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Sunday, 19 April 2009

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".


Delphine said...

Hi Dave, it's good to be back after my Easter break. I cannot profess, unfortunately, to being a great reader but appreciate your views. I expect my late husbands poems( re my other blog) are about the only ones I read, and of course he wrote most of them in the sixties!!

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for providing links to some of Heaney's work. I have been reading through them and shall go back several times, I'm sure. Being able to recreate a world from a whitewash brush in 'Keeping Going' is wonderful.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

This is exciting! I love Seamus Heaney, and I know I would really enjoy this book. Thank you for sharing it with us in such detail. I look forward to reading more. :D

Karen said...

Your review spurs me to find the book. Thanks for the detailed recommendation - so much more effective than just telling.

Kat Mortensen said...

I'll definitely mention this to my husband. You see, my birthday is coming up in a couple of months and he's always looking for just the right gift. Your excellent review has certainly got my interest piqued. Your enthusiasm is palpable.


Meri said...

Sounds like I need to engage once more with my best friend Amazon.

Cheryl Cato said...

It is obvious from your words how very much you are enjoying this book! I don't have time just now, but will come back this afternoon for a look at the links you provided. Hopefully I can find this book...it sounds like something I'd really enjoy reading.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Have made a note of this book Dave as it sounds perfect reading for my forthcoming long flight - I always buy a few books at the airport, so have put it on my list. I like the poetry of Seanus Heaney so I should enjoy it. Thanks - I will let you know what I think to it.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, I finished "Stepping Stones" one month ago and I am planning to re-read it. Thanks to it I have read all the collections of Heaney again.
By the way, maybe you already know about this, but I strongly recommend you this link on S.Heaney:

Best wishes, Davide

Sheila said...

Karen posted a comment on a poem I put up this morning, asking if it was inspired by your review (I've been on a bog theme the past two days), so I scooted over to see what I was missing. Wonderful piece. I'll be going to Alibris after I hit the Publish Your Comment button to order Stepping Stones. Thanks for the introduction.

Ronda Laveen said...

Dave: I have not read any of Heany's work. From the excerpts you provided, I really enjoy how he puts words together. His comments on sixties pop poetry were enlightening.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Thanks so much for the suggestion. I do love his poetry and this sounds like a book I would love. It's such a wonderful treat to be in the middle of a book that you look forward to everyday,isn't it??

Hope you are enjoying your Sunday, Dave!!

The lady in Red said...

Dear Dave, I am back after a break of a month. Thanks for introducing O´Driscoll. I am not so keen on biographies.However, I will have a look with your links.

Best wishes,

A Cuban In London said...

I loved your review and I loved the review in the Grauniad a few weeks ago, or was it The Indy? I can't remember now. I have gradually come into Seamus' realm. His poetry has been growing on me for a several years now and the Grun was part of that development. You can always find his poem in the paper. I loved you line 'if you like hearing poets talk in confidential tones about their work' because I love those behind-the-scenes moments. Especially when the artist's (and I ALWAYS include literature in art) guard suddenly comes down. Many thanks for a fine review and I look forward to more. C'mon, Dave, take courage, my friend, go forth! More reviews!

Greetings from London.

PS: On second thoughts, maybe it was a bad idea to write' take courage', now you will have the ASA on your tail. Sorry :-).

Unknown said...

I love to read in-depth reviews of books like this, now I am definitely interested in checking this out of the library and I don't even know his work. Thanks for such a wonderful overview of this book Dave, sounds great!

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Thanks for the great review. You have made me really want to order a copy - and so I will!

Ed Baker said...

I sat in on a lecture that he did in I think 1970 or 71 in Berkeley U of Ca...

was more "into" my own writing than his

is he still alive?

I think he is about my age... I also had a stroke...

July 15,2003.... it changed my life.

nice entry , thasnks,


LR Photography said...

Thanks for the review Dave!

Dave King said...

Delphine Welcome back. Will have a looksee at the poems as soon as. Thanks for the steer.

Derrick I get more and more out of Keeping Going each time I go back to it. I am sure that Stepping Stones will have givne it another boost.

Lady Glamis There is certainly much to be mined from it.

Karen Hope you find it. I am sure you'll not be disappointed.

Poetikat I do exactly that whenever birthdays etc approach. Good luck.

Meri That sounds an excellent idea!

Lizzy Hope you enjoy the links - and then the book!

The Weaver of Grass Bon Voyage and have a great read. Shall look forward to reading the report.

Tommaso Don't think I do know that link, but shall definitely investigate it!

Mairi Glad to have been of service. Enjoy!

Ronda He is the poet above all others that I invariably go back to.

Pamela, Terry and Edward Thanks for the good wishes. I did have a fab' Sunday - and Monday, which is why I am behind again! I am sure you would indeed love the book.

The Lady in Red Good to have you back. Hope there's something there for you.

A Cuban in London My dad always warned me about Courage - said you needed courage to drunk it! But I will see what I can muster for the future. This book ois full of those behind the scenes moments. They are besically what it consists of.

Jenn Hope you find what you're looking for.

K.Lawson I am sure you will not regret it.

Ed Welcome to my blog. Indeed, he is still alive. he was interviwed just recently on The Sky Arts Book Programme. Still great to listen to.

Adrian And thanks for stopping by.

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Rosaria Williams said...

I was not familiar with this author. You made me interested and eager to check the book out. Thanks.

Ed Baker said...

well last year 2008 2/3

TWO THIRDS ! of all poetry books by living poets in the United Kingdom


were his!

I guess The Irish certainly do take their poets seriously!

just like here in the U S A.... eh? ( I-should- live-so-long.


Leslie Avon Miller said...

"it didn't put me through the eye of my own needle"
Love that.

Conda Douglas said...

Always interesting, Dave, to read about other writers, especially poets. It takes a special sort of writer to be a poet--I consider them the classical of writers.

Dave King said...

Lakeviewer I am sure you will get a lot from it.

Ed That's quite a stat. I hadn't realised it, but I am not surprised. It was the Nobel that gave the impetus, of course. Must be good for poetry generally, though.

Leslie Yes, that was one of the quotes I picked out!

Conda I think I'd go along with that - in fact, I know I would.

San said...

Dave, this post is bringing me back. Several decades ago as an undergraduate, I wrote a paper on Seamus Heaney. I definitely remember "Death of a Naturalist" and now I want to read these interviews. Thank you for the heads-up.

I believe "Wintering Out" is an apt phrase for our own times. No?

Helen Ginger said...

Thanks for this review. You clearly loved not just the book, but the way he expressed himself and his ideas in the interviews. It sounds like a great book.

Dave King said...

SanI absolutely agree with you about Wintering Out. Enjoy the interviews. (I'm sure you will.)

HelenWelcome, and many thanks for stopping by. Yes, you are spot on on all points!

Ruth said...

I must must must read this. I have a postcard on my office cabinet of the portrait of him by Peter Edwards in the National Gallery (London), and I'm dying to read the farm stories.