"Amazing to be answering these questions, ending up as your own anthropological specimen."
So says Seamus Heaney — winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature; prolific author of poetry, commentary, criticism and drama; avuncular raconteur; Irish poet and civil servant — in Dennis O'Driscoll's recent Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).
From 2001 to 2007, O'Driscoll acted as a "prompter rather than interrogator," conducting most of these interviews in writing by mail at Heaney's request. This compilation is not a biography or a chipping away at great cliff of poems but rather an overheard conversation about relating one's work to one's life. As O'Driscoll states in the introduction, Heaney has "the need to respond to an insistent inner voice which asks 'What did you do with your life, what did you do?'"
Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1939 to a Catholic family. His father was a cattle trader, and farm life — with its web of family, neighbors, fields and livestock — sparkles in bits of lush storytelling throughout the book. Horses were to be "approached with circumspection. But then, it's hard for any operation with horses not to have a certain ceremonial aspect to it." He remembers his mother's frugality one day at the shore: "My mother, like many other country women in those days, regarded buckets and spades as 'catchpennies,' flashy things not worth spending the money on. So what she did was to buy a couple of wooden spoons that we could use in the sand if we wanted to; they could then be brought home and used all year round in the kitchen."
Rather than a chronology, this river of recall follows the topography of Heaney's poems. It meanders back over familiar territory, most notably Mossbawn Farm and the house at the Wood, both of which run through much of Heaney's poetry. Another pervasive theme is his identity as an Irish poet and what it meant that during the Troubles, his publisher, Faber and Faber, was an English company. Sections of the book resound with name-dropping. What saves the litany from annoying pretentiousness is Heaney himself. Here is a man who drove cattle on break from college, who chose to teach at a "third-level institution" instead of proving himself as a scholar, and who wrote a set of Ulsterman-type verses for a magazine having "rhymes like 'arts' and 'farts,' 'action' and 'erection,' which generally did its best to learn the art of sinking to the approved level."
Balanced against the pub poetry is the writer who speaks of the necessity of reading and memorizing poetry, taught at Berkeley and Harvard, and justifies esoteric references in "Grotus and Coventina" as giving "immediate aural and oral pleasure, the consonants and vowels melt in your mouth like hard-boiled soft-centered sweets, and that should compensate for any whiff of high culture off the names." Indeed.
Stepping Stones is like a park by Victorian landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted — an effortless world hiding the deliberate structure that underpins its naturalness. Or as Heaney says, "I was wanting to remind myself as much as anyone else that sounding natural is a stylistic achievement. Just because you have an idiom and an accent when you open your mouth doesn't mean you have style when you put pen to paper."