work to home and farmyard, whether he is merely walking the fields out of habit …

Most newspaper reviews of the book contented themselves with describing the nature of the enterprise: Dennis O’Driscoll’s proposing the idea of a volume of interviews; Heaney’s agreeing but asking that matters should be conducted in writing; Heaney’s responding to a selection of the many possible questions forwarded by O’Driscoll; and the careful crafting of answers that this allowed. Most reviews were positive, though a few emphasised that the book was for the devotee rather than for the casual reader. Some offered a juicy plum or two (a subtle jab to the ribs here; a sketch of a literary legend there) as if to assure us that the pie had been fully inspected. Some commented wonderingly on the fact that, in a period obsessed with the lives of the famous, Heaney had managed to avoid becoming the victim of a biographer. This is indeed a remarkable feat; it may at least partly be put down to the fact that Heaney has inspired a degree of loyalty among friends that would be the despair of any scandal-sniffing biographer, compounded by the fact that there seems to be so little scandal to sniff out in the first place.

There is an implicit valuation of his wife, Marie’s, judgement in the way Heaney speaks of the process of making and keeping friends but, beyond some emblematic moments, she and the children figure almost exclusively insofar as they intersect with the writing life. As O’Driscoll says, Heaney has every right to keep the details of his personal or family life to himself; this stance is also consistent with the autobiographical, but ultimately non-confessional, impulse in his poetry.

A short-lived, rather arty Irish magazine of the 1980s once carried an interview with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. As question followed question, the reader could observe with a kind of awe the poet’s gathering realisation that the interviewer knew absolutely nothing about him or his work. This is not the kind of thing that Dennis O’Driscoll is going to be accused of. We may assume that, at the outset, he already knew man and work intimately, but the sheer mass and detail of the questions and promptings suggest an additional thoroughness of research. Thus, if we are not entirely surprised at some of what O’Driscoll knows – Wasn’t there a phone call from Czeslaw Milosz during that party? – we have to doff our caps when he casually drops this kind of thing: But you were skilful enough to play for the Castledawson minors, and you even received a trial for the Derry county team. O’Driscoll would not, we suspect, be a regular visitor to Semple Stadium in his home town of Thurles. Though his name figures prominently on the cover of Stepping Stones, as it deserves to, his performance as interviewer is, on the whole, an admirably self-effacing one....

This essay, a review of Dennis O’Driscoll’s book of interviews with Seamus Heaney was first published in Spring 2009. Dennis O’Driscoll died in December 2012.

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