Seamus Heaney

There can be few sights as poignant as that of an Irish poet struggling to find the right word on a slate-grey afternoon in London. And not any old Irish poet, the Irish poet: Seamus Heaney, ‘Seamus Famous’ as he is known in his native County Derry. From the top-floor boardroom of his publisher, Faber & Faber, the 61-year-old Nobel Laureate, former professor of poetry at both Oxford and Harvard, and three times winner of the Whitbread prize, looks out through narrow, puffy eyes over the rooftops of Queen Square. He runs thick, long-nailed fingers through his white, scarecrow hair. He purses his corrugated lips. ‘No,’ he says softly. ‘No, I can’t think of the word, but “embarrassment” is not it…’

We have been talking about his relationship with his father, Patrick, who with his wife, Margaret, raised nine children in a three-room thatched farmstead in Mossbawn, County Derry, Northern Ireland. Over the years, Patrick Heaney, who died in 1986, has been the subject of many of his son’s poems. In ‘Follower’, from his first collection in 1966, Heaney wrote: ‘I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,/Fell sometimes on the polished sod;/ Sometimes he rode me on his back/Dipping and rising to his plod./I wanted to grow up and plough,/ To close one eye, stiffen my arm./All I ever did was follow/In his broad shadow round the farm.’ And in one of his best known poems, ‘Digging’, Heaney describes how naturally and expertly his father and grandfather handled a spade. The final stanzas read: ‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge/Through living roots awaken in my head./But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.’

One of Seamus Heaney’s earliest memories is of his father returning home without his hat and going to bed. He had nearly drowned after his horse reared up and his cart overturned on a riverbank. ‘The strangest thing was seeing my father without his hat,’ Heaney says with a heavy Irish lilt. ‘There was a sense of awe about it and about him going to bed – a farmer going to bed in the afternoon! A world-shaking event! That’s an eternal image, for me. Some of those things are ready-made poetry. You don’t touch them. As far as possible you don’t touch them. Let them happen. Don’t interfere.’ Heaney’s father left school at 14; what did he make of his precocious and gifted son winning a scholarship to a boarding-school at 11, followed in 1961 by a first-class degree in English from Queen’s University of Belfast? ‘I don’t know, I think he regarded it as a mystery. I suspect it would not have been his thing. I mean, he didn’t devalue it, he wasn’t afraid of it, or against it, he watched it happen – as he did the oddity of me publishing a book and himself being in it. That must have been a curiosity. We didn’t quite deal with that, we didn’t even discuss it. No way of discussing it.’

Was his father embarrassed by it? ‘No,’ he says softly. ‘No, I can’t think of the word, but “embarrassment” is not it… “Embarrass” would be too laxative a word. Not embarrassed. What would be the word?’ Long pause. ‘I think he ended up pleased. Pleased that I had defined something for myself. He knew everything about cattle, that was what he had defined for himself. I went with him to markets, fairs and so on and saw he had an area of expertise. He could know the weight of a beast to within a few pounds. So… Pleased.’ And proud? ‘I guess at the end, yeah. But he wouldn’t have gone so far as to proclaim it!’ Seamus Heaney has a compact smile that he deploys with such regularity – it’s there at the end of nearly every sentence – it is more like a facial tic. But here it blooms into a laugh, and when Seamus Heaney – a big, friendly bear of a man – laughs, you find yourself laughing with him. ‘No, he wouldn’t go that far now!’

He never tried to teach his father about poetry, so he could share his son’s pleasure in it. ‘The other way around, if anything. I would enjoy the masquerade that he had never read a line.’ He laughs again. ‘We are creatures of many capacities and you can live on a thousand levels without dishonesty.’ So what did they talk about, father and son? ‘The way he indicated equality, at easeness, was to talk about my mother. To worry about her. It was a way of treating you as a grown-up, as somebody that he confided in. There wasn’t that much substantial exchange but there was a good bit of silent assignation between us.’ In one Heaney poem, the hands of his dead father reappear as ‘two ferrets,/Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field’. Did he feel haunted by his father? Was there unfinished business between them, something left unsaid when he died? ‘Plenty left unsaid, but nothing left un-understood, I don’t think. I’m never sure what place content has in poetry, you know, personal information, but there’s actually a poem at the end of the book [his new collection, Electric Light] called “Seeing the Sick”. I was glad to see him at the end. I suppose everybody has their persona, and his parents had died when he was young and he had been brought up by uncles, in a kind of gruff, male, unyielding household without women in it. But in the end, the last three or four weeks, he wasn’t wary any more. That iron mask of his, as it were, came off. And there was something of his own shyness and bewilderment of the world that came off, too.’

Seamus Heaney has a public persona that is distinct from his private one, too. He has spoken of himself as being Seamus Heaney and ‘Seamus Heaney’. ‘The person in inverted commas is a composite identity that begins to stalk you. It has to be, I suppose. I mean, I have to be myself somewhere other than in interviews! And while I think you should be as truthful as possible, obviously that shouldn’t be to the point of gormlessness.’

The need to have a public persona is unusual for a post-War poet, as most have lived lives of impecunious obscurity. A few, such as Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and John Betjeman, became literary superstars, but not many have become bestsellers, as Seamus Heaney did with his translation of Beowulf. Beowulf even made him poet of choice for Jerry Hall, one of the judges who awarded him the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in 1999. ‘If there has been an element of self-invention, I don’t think it is a necessarily exploitative thing,’ he says. ‘Every spontaneous response is an act of invention, isn’t it? And I think the longer you’re around, the more you’re aware of the layering of these things. I think a cut-out develops, you know? The figure called SH, or whatever. And you’re a moving plasma somewhere in the middle of that outline.’

I wonder whether this duel identity has evolved because even he finds his childhood in rural Derry a little too rich, romantically speaking, a little too twee and perfect for a poet. Has he almost stopped believing it himself? ‘Well, there is that factor, yes. I mean, “He was born on a farm in County Derry, one of nine children,” you know. Instead of, “He was actually the only son of a stockbroker from north Belfast and his parents were secret supporters of the Unionist party.”‘ He laughs. ‘But the fact remains, I am the eldest of what were nine, there are now eight. And I have brothers who are schoolteachers and sisters married to solicitors. But then I also have a brother who drives a lorry, and a brother who’s a farmer. And to the extent that I always had that, I was in two worlds, really. And I was lucky in having that background. It sounds so corny and pious, but it has to be said, it’s true.’

There were few books in the Heaney household, but the poetic sensibilities of the young Seamus were nourished by the sprung rhythms of the BBC Shipping Forecast and the poetry of the Roman Catholic litany. Heaney describes his childhood as a ‘den-life’ more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. ‘I think that if you grew up on your own ground, even if it’s a small farm, and you can see where your neighbours are and where the horizon is, it feels like the world is settled. It was actually medieval almost, with the beasts and the smells. You felt you were born, culturally speaking, 400 or 500 years ago, you know? The world that I grew up in was romantic – lamplight, fires, horses, wells. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other.’

And yet, in a poem called ‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing’ – political advice his mother gave him as a child – Heaney describes the ‘famous/Northern reticence, the tight gag of place/And times.’ His family was ‘watchful, sly and preoccupied with not speaking’, or rather with being unable to speak out. Words are dangerous in a riven community, Heaney explains, just saying your name opens the door to a wave of ancient hatreds and allegiances. Though he was born in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney doesn’t consider himself to be British. Indeed when he was included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), he dropped a peevish line to its editors, Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison: ‘Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen.’

Early in his career, Heaney dabbled in barricade versification, writing a mocking ballad about the policing of the civil rights demonstrations and a song about Bloody Sunday. Though he was involved in some of the marches, he recoiled from the notion of any simple enlistment. As a public figure, he was criticised by both sides for being too detached from the Troubles, neither overtly condemning violence, nor condoning it. In 1972 he and his wife and three children left Northern Ireland for the Republic. In addition to a house in Dublin he bought a cottage in Wicklow, 45 minutes’ drive from the capital, and it is here that he does his writing. The place had, and still has, no telephone lines. ‘When I go there I feel gathered and safe and under cover.’ It was here, in 1975, that he wrote the critically acclaimed and (unusually for a collection of poetry) best-selling North. In his autobiography Gerry Adams describes how he once avoided being arrested by British troops by hiding his face behind a copy of North. The book was attacked by Unionists for going too far – in comparing ancient Irish tribalism with contemporary sectarianism – and by Republicans for not going far enough. But both criticisms failed to see that the book had subtly turned a public debate into a private one.

The poet and critic James Fenton remarked, ‘With North, Heaney found a way of being an honest man with a troubled conscience. He didn’t take sides in the external confrontation but reported an internal one.’ In 1994, after the first ceasefire was announced, Heaney said he felt 25 years younger, but also angry at the 25 years of loss. ‘I can see that the Loyalist thing, the bitterness, the danger of that backlash is always possible,’ he now says of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. ‘But I refuse to let myself believe that anything like the IRA campaign can ever start again. It’s risky, though, because the problem with the IRA is that you’re dealing with theology rather than politics. It’s a metaphysical republic to which they are dedicated. And they are entrapped in vows.’ Pause. ‘So they have to lose… to put it another way, they have to lose their faith before it’s…’ He checks himself and smiles. ‘But that’s a Catholic problem.’

Heaney once said that his language and sensibility are yearning to admit of a religious or a transcendent dimension. ‘But then there’s the reality: there’s no heaven, no afterlife of the sort we were promised and no personal God.’ Does he still think of himself as a Roman Catholic, though? ‘I think so. But you reconsider it all the time, I guess. I think that our capacity to dwell in two or three minds in religious matters is immense. And right into my early twenties I went to Mass. But, of course, I was also a student of literature at the time, seeking coherence in not practising religion – there was an imperative to secularise myself and put the test on all this stuff. Then, in my fifties, I attended my first death beds – my mother’s and my father’s – and I found it an utterly simple and utterly mysterious thing to watch. Life goes, spirit goes, whatever, and abstract words that had previously had an ephemeral flimsiness to them were no longer abstractions.’

So he found the rigid structure that Roman Catholicism offers a comfort? ‘Catholicism gives you a set of precision instruments. If you were to look at it, as it were, as a novelist, you could see it as a very bad thing, you know – authoritarian, repressive. But for a young lyric poet it is good to see the whole cosmos ashimmer with God and to know you, a pinpoint of plasma, are part of It, He, whatever. There is a sense every volition that passes through you is registered. That you are accountable. That every action and secret thought is known out there on the rim of eternity. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s good for a young poet to have that sense of owning the whole space, the whole time, and being owned by it.’

As his confidence in religion ebbed, Heaney’s belief in the value of work flowed. As a young man, he considered being a poet as much a vocation as being a priest. He still refers to his job as a calling and tells me, ‘My life has been made meaningful by the visitation of poetry.’ But given what his father and grandfather did for a living – hard, sweaty labour – does he feel poetry is a proper job for a man? ‘Gradually, over the past 40 years, I’ve been justifying it to myself as a proper job, yes. I mean, obviously, in the place where I grew up the word “work”, whether noun or verb, entailed physical labour, usually. And the thought that the able-bodied, eldest son of the house could sit, on a sunny day, in a room upstairs with a book and a pen, while the rest were in the hayfield, turning the hay, seemed like I was absconding from work. But, you know, I didn’t sit, I worked there. I also like to think that in the Irish tradition there is always the sense of writing as labour. It’s actually called “scribal bother” in Ireland. But maybe you’re right, maybe that is why I always kept teaching, to have a proper job and a steady income. I didn’t travel on the creative writing ticket, so to speak. I got energy from working hard at the job and a kind of perverse pride in saying I marked 600 scripts every summer.’

Heaney was first inspired to try writing poetry by reading Gerard Manley Hopkins at school, and tried it again later when he came under the spell of TS Eliot and Emily Dickinson at university. But it was only when he read a poem by Ted Hughes called ‘View of a Pig’ that he realised material from his own life was a relevant subject. In 1966 he was commissioned by Faber & Faber to write a whole collection, after a couple of his poems were spotted in the New Statesman. Heaney was thrilled, not only because it was – and is – almost unheard of for a publisher to approach a poet, but because he knew that in joining the Faber list he would be part of a line of succession which included Eliot, Auden and Ted Hughes. ‘When I began to write poems I felt a great excitement,’ he says. ‘Certainly when I wrote “Digging” I felt that, whatever it means to call something a poem, that must be it, because I felt it touched base, I hit the bottom of myself, something had moved. I still retain a certain awe of the word “poet”, yes. I mean, it still has an archaic force to it. I don’t want to be coy but, as a word, for me, it hasn’t been robbed of its faintly sacred aura.’

When Heaney first began to publish poetry in university magazines he did so under a Latin pseudonym, Incertus – ‘not sure’. He later wrote a poem about his pen name. ‘I went disguised in it, pronouncing it with a soft church-Latin c, tagging it under my efforts like a damp fuse. Uncertain. A shy soul fretting and all that. Expert obeisance.’ It wasn’t until North was published that he felt he had earned the right to call himself a poet – as well as the money to give up teaching for a while. ‘I finally thought, “OK that’s fine, you’ve paid your way, now proceed.”‘ So as a young man he never introduced himself as a poet at parties? Never used it as a chat-up line? ‘No. I don’t know, I don’t know, err…’ Laughter. He met his wife, Marie Devlin, at a university undergraduate dinner. ‘Somebody thought we should meet, she was with somebody else. We got on very well and I walked her home, in the days of demure activity, and I arranged to meet her again – that week.’ So it was love at first sight? ‘Well, excited – the words “in love” panic me but I guess I must have been, yeah. Then we were on the conveyor belt of the engagement ring, the marriage, the children.’

The couple have two sons and a daughter. Did he write Marie any slushy love poems then that he would prefer the literary world not to see now? ‘There are poems like that in university magazines, yes.’ He chuckles at the memory. ‘But it was a heady, risky moment and, as they say, falling in love and starting to write poetry go together quite often. There’s an element of desperation at that stage of your life, a need for focus, a sense that you have flared into yourself. Poetry is an orgasmic fulfilment that lasts for a second or two and then you have to do it again. Yes, there was a sense of refreshment and love there but I’m kind of shy of talking about it. Things that are too close like that should almost be kept.’ Heaney has much to say on the subject of not saying much. ‘Once again, to go back to my family life, silence was valued, speech was almost a devaluing of the thing; if you could speak too accurately, it became suspect.’ Long pause. ‘It was to do with my father who was either archaic or aristocratic, whatever you want to call it, but there was a code, and you knew the code or you didn’t. If you knew how to conduct yourself properly, you didn’t talk too much about yourself and your feelings.’

This seems an odd sentiment coming from a poet whose stock in trade is emotion. But I suspect that Heaney’s reluctance to analyse himself, other than in his often autobiographical poetry, is the same as that of the novelist Martin Amis, who fears that self-analysis – and for that matter psychoanalysis – will make the spell of creativity evaporate. Heaney is a self-effacing man. He was on holiday in Greece when it was announced that he had won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature, and, when he flew back to Dublin to be met off the plane by a cheering crowd and the Irish prime minister, he looked bewildered. The citation declared that Heaney’s work had ‘a lyrical beauty and an ethical depth, which exalts everyday miracles and the living past’.

I first began to read and enjoy Seamus Heaney’s work when I was 17, an age when, as he puts it, ‘there’s an element of desperation’ when you fall in love every five minutes and are especially susceptible to the intoxicating power of poetry. North was one of my A-level set texts. When I found my yellowing, dog-eared copy on my bookshelf, I discovered that I had annotated it with the words ‘dense syllabic lines, gnarled textures, hallucinatory audibility of images’. I don’t think those observations were mine, but they do seem to get to the nub of his genius. People who have never seen a tool handle grown satiny from it own natural polish, heard a spade slicing through peat, or a leather football skittering musically across frozen ground, feel as if they have after reading Heaney. Regressing to my gauche, sixth-form self, and mildly disconcerted by meeting a living writer I had studied alongside so many dead ones – Shakespeare, Eliot and Hardy – I ask him to sign my antique copy of North. ‘Ah, now this is the genuine article,’ he says holding it up to the light. ‘This, I think, has been read.’