As many of you will realise, I do not often get into the business of book reviews, but I am making an exception. I am currently reading "Stepping Stones" by Dennis O'Driscoll, a series of 16 interviews with Seamus Heaney. The enjoyment level has been such that I just cannot wait any longer before sharing some of the pleasure and hoping that there will be those among you who will beg, borrow or steal a copy for themselves.
If you enjoy biography or autobiography to any degree, if you like hearing poets talk in confidential tones about their work, if you are interested to hear them talk about the work of other poets, if you enjoy a searching interview for its own sake, if any of these appeal to you, then Stepping Stones is a book for you. Dennis O'Driscoll is the perfect interlocutor for this venture. He is, of course, a fine poet in his own right. He proves a worthy interviewer, knowing his subject inside out and back to front, as they say, and knowing how to listen and pick up the threads of an answer for the next question. The two are easy with each other and the text is a dream.
The book has sixteen chapters representing sixteen interviews. It begins, as you might expect, with Heaney's early life and continues to and beyond the serious stroke suffered in 2006. The final chapter also picks up on matters discussed earlier, such as the status and importance of Yeats and Heaney's Catholicism, O'Driscoll's last question being:- And finally, from Keeping Going, 'Is this all? As it was / in the beginning, is now and shall be?' to which Heaney replies: ....'Fundamentally, they're saying what William Wordsworth said long ago: that it is on this earth "we find our happiness, or not at all". Which is one reason for keeping going.'
But now back to the beginning of the book. The first interview has the title 'From Home to School' and is a fascinating piece of social history containing all manner of details pertaining to the home and way of life of the Heaney family at that time. Heaney relates it in what I can only describe as golden prose. I would not have minded too much had the whole book been like this and poetry had got no mention - though needless to say, that would have been a desperate loss as it later proves. We also hear of the tragic death of Heaney's brother in a road accident almost outside the house, a continuing trauma for the family in that they were constantly reminded of it, and one that eventually forced a move away. The incident is well known from Heaney's poem Half Term Break.
In Chapter 2 we find Heaney "Growing into poetry" and hear that he was not particularly responsive to poetry as a boy. We are taken forward into his life as an undergraduate at Queens University and learn of his forcing himself to become a smoker 'against all that the body was telling him'.
These first two chapters comprise Part 1 of the book. Part 2 begins with Heaney's Collection Death of a Naturalist, and from this point on we are largely in book rather than biographic territory, though by no means completely so. Discussions will range over topics like the effect that his writing and its growing success had on him personally, on his wife and on their marriage. Nevertheless, the focus is now increasingly on particular works. At various times it becomes helpful to know the works referred to, at least in passing, in order to derive greatest benefit from the discussions. Looking up any that might not be familiar, would pay great dividends. Perhaps I should give a couple of examples:
From Chapter 5: Did you intend the title of Wintering Out to suggest the wintering out of cattle as well as 'the winter of our discontent'? Does it hint at Despair or is there a spring not far behind?
'No spring was being promised, but I still didn't think of the title as despairing. It came, as you recognize, from memories of cattle in winter fields. Beasts standing under a hedge, plastered in wet, looking at you with big, patient eyes, just taking what came until something else came along. Times were bleak, the political climate was deteriorating. The year the book was published was the year of Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday.'
Then from Chapter 6: does it surprise you that, rather than responding to the new life unfolding around you, you ventured so deeply into mythic terrain in "North"?
'A line was crossed with The Tollund Man. The minute I wrote "Some day I will go to Aarus" I was in a new field of force. It had to do with the aura surrounding that head - even in a photograph. It was uncanny, in the full technical sense. Opening P.V. Glob's book "The Bog People" was like opening a gate, the same as when I wrote Bogland.'
O'Driscoll then asks: When you published "Nerthus" and "The Tollund Man" in "Wintering Out", you knew you weren't finished with Glob's book?
'There was a hiatus. I was treading earth, if you like. The archaeological drift I had got into - via poems like "The Tollund Man" and "Toome" - didn't just stop when I handed in the manuscript of "Wintering Out"..... and there is much more of it.
Earlier in the book we read this:
How did you regard the pop poetry of the sixties? The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan - did you find any sort of poetry there?
'Not really. It was more like background music or fairground music - I enjoyed the sound of it going on around me, but didn't regard it a having anything to do with the word-work. Poems that engaged me had a different kind of fetch and conviction about them; I underwent a strangeness when I wrote or read a good one. Whatever the Beats and the Liverpool Poets were doing, it didn't put me through the eye of my own needle the way "The Bull Moses" or "The Windhover" did......' and gain there is more, but you need to read it for yourself from the pages of "Stepping Stones".
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