In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Irish poet Seamus Heaney stated that his life had been "a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival ... turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination." Irish critic Dennis O'Driscoll's poetry-based account of Heaney's life, "Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney," is a fascinating volume of linked interviews arranged thematically rather than chronologically.
It is noteworthy that the interviews, as O'Driscoll explains in the introduction, were conducted in writing and by mail. He refers to Heaney's "rare capacity to improvise sentences that are at once spontaneous and shapely, playful and profound, beautiful and true," and then notes that "the same eloquence is a feature of these interviews." While not attempting to analyze Heaney's poetry, O'Driscoll offers an authentic biographical context for the poems.
Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 at Mossbawn farm in County Derry, Ireland, the oldest of nine children. Though of humble origins, he has been in the public eye of the international literary world since the mid-1960s, when Faber & Faber published "Death of a Naturalist," his first volume of poetry. By 1984, with the publication of "Station Island," his volume of prose poetry, he had sealed his fame. A celebratory and affirmative poet, the always articulate Heaney tells us with characteristic clarity that the secret of writing poetry "lies in the summoning and meshing of the subconscious and the semantic energies of words."
A true "man of letters," Heaney, in addition to writing poetry, frequently publishes prose works, habitually makes radio and TV appearances, and gives readings and lectures worldwide. In 2000 his translation of "Beowulf" received much acclaim, including a well-publicized party given at the Clinton White House. His impressive career as a university lecturer has included positions at Queens University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, Cambridge and Harvard.
A prominent thread weaving through O'Driscoll's interviews is the influence of other poets, both living and dead, on his subject. Undoubtedly, it was Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz who most affected Heaney. Like Milosz, Heaney possesses an extraordinary gift for re-creating childhood epiphanies. And both poets are existentialists in the best possible sense, both prodded by insistent inner voices that ask, "What did you do with your life?"
O'Driscoll questions Heaney about the influence of Ireland's arch-poet, W.B. Yeats. "The received wisdom," writes O'Driscoll, "is that all Irish poets work in his shadow and that he is therefore a stifling presence as well as a stimulating one." Candidly, Heaney responds that Yeats never stifled him. To the contrary, Heaney appreciates in Yeats his "marvelous gift for beating the scrap metal of day-to-day life into a ringing bell." Yeats' ability to include and transform his controversial political affections and disaffections into his poetry impresses Heaney.
"Stepping Stones" succeeds on many levels, and O'Driscoll's intelligent probing to go beyond Seamus Heaney the public figure to the inner man, to the essential inner poet, is masterful. Included in the book is a biographical glossary of those whose lives touched Heaney's. It serves as an enlightening education in the cultural history of our era.
Katherine Bailey is writing a book titled "With a Critical Eye: Essays on Fiction." She lives in Bloomington.