HC: As you end your twelfth year at Harvard, what are your impressions of American students?
SH: When I came here first I was very aware of their eagerness to be in contact with the professor. At home in Ireland, theres a habit of avoidance, an ironical attitude towards the authority figure. Here, theres a readiness to approach and a desire to take advantage of everything the professor has to offer. That unnerved me a bit at the start, but now I respect it. Also, the self-esteem of American students tends to be higher. They come to college with positive beliefs in their abilities, whatever they are.
HC: Do you feel that teaching all these years has affected your writing?
SH: Well, its bound to have affected my energy levels! I remember Robert Fitzgerald warning me, or at least worrying for me, on that score. But for better or worse - I now feel for worse, earlier on I felt for better - I believed that poetry would come as a grace and would force itself through whenever it needed to come. My sense of the world, of what was laid out for me in my life, always included having a job. This simply has to do with my generation, my formation, my background - the scholarship boy coming from the farm. The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself - as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomass Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queens University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. Then in November of 1962 I began to write in earnest, and sort of hopefully. As an undergraduate I had contributed poems to the English Society magazine. I had been part of a class that included, among other people, Seamus Deane, who was very much the star of the group, and George McWhirter, now a poet at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. And there were others with writerly ambitions around Queens at the time - Stewart Parker, for example, who eventually became a dramatist - so I was one of that crowd. But I didnt have any sense of election or purpose or ambition. My pseudonym at Queens, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus - Latin for uncertain - I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughess Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at View of a Pig, and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called Tractors; I remember a line that said they gargled sadly - which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph - not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were.
HC: You grew up in a family where the men were nonverbal. And youve acknowledged that the idea of rhyme first came to you as a pleasure via your mother. Can you speak a little bit about your home life as a child?
SH: My father was a creature of the archaic world, really. He would have been entirely at home in a Gaelic hill-fort. His side of the family, and the houses I associate with his side of the family, belonged to a traditional rural Ireland. Also, nowadays, I am more and more conscious of him as somebody who was orphaned early on in life. His own father had died suddenly when he was quite young. His mother died of breast cancer. So he and his siblings were then fostered out and reared by aunts and uncles. My father grew up with three bachelor uncles, men who were in the cattle trade in a fairly substantial way, traveling back and forward to markets in the north of England, and it was from them that he learned the cattle trade. So the house where he spent his formative years was a place where there were no women, a place where the style was undemonstrative and stoical. All that affected him and, of course, it came through to us in his presence and his personality.
HC: What about your mother?
SH: Well, my mother was more a creature of modernity. Her people lived in the village of Castledawson, which was in some respects a mill village. Many of the people there worked in Clarkes linen factory. One of her uncles was a stoker in the factory, one of her brothers worked there too, another drove a bread van - held the franchise, as it were, for a Belfast bakery in that Castledawson area. One of her sisters trained as a nurse, another went off to England and was there during the war, married eventually to a miner from Northumberland. I suppose you could say my fathers world was Thomas Hardy and my mothers D. H. Lawrence. Castledawson was that kind of terrace-house village, spic-and-span working class. And there was a nice social punctilio about the McCanns - that was my mothers family name; it came out in their concern with dress codes and table manners and things like that. They liked you to have your shoes polished and your hair combed. They had a little allotment garden out at the back and a washhouse with a set of wringers. And I suppose I would call the McCanns democrats. They had a strong sense of justice and civil rights and they were great argufiers. They genuinely and self-consciously relished their own gifts for contention and censoriousness.
HC: What about the Heaneys? Were they democrats?
SH: The Heaneys were aristocrats, in the sense that they took for granted a code of behavior that was given and unspoken. Argumentation, persuasion, speech itself, for Gods sake, just seemed otiose and superfluous to them. Either you were an initiate in the code or you werent. It had to do with their rural background, with the unspoken Gaelic thing that was still vestigially there.
HC: Did they speak Gaelic?
SH: No, not at all. The Irish language hadnt been spoken in that part of Ulster for a century or two. But it sometimes seems to me that the gene pool in the Bann Valley hasnt been disturbed for a couple of thousand years.
HC: Were there books in the house?
SH: Not many. The book environment was in my Aunt Sarahs house. She had trained as a schoolteacher in the 1920s and had got herself a library of sorts. She had a complete set of Hardys novels, for example, and an early three-volume edition of Yeatss works - plays, stories and poems.
HC: What about your Aunt Mary?
SH: Mary was my fathers sister and she lived at home with us. And since I was the first child, I was her favorite. She was a woman with a huge well of affection and a very experienced, dry-eyed sense of the world. All the Heaney women had this inveterate realism that was only equaled by their kindness. They were very unblaming and very - not passive - vigilant. It was a live and let live thing with them, although they were also capable of a withering contempt, an ultimate, dismissive contempt. But then, in between, just tolerance and hauteur. Mary dispensed affection to all of us, but as I say, I was favored because I was the eldest.
HC: You must have very quickly become the fourth adult in the house.
SH: Yes, I did. In my early teens I acquired a kind of representative status, went on behalf of the family to wakes and funerals and so on. And I would be counted on as an adult contributor when it came to farm work - the hay in the summertime, for example. But I remember that kind of responsibility being laid upon me almost formally the morning my brother Christopher was buried. He was our four year old who was killed in a road accident. I must have been thirteen or fourteen at the time. Anyway, I came home from college for the funeral and all the rest of the youngsters were there. And when I began to cry in the bedroom, my father said to me, Come on now, if you cry, theyll all be crying.
HC: Thats memorialized in your poem Mid-Term Break.
SH: Thats right.
HC: Whats it been like all these years having a transatlantic existence? Was it a strain on you as a husband and father?
SH: The fact that Marie and the children were here with me in 1979 - four months in Cambridge and then another month on Long Island - the fact that we had all been together for that time in Cambridge with friends wed known even earlier in Ireland, Helen Vendler, for example, and Alfie and Sally Alcorn, that was very important when I was wondering about whether to accept the offer. Daddy wasnt going off into the unknown. There were many people here who knew not just me but Marie and the children also. The question was whether the four-month separation was worth it for the sake of the other eight months at home.
I had a dream, actually, the night before the decision had to be made. I dreamed that I was in the desert and it was night. I needed some place to lie down, some shelter, and came upon this lean-to made of posts angled up against some sort of wall or cliff face. And over the posts there were skins or some sort of covering. I crept in underneath this to sleep for the night and then in the next frame of the dream its broad morning, sunlight, the cliff face has disappeared, the lean-to is gone, Im out in the open. What I had taken to be a solid wall had actually been the side of a liner docked in the Suez Canal and during the night the liner had moved on. So I took this to mean nothing is permanent, that I should go with it - although Im sure there are other ways of interpreting it.
HC: One could look at the liner as Harvard, too?
SH: Oh, you could indeed! Then, about the same time, we met the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer and his wife, Monika, and they said to us, Look, things will work fine as long as you see each other every six weeks ... Just dont let more than six weeks go past. So that became the contract. Marie had a sister living in Dublin at that stage, who was a sort of favorite aunt to the children, and she promised shed stay with them for a week or two every springtime so that Marie could come over and visit me in Cambridge.
HC: Here in your rooms, even though its clear that youve tried to make a nest for yourself, one can still sense that your life is very much elsewhere.
SH: Yes, thats right. I think, you see, that if Id got an apartment on Beacon Hill, say, and furnished it for myself, got in my bookcases and objets and pictures and made it a comfortable elsewhere, then that would have radically affected my relationship with home. So it was a wonderful thing to be offered this apartment in Adams House by Robert Kiely, who was and still is master. The point is that the apartment here is not an alternative life. It is like nesting on a ledge, being migrant, being in someone elses house, in fact. I am Bob and Jana Kielys houseguest, more or less. The place I have here is not in any way an alternative to the life I have in Dublin. Its a transient arrangement. And for both me and the family, that has been psychologically very important. Then too I suppose its fair to say that I came to an arrangement with myself that this period of the year would be an executive rather than a creative time. I would do my teaching, do poetry readings, be busy, be on the job and not worry too much about getting writing done. The other two-thirds of the year at home would be the writing time, the daydream time. And it has turned out, in fact, that the summer is the best time for me to write. When I go home, the actual vegetation and the summertime weather can sometimes work wonders. Theres that sheer buildup of need that comes from having been away. And a kind of slaking comes just from being back. That has been the rhythm of it so far.
HC: It really isnt so long ago since you left Northern Ireland and supported yourself as a freelancer. Youve just celebrated your fifty-fifth birthday and are now writing from the point of having a good part of your oeuvre behind you, having worked as the Boylston Professor at Harvard and until just recently as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. I wonder how you feel about these two contrasting experiences and if its any different for you nowadays when you sit down to make a poem?
SH: That experience of twenty years ago, when I left Northern Ireland and went to write full-time in Wicklow, obviously that cannot be repeated. It was crucial and intense. It had to do with that first vital step into risk. I gave up my job at Queens University in 1972 as a fairly deliberate test of myself and my capacities. I was lucky to have had two books published and a third coming at that stage. I was lucky to have the support of artist friends and poet friends. Two people who were very important at the time were Ted Hughes and the painter Barrie Cooke, who also happens to be a friend of Teds, one of the pike- and salmon-fishing confraternity. Anyway, they were all in favor of the move. And so, it must be said, was Marie, even though it was a case of going into the wilderness with the family, and putting things on a fairly frugal basis. Would we survive economically? Would I be able to write in a way that would justify leaving the job? So those were intense years, for sure. There was another different crisis later when I decided to leave the freelance life and go back to teaching in Dublin. I had been four years in the cottage in County Wicklow, from 1972 to 1976. For the first three of those years I was freelancing. During the fourth I had begun to teach at the teachers training college at Carysfort. I regretted doing so, of course, at the time. I knew in my writerly being that I was moving off-center but I also had a strong, contrary wish to do the right thing as a parent. I didnt resent going back into teaching, but I did know very clearly that I was abandoning something. Yet because I did know what I was doing, it was mitigated just a little. At any rate, my next book, which came out three years later, is one of my favorites. In its own way it was a book of change also; it moved me from the intensity of North to something more measured, in both formal and emotional terms.
HC: Are you speaking of Field Work?
SH: Yes. Field Work told me that the move into jobsville was workable. It may not have produced crunch writing of the kind that was in North, but North came out of an unrepeatable period when I had my head down like a terrier at the burrow, going at it hot and heavy, kicking up the mold. That wasnt going to happen twice. North was the book nel mezzo del cammin. But even if Field Work was less obsessive, more formally rangy, full of public elegies and personal love poems and those Glanmore sonnets, it was still a proof that I could write poetry in my new situation. Then three years later I got into the Harvard arrangement and that was even better: eight months at work on my own, four months teaching. All the same, when I was teaching full-time in Carysfort, I did manage to get established in labor with Station Island. But maybe Im making far too much of all this in retrospect, how different one year was from the next. I have begun to think of life as a series of ripples widening out from an original center. In a way, no matter how wide the circumference gets, no matter how far you have rippled out from the first point, that original pulse of your being is still traveling in you and through you, so although you can talk about this period of your life and that period of it, your first self and your last self are by no means distinct.
HC: Still, you speak as if there have been definite periods and divisions. Do you feel guilt about having left the North? In a poem like Exposure where you admit, I am neither internee nor informer; / An inner émigré, grown long-haired / and thoughtful . . . one senses that you do. Yet could you have written the poems collected in North had you not left?
SH: I dont think I could have, no. I got gathered in myself through leaving. I had a great sense of being battened down for action. Separation perhaps, rather than detachment. A certain resolve. The thing is, the Wicklow move was not some sudden transition. We came back from California in 1971 with a half-plan to leave Belfast and live freelance out in the country in Northern Ireland. But even so, leaving the north didnt break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like Exposure is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to be in any way adequate. The poem is asking itself, Is there enough here to hold the line against the atrocious thing that is happening up there? And the poet is saying, What am I doing but striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?
HC: What caused the dramatic change in North?
SH: I suppose the corollary of being battened down is being a bit tensed up. At the time when I was writing the poems, I was putting the pressure on myself and feeling, well, exposed as in Exposure. I associate the poems of North with a particular place, the upstairs room of that cottage, me chain-smoking and working against a deadline, looking out into the sunlight, hunched over the table, anxious. And the anxiety is there, I think, in the very constriction of the quatrains of the poems.
HC: Did reading Robert Lowell and W.C. Williams and Robert Creeley influence you? Or was it as a result of translating Sweeney Astray that you began to write a much trimmer poem?
SH: Those wafty little quatrains got started when I was in Berkeley, and they make their appearance in Wintering Out. Poems like Westering and Anahorish and so on. But the same kind of hovering four-line stanza is there earlier, in Bogland and the last poems inDoor into the Dark. I had a genuine curiosity about Williams and read him fairly systematically when I was in California. Read him with affection but with puzzlement too. I suppose without knowing it I always wanted the line to have back echo, to sing on a little beyond where it ended, but what Williams seemed to be offering was a music that stopped exactly where the line stopped. No resonance, no back echo, no canorous note. I kept looking and saying, Is this all? and I came to realize that the answer was, Yes, this is all. But then I think that there is a dialogue or tension inherent in all verse between what you might call the strength of stunt in the line and the attractions of stretch. Certainly, after North, I very deliberately started on some poems that were more metrically and syntactically articulated. Sonnets. Rhymed pentameters. Things with a bit of lift to them. An element of song. And theres a poem in Field Work called The Singers House, which is really about the poets and the poems right to a tune in spite of the tunelessness of the world around them. The singer is David Hammond who is a good friend and had been a kind of lord of misrule in our early days around Belfast. One of the things that the Troubles did, of course, was to put a damper on all that carousing and freewheeling. People werent going out at night. And then too, because the old political sediment was being stirred up inside everybody, little standoffs and sidelinings and divisions began to develop among people too. So the mood darkened. And then suddenly, ten years later, I was out at the Hammonds summerhouse on the Atlantic coast in Donegal and we had this wonderful exalted evening. Singing, drinking, the whole jocund company mood. And it was a terrific reminder that what we call in the abstract song is a really vital category and one to be pursued without apology. So The Singers House came out of that. In fact, the formal impulse in a lot of those poems in Field Work is an example of this Cavalier principle exerting itself against the Roundhead who is inside me too. I mean, who wouldnt like to write Mozartian poetry?
HC: What would Mozartian poetry be?
SH: It would have all of the usual life in it. But it would have great formal acceleration. I recently read Christopher Marlowes Hero and Leander and got this terrific lift from it because of the way it was rejoicing in its own resources as an invention. It gave you a music that was trampolining off itself, glamorous and delicious and self-conscious. There was genuine sweetness and swank in the writing, but underneath all that banner-flying beauty and merriment, there was terrific veteran knowledge. Real awareness of hurt and vindictiveness and violence. And there was wiliness. I thought it was astonishingly mature poetry to have been written by a young man. The poem has a Prospero awareness of all the penalties but it still retains an Ariel ability to keep itself sweet and lively.
HC: You dont think of anything youve written as Mozartian?
SH: I dont, no.
HC: Doesnt a new risk introduce itself with time, that is the risk of being too much like oneself, or repeating oneself?
SH: I suppose you inevitably fall into habits of expression. But the fact of the matter is that when youre engaged in the actual excitement of writing a poem, there isnt that much difference between being thirty-five or fifty-five. Getting warmed up and getting into the obsession and focus of writing is its own reward at any moment.
HC: And its just as difficult now to make it go?
SH: Absolutely. Perhaps more so. In the beginning, I think everybody writes for the high of finishing. There is a sprint towards the completed thing; you urgently want a reward, immediate gratification. But what I enjoy most nowadays is the actual process. When I get an idea, I just want to keep it going for as long as possible. In the beginning, if I thought of an image I sort of pounced on it and rushed through its implications inside - typically - six or eight quatrains. But today one of those originating images might suggest another, and the poem might go about its business obliquely and grow in a more zigzaggy, accretionary way. Im more devoted at the moment to opener, sectioned kinds of things.
HC: Do you think of yourself more as an autobiographical poet, or a social poet or a pastoral poet or a political poet?
SH: If Im in that panic-stricken situation where someone who has absolutely no familiarity with poetry and no interest in it says to me, What kind of poetry do you write? I do tend to say, Well, its more or less autobiographical, based on memory. But I would also want to maintain that the autobiographical content per se is not the point of the writing. What matters is the shape-making impulse, the emergence and convergence of an excitement into a wholeness. I dont think Im a political poet with political themes and a specifically political understanding of the world, in the way that Bertolt Brecht is a political poet or Adrienne Rich or, in a different way, Allen Ginsberg.
HC: Is Yeats a political poet?
SH: Yeats is a public poet. Or a political poet in the way that Sophocles is a political dramatist. Both of them are interested in the polis. Yeats isnt a factional political poet, even if he does represent a definite sector of Irish society and culture and has been castigated by Marxists for having that reactionary, aristocratic prejudice to his imagining. But the whole effort of the imagining is towards inclusiveness. Prefiguring a future. So yes, of course, he is a poet of immense political significance, but I think of him as visionary rather than political. I would say Pablo Neruda is political.
HC: What about W.H. Auden?
SH: Is it too sophisticated to say Auden is a civic poet rather than a political poet?
HC: I remember your saying in an essay that Auden introduced to English writing of his era a regard of contemporary events, which had been neglected.
SH: There are poets who jolt the thing alive by seeming to lift the readers hand and put it on the bare wire of the present. Its a matter of cadence and diction quite often. But Auden did set himself up for a while very deliberately as a political poet. Certainly up until the early 1940s. And then he becomes, if you like, a meditative poet. A bit like Wordsworth. At first a political poet with a disposition that is revolutionary. And then come the second thoughts. But as Joseph Brodsky said to me once upon a time, intensity isnt everything. I believe Joseph was thinking then of Auden, the later Auden. The early Auden is intense, theres a hectic staccato artesian kind of thing going on, theres immense excitement between the words and in the rhythms. Theres the pressure of something forcing through. And then that disappears. In the 1950s and 1960s you have the feeling that things are being inspected from above. I suppose the transition comes when he writes those sonnet sequences at the end of the 1930s, marvelous, head-clearing sequences like In Time of War and The Quest, all vitality and perspective and intellectual shimmer. There is that sense of experience being invigilated and abstracted from a great height, but what is still there in that middle period is the under-energy of the language. Then finally that just disappears. And a kind of lexical burble begins to take over.
HC: How would you describe your own voice?
SH: I tried very deliberately in Field Work to turn from a broody, phonetically self-relishing kind of writing to something closer to my own speaking voice. And I think that from Field Work onwards I have been following that direction. Its a very different kind of linguistic ambition now from what I was after in Death of a Naturalist or Wintering Out or North. Those books wanted to be texture, to be all consonants, vowels and voicings, they wanted the sheer materiality of words. When I began, I was trying for concreteness and I was encouraged in this by Philip Hobsbaum, who liked my work when it was read at the workshop he ran in Belfast in the mid-sixties. The Group, as it was called.
HC: Ive heard it said that your new poems - and I would include in this statement, all of Squarings - are part of a movement in poetry to go back to, not a Wordsworthian innocence, but a place pre-language, pre-nationalism, pre-Catholicism. Before all that is codified. Is this true?
SH: Well, in Squarings, there is a definite impatience and a definite desire to write a kind of poem that cannot immediately be ensnared in what they call the cultural debate. This has become one of the binds as well as one of the bonuses for poets in Ireland. Every poem is either enlisted or unmasked for its clandestine political affiliations.
HC: Is that why Squarings is stripped of local reference, for instance?
SH: But I think of them as intensely, intimately local.
HC: Yet there are no place names.
SH: True enough.
HC: In the section about shooting marbles, for example, one could be in County Derry or Milwaukee; its as if the action or experience of the poem were intended to be universal, rather than parochial.
SH: Im glad you think that. What I loved about those poems was the old sense of a sprint. The twelve-line form was just chanced upon at the start, but then it became a willfulness. I had a year off from teaching and dedicated myself to following the impulse of the sprint. Those poems were, in a way, written against the clock. In a couple of hours, an hour, even less; Id have a go and revise it later. There was an air of devil-may-careness, abandon, a certain hurtle. And I was very grateful for that because the title sequence of Station Islandhad been an entirely different kind of writing. Something that had been slowly accrued.
HC: It is another example of a long poem.
SH: But a slow poem too. There were sections put in and sections taken out. It was written, as it were, responsibly. The speaker in the poem was consonant with the writer behind it. There was a sense of public confessing.
HC: But there are characters and voices.
SH: Yes, thats true. It has a certain heaviness of being about it. Different, as I say, from the devil-may-careness of Squarings. The needle is always swinging between two extremes with me. One is the gravitas of subject matter, a kind of surly nose-to-the-groundness, almost a nonpoetry, and the other is the lift and frolic of the words in themselves. I like poetry that doesnt fancy itself up to be poetry.
HC: Do you mean by the nature of its subject?
SH: Yes, but I also like a touch of rough and readiness in the language. Something in words that makes you realize all over again what Louis MacNeice means when he says world is suddener than we fancy.
HC: In writing Squarings, where so much is stripped away, did you feel youd used up allegory and myth, which are frequent in earlier books?
SH: I didnt set out to avoid allegory and myth. Those modes are forever available, and Id hate to cut myself off from them. Its more that the Squarings were a given note. An out-of-the-blueness. The first one came through unexpectedly, but feeling as if it had been preformed. This was after Id finished an assignment Id been worrying about, a selection of Yeatss poems with a long introduction for The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Id been working for weeks in the National Library in Dublin and on the day I finished, in the library, the first words of the first poem in Lightenings came to me, as if they had been embossed on my tongue: Shifting brilliances. Then winter light / In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep / A beggar shivering in silhouette. // So the particular judgment might be set . . . I felt exhilarated. The lines were unlike what Id been writing. So I just went with it. The excitement for me was in a pitch of voice, a feeling of being able to make swoops and connections, being able to get into little coffers of pastness, things I had remembered but never thought of writing about. For example, theres one about crossing the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. It used to be that when I was coming over from the San Francisco Airport - I was teaching at Berkeley then, during 1970, 1971 - there would be one or two young soldiers in the back of the bus, traveling across to Treasure Island Military Base, headed for Vietnam. I remember feeling at that time that it was like being in a death carriage. But somehow I did not feel that it was a part of my subject, it was too implicated in the American crisis. And yet it stayed in my mind, and I just took this flash photograph of it when I was doing the twelve-liners. At that time I was able to range all over the place, whatever kind of melt or skim or glancing was going on. And I gave myself permission, as they say, to go with it. The arbitrariness of the twelve-line form, the impulse and swiftness of it made me feel different from myself for a while. But I didnt have any project of going beyond myth or allegory.
HC: Do you think losing both your parents affected your work? In a way, in Squarings, there is an obliteration of the past, which is what comes with the death of ones parents.
SH: I was at each deathbed, in the room with my siblings. Moments of completion. Both of them died peacefully - got away easy, as they might have said themselves. There wasnt much turmoil or physical distress. My father died of cancer; of course, there was a period of deterioration, but at the end the actual hour-by-hour decline was relatively predictable and relatively untroubled. My mother died from a stroke much more quickly, inside three days. Again, we all had time to assemble. There was a sense of an almost formal completion. But also a recognition that nothing can be learned, that to be in the presence of a death is to be in the presence of something utterly simple and utterly mysterious. In my case, the experience restored the right to use words like soul and spirit, words I had become unduly shy of, a literary shyness, I suppose, deriving from a misplaced obedience to proscriptions of the abstract, but also a shyness derived from a complicated relationship with my own Catholic past. In many ways I love it and have never quite left it, and in other ways I suspect it for having given me such ready access to a compensatory supernatural vocabulary. But experiencing my parents deaths restored some of the verity to that vocabulary. These words, I realized, arent obfuscation. They have to do with the spirit of life that is within us.
HC: In your poem Terminus you describe a state of in-betweenness that characterizes your way of seeing the world. One might argue that a state of in-betweenness is necessary to be a writer, a poet. Do you feel your in-betweenness in the public arena of politics has won you the enmity of some of your countrymen?
SH: I suppose the enmity comes from people who think Im not sufficiently in-between. Some people in Northern Unionist quarters, for example, might see me as a typical Irish nationalist with an insufficient sympathy for the Unionist majoritys position in the North. The in-betweenness comes into play more problematically in relation to the nationalist and republican traditions in Ireland. I am certainly a person with an Ireland-centered view of politics. I would like our understanding and our culture and our language and our confidence to be Ireland-centered rather than England-centered or American-centered. And there are two strains of Irish politics deriving from this. One is constitutional nationalism; that is to say, nationalist politics as they have been practiced by elected Irish representatives in the nineteenth century at Westminster, and then since 1921 at Stormont in the North and in the Dail in the Republic, and practiced most conspicuously over the last thirty years by John Hume. On the other hand, there is the strain of republican separatism, a more uncompromising approach to national independence represented most notably by Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein and most atrociously by the IRA. Now people with a strong republican commitment would probably consider me to have been insufficiently devoted to their program and policies and insufficiently vocal against what they see as imperial British activities in Northern Ireland. In 1979, for example, on a train, I actually met a Sinn Fein official who upbraided and challenged me on this score. Why was I not writing something on behalf of the republican prisoners who were then on what was called the dirty protest in the Maze Prison? These were people striking for the right to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher was insisting on treating them as what she called ODCs - Ordinary Decent Criminals. The Tories were attempting to define the IRA as murderers without any political status whatsoever, attempting to rob their acts of any aura of political motivation or liberation. There was a big, big agitation going on in the prison. The prisoners were living in deplorable conditions. Enduring in order to maintain a principle and a dignity. I could understand the whole thing and recognized the force of the argument. And force is indeed the word because what I was being asked to do was to lend my name to something that was also an IRA propaganda campaign. I said to the fellow that if I wrote anything Id have to write it for myself. He eventually threw this up against me somewhere, saying that I had refused to write or speak out against torture. Everything changed for writers in Northern Ireland once the Provisional IRA began to inflict their own violence on people. I had been quite propagandistically involved early on in 1968-1970, but it was my own propaganda, so to speak, expressing a minority viewpoint in places like the New Statesman and The Listener.
HC: When you say the minority, do you mean in the North?
SH: Yes. The Catholics. To begin with, the Catholics had this sense of the moral high ground, which is so enabling. The system had been rigged against us and when the civil-rights marches began, the official resistance was to the minority qua minority. The state machine just worked like that and the point of the new movement was to change it. You felt that being a spokesperson for the shift was honorable and, indeed, imperative. But all that certitude got complicated once the IRA began to speak on your behalf with an exploding bomb. But it should be said that I never thought of my audience as being made up only of Northern Catholics. The reader to whom everything is directed, the one Mandelstam called the reader in posterity, is as much for me a Northern Protestant as anything else. But listen to what Im saying! Protestant, Catholic - the point is to fly under or out and beyond those radar systems. Ideally our work is directed towards some just, disinterested point of reception. A locus of justice, a kind of listening post and final appeal court. I regard many of the things I know and have to tell about as deriving from my Catholic minority background in Northern Ireland, but I dont regard that as a circumstance that determines my audience or my posture.
HC: Do you feel the poet has an obligation at a politically difficult time?
SH: I think the poet who didnt feel the pressure at a politically difficult time would be either stupid or insensitive. I take great comfort in this regard from a formulation of Robert Pinskys in his essay on the responsibility of the poet. He relates the word responsibility to its origin in response and then to its Anglo-Saxon equivalent in the word answer. Pinsky says that as long as you feel the need to answer you are being responsible, because its in the ground of ones answering being that the responsibility of the poet is lodged. How you actually deliver the answer, of course, is something else. Theres a temperament involved. And theres the crucial matter of artistic ability, whether you are artistically fit to take on what is often recalcitrant subject matter.
HC: But do you think politics can be affected?
SH: Yes, I do think they can be affected. I think theres far too much mealymouthedness about that. Audens remark that poetry makes nothing happen is used too often to foreclose the question. I do believe, for example, that Robert Lowell had a political effect. Im not saying that because of the thematic content of his work, but because he had established a profile and an authority as a poet.
HC: Do you mean visibility?
SH: Visibility, yes, but visibility in itself isnt enough. There are other poets with visibility. Lowell manifested a kind of gravitas. His enemies might say he represented portentousness, but thats neither here nor there. There was a sense that he stood for something. When he intervened in public matters, when he decided to decline an invitation from the White House, say, that had a political effect. And when he took part in the march on the Pentagon, it had meaning because of the regard in which he was held, as poet and patrician. Come to think of it, Philip Larkin had a definite political influence also. He fortified a certain kind of recalcitrant Englishness. His masquerade encouraged a strain of xenophobia and a strain of philistinism in English life. Im not saying theres anything philistine about his melodies. But there was nothing admirable in his pronouncements about art and life, all those statements to the effect of, Oh, I dont know. I just love Margaret Thatcher. I dont read poetry in translation and I would never dream of going abroad. That kind of lowest-common-denominator stuff, which he famously paraded in his Paris Review interview, that kind of thing actually works itself into the culture. Larkins antiheroics and his absconding from anything visionary or bold did have its effect. And I would say that Hugh MacDiarmid had an effect too - very different - in Scotland. Norman MacCaig once said that the Scottish nation should observe two minutes of pandemonium every year on the anniversary of MacDiarmids death. In Ireland, of course, we observe two weeks of summer school every year in memory of Yeats. And rightly so.
HC: Dont you argue in an essay - using the example of Jesus writing in the sand - that poetry has the power to suspend violence? You suggest that it wasnt important what Jesus wrote in the sand, but it was the unexpected gesture of his turning away from the stoning of a prostitute and writing in the sand that stops the stoning or suspends it.
SH: Yes. Debate doesnt really change things. It gets you bogged in deeper. If you can address or reopen the subject with something new, something from a different angle, then there is some hope. In Northern Ireland, for example, a new metaphor for the way we are positioned, a new language would create new possibility. Im convinced of that. So when I invoke Jesus writing in the sand, its as an example of this kind of diverting newness. He does something that takes the eyes away from the obsession of the moment. Its a bit like a magical dance.
HC: Its a marvelous trope for writing.
SH: People are suddenly gazing at something else and pausing for a moment. And for the duration of that gaze and pause, they are like reflectors of the totality of their own knowledge and/or ignorance. Thats something poetry can do for you, it can entrance you for a moment above the pool of your own consciousness and your own possibilities.
HC: Do you see your Bog Poems, as they are called, as an example of this kind of diversion and entrancement?
SH: I see the Bog Poems in Pinskys terms as an answer. They were a kind of holding action. They were indeed a bit like the line drawn in the sand. Not quite an equivalent for what was happening, more an attempt to rhyme the contemporary with the archaic. The Tollund Man, for example, is the first of the Bog Poems I wrote. Essentially, it is a prayer that the bodies of people killed in various actions and atrocities in modern Ireland, in the teens and twenties of the century as well as in the more recent past, a prayer that something would come of them, some kind of new peace or resolution. In the understanding of his Iron Age contemporaries, the sacrificed body of Tollund Man germinated into spring, so the poem wants a similar flowering to come from the violence in the present. Of course it recognizes that this probably wont happen, but the middle section of the poem is still a prayer that it should. The Bog Poems were defenses against the encroachment of the times, I suppose. But there was always a real personal involvement - in a poem like Punishment, for example.
HC: In what respect?
SH: Its a poem about standing by as the IRA tar and feather these young women in Ulster. But its also about standing by as the British torture people in barracks and interrogation centers in Belfast. About standing between those two forms of affront. So theres that element of self-accusation, which makes the poem personal in a fairly acute way. Its concerns are immediate and contemporary, but for some reason I couldnt bring army barracks or police barracks or Bogside street life into the language and topography of the poem. I found it more convincing to write about the bodies in the bog and the vision of Iron Age punishment. Pressure seemed to drain away from the writing if I shifted my focus from those images.
HC: So often your poems are about the disenfranchised (as in a poem like Servant Boy) or the victimized (as in Punishment) - do you feel yourself to be among them as an Irish Catholic coming from a country with tanks, posted soldiers and other degradations?
SH: I dont think consciously in that way. I would hate to think of the poems as a parade of victim entitlement. Something that irks me about a lot of contemporary writing is the swank of deprivation. One of the poets who meant most to me and whom I now believe I have always underrated as an influence is Wilfred Owen. The influence wasnt quite at the level of style, more in the understanding of what a poet ought to be doing. I think Owens assault upon the righteousness that causes breed in people, and his general tilting of poetrys sympathies towards the underground man, I think all that had an effect upon my notion of what poetrys place in the world should be. At any rate, in the early 1970s I did surely identify with the Catholic minority. A poem like The Ministry of Fear is a very deliberate treatment of the subject of minoritydom. An attempt to encompass that element of civic reality. Its written in blank verse; theres not much sport between the words of it.
HC: Do you think that the search for an Irish identity is a common thread among Irish poets? Is there a true bearer of Irishness? Is it the peasantry, the middle class, the gentry?
SH: I dont think that there is one true bearer of Irishness. There are different versions, different narratives, as we say, and you start out in possession of one of these. Maybe righteously in possession, as one of Yeatss Anglo-Irish, say, - no petty people - or as one of my own big-voiced scullions. But surely you have to grow into an awareness of the others and attempt to find a way of imagining a whole thing. That really is the challenge, to open the definition and to make the domain of Irishness in Ireland - I hate to use the wordpluralist, its so prim and righteous - to make it open and available, and by now I think it really is a bit like that. The problem is that some people loathe being included within the category of Irishness in the first place. Northern Protestant loyalists, people from a Unionist background - they are simply repelled by the notion of being nominated Irish, never mind the prospect of being co-opted, forcibly or constitutionally, into an integrated Irish state. So you want to respect their refusal since it is based on definite historical and ethnic grounds. But at the same time, for fifty years the other side of that refusal has been their bullying attitude to the nationalist minority, saying in effect, Because were not going to be Irish, you cant be Irish either. We refuse you that identity. In our six-county state, youre British, willy-nilly, so you can take it or leave it. So while I believe that the Protestants must be granted every cultural and personal and human right to define themselves, they must not be given a veto on the political future (which has been the case for decades, through Westminsters ideological solidarity with the Unionists); they must not be granted the right to base the ethos of a new Northern Ireland upon their loyalism and loyalties alone.
HC: In your poem The Mud Vision you describe an apparition like a rose window of mud. What was the vision there and did you believe it?
SH: It superimposes two things. First there was this moment in the 1950s when the Virgin was supposed to have appeared to a woman in County Tyrone. It wakened up the whole country. I remember feeling this huge sense of animation and focus and expectation and skepticism all at once. It was a current that flowed in and flowed out of this one little place, which was as a matter of fact the place my wife comes from, Ardboe, on the shores of Lough Neagh. And even though I did not believe that the mother of God had stood there on a hawthorn bush at the end of a local garden, I was tuned in to the animation. So that memory of a community centered and expectant and alive to vision is behind the poem. But the actual mud-vision idea came from seeing a work by the English artist Richard Long, a big flower-face on a wall, made up entirely of muddy handprints. It began as a set of six or eight petals of mud and then moved out and out concentrically until it became this huge sullied rose window. So the poem you are asking about was written by a man who had known the excitement of Ardboe in his early life gazing up in later life at this thing on the wall of the Guinness Hopstore in Dublin. I was wanting to write about contemporary Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, as a country with a religious subconscious but a secular destiny - at the point of transition from the communality of religious devotion to the loneliness of modernity and subjectivity. The community in the poem has lost the sense of its own destiny and of any metaphysical call. And it is exposed to the challenge of making a go of it in a more secular world. Theres a sense of disappointment in the poem. A sense of having missed an opportunity.
HC: Returning for a moment to your Catholic roots, I wonder, do you believe in Satan?
SH: Thats a good question. I havent thought of him for years. But his name is very thrilling. It really does bring me to my senses.
HC: But thats not to say you believe in him?
SH: I dont know. Hes still sort of alive and well when I remember that old prayer they used to intone at the end of Mass about Satan roaming through the world seeking the ruination of souls.
HC: Speaking of roaming round the world, do you collect anything?
SH: Nothing systematic, but I am a bit of a fetishist, so stuff does gather up around me. Stones, bits of stick, birch bark, postcards, boxes, paintings, many paintings over the years and books, of course. I have two bits of birch from New England, for example. One is a beautiful objet trouvé, a bit like a tilted-back human torso, a hollow section of birch trunk, a birch-bark Apollo. I picked it up off the ground years ago when we were visiting Don Hall and Jane Kenyon up at Eagle Pond. And I have this other thing I got recently when I traveled up with Bill and Beverley Corbett to Dunbarton in New Hampshire to see Robert Lowells grave. I found a birch stick beside the burial ground and then found myself holding on to it. Thats what happens. Ive got stones from Beeny Cliff and bits of granite from Joyces Tower and sea-green slate from Yeatss. A stone from Delphi. A view of Tintern Abbey. Orpheus on a vase. And on a plate. And on a medal.
HC: Since you grew up on a farm, I wonder if you have any pets or animals at home?
SH: Well, our attitude towards cats and dogs in the first life, in County Derry, was one of benign neglect. Affection, but no signs of affection. The dogs and cats were part of the life, definitely valued, but they werent exactly petted. They were kept out of the house, on the whole. But now at home in Dublin we have a dog named Carlow, and Carlow is in the house all the time. Theres no farm for him to roam in. Hes a sheepdog, all the same, and a sheepish dog too. And theres some debate among us as to whether hes a culchie or a yuppie.
HC: Whats a culchie?
SH: Oh, a rough-diamond country type at large in the city. I mean some of the family think of him as Carlo without the final w, a yuppified class of a character with aspirations to be an opera singer, perhaps; but to me he retains the w, like the Irish county, a Carlow who plays Gaelic football and maybe even the occasional game of hurling.
HC: If you could be an animal what would it be?
SH: I might enjoy being an albatross, being able to glide for days and daydream for hundreds of miles along the thermals. And then being able to hang like an affliction round some peoples necks.
HC: What about architecture? If you could be a building, what would you be?
SH: The Pantheon. Why not? Paul Muldoon once made me a monumental / Emmenthal when he assigned the poets their identities as cheeses. When I went to Rome, of course, I went to St. Peters Square and found it an overwhelming experience, partly because of the magnificent architectural sweep of it, but partly too because I had seen so many pictures of it and because I knew that if my father and mother had been alive, theyd have got terrific pleasure from the thought of my going there. It would have had a real religious dimension for them . . . I suppose I am just trying to explain to myself why the tears came to my eyes when I went into it. A sudden irrigation. But Im afraid I ended up returning over and over again to the Pantheon.
HC: Do you have a special affection for Italy?
SH: I do, yes. Its a place I feel I could live in - Tuscany, especially. Again, it may have to do with an early conditioning among all those Christian images. In Northern Europe and in North America, they have all peeled away by now from the actual environment: churches, statues, crucifixes, images of the Madonna, the Holy Family and so on - even in Ireland those things have evaporated out of topographical significance. And what has disappeared with them is the big unifying dream. But in Italy, the images and the humanist/Christian culture that put them in place seem to be saying that the dream is still a possibility. The Italians arent any more religious but the images are still on show there and still promise; they dont feel environmentally or architecturally superceded and so they still promote the possibility of meaning - to this child of the rural Catholic 1940s, at any rate. Maybe its just that you are more animated by the aesthetic in Italy.
HC: Do you ever feel confined by the personal mythologies that take over a life? For instance, the publics perception of the semiwildman from County Derry farmland who goes south, makes good and ends up Boylston Professor at Harvard?
SH: Well, Id go back to the image of the concentric ripples. They are always on the move and invisible to themselves. Its the person looking at the pool from the bank who sees the process as a pattern. The publics perception is just that, and you can never share it, even if you wanted to. And your own perception of yourself is always going to be very different. Imagine if you were an oyster. The public would see you as an infrangible nut, a kind of sea-raid shelter, but you would feel yourself all mother-of-pearly inwardness and vulnerability.
But to answer your question about the Boylston Professorship and making good and all that. Ive worked for my living in institutions for most of my life. I see nothing wrong with it. Of course, there is something perilous about it if you are a poet. You are cushioned from a certain exhilarating exposure to risk when you have a salary and a situation in life. But its better to recognize that and get on with the job than to live on the cushion and still go around pretending that you are somehow a free bohemian spirit. Some writers within the academy have this nous autres, les écrivains attitude, taking their big stipend and all their freebies and travel grants and Guggenheims but manifesting a kind of mauvaise foi by not admitting that their attachment to the academy is their own decision, as it were, and instead just going around mocking this dreary milieu they have opted for. Its an understandable defense mechanism, but it gets on my nerves. Its a sign that they have fallen for the myth of their own creativity. And that theyre too anxious about that public perception you ask about - since the myth prescribes the garret rather than the Guggenheim.
HC: As you know, there is a Ted Hughes poem that says everything is inheriting everything. One might argue that there are three literary bloodlines leading to the poetry of Seamus Heaney: the Gerard Manley Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Hughes connection, a kind of outburst poetry; and then theres the poetry of the intellectualizing line of wit, coming from Auden, Larkin and Lowell; and finally there are the others who present a kind of documentation of farmland and farm life, including Thomas Hardy and Patrick Kavanagh. I know it is a bit of a game to ask you this, and that it detracts from each writer in the fullest sense, but if I repeated each name, could you say in a sentence or two what draws you to each, beginning with Hopkins?
SH: With Hopkins the sense of the powerline of English language trembling under the actual verse line. The sense of big voltage.
HC: Dylan Thomas?
SH: The rhapsodic thing for sure. I cant remember whether I heard Thomass voice before I read him in a book. Poem in October meant a lot to me. And Fern Hill, Over Sir Johns Hill, In the White Giants Thigh, I see the boys of summer.
HC: And Lawrence?
SH: Lawrence meant a lot to me too for a while. But for different reasons from Thomas and Hopkins. I liked the plainspokenness. Im thinking of Pansies. He fortified the refuser in me. The feelings I dont have, I wont say I have. The feelings you say you have, you dont have. If you want to have any feelings, we better give up the idea of having feelings altogether, that sort of stuff, you know? Lawrence came through strongest as a prose writer throughSons and Lovers. That really rocked you on your keel. But in my early twenties I did respond to the head-on antiromantic note in him, those poems where hes saying, Lets clean up this emotional morass. Lets sweep all this mush off the floor.
HC: Ted Hughes?
SH: He was a poet who had plugged into the powerpoint of Hopkins and was giving out the live energy.
SH: It took me about twenty years, reading Auden on and off, to come to the high regard for him I have now. He didnt mean much to me as a young writer. But as I got older and lived with all that was happening in Ireland during my thirties and forties, Audens punishment of the artistic with the ethical became very interesting to me. And all his dualisms. His formulation of the split in every poet between the Ariel and the Prospero. Between the pleasure-giving singer, the music-maker and the wisdom-speaker. The whole question of why he suppressed his poem Spain and whether that was right. His suppression of September 1, 1939. Maybe you have to be a bit older to appreciate the drama of those decisions and the seriousness of his concern. In fact, by the earnestness of his attention to his own texts, Auden shows that he doesnt really believe that poetry makes nothing happen. He was deeply, deeply worried about truth-telling in poetry, about the effect of a word or a work once it was released into the world. He would have agreed with Czeslaw Milosz that as a poet you should try to be sure that it is good spirits, not evil ones, who possess you when you are carried away in your writing.
HC: What about Larkin?
SH: A great enrichment to me as a reader. Im not sure that as a writer I got anything much. When we were young poets together in Belfast, Michael Longley and his wife Edna were always forwarding the Larkin-Wilbur line. And I would line up on the Lowell-Hughes side of things. It was partly because the sound I made in my lines was closer to the Anglo-Saxon roughage of Hughes and the head-on, less melodious note of Lowell. Michael, on the other hand, and Derek Mahon, were sponsors of immaculate melody. But still, that makes my attitude sound more prejudiced than it ever was. Larkin is one of the few who can make a catch in the breath.
HC: And Lowell?
SH: Lowell was a classic even when I was an undergraduate. I read The Quaker Graveyard in The Penguin Book of Contemporary American Poetry and was kind of goggle-eyed and goggle-eared, so to speak. Then I read the book about him by Hugh Staples, where The Quaker Graveyard is compared to Miltons Lycidas. So you can imagine my awe when I met him. And my joy when we got on together. This was the early seventies. At that time,Notebook and then History and For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin were coming out. The odd thing is, it was the blunt instruments in those books, those blank sonnets, that were Lowells strongest influence on my writing. The literary critic in me says Life Studies is the real goods, and then For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean, great public poems of our era: what I call the equestrian Lowell, the Lowell profiled nobly against his times. These poems do succeed magnificently, but in Notebook and its progeny he practiced a revenge against his own eloquence, and I found something heroic about the wrongheadedness and dare of that.
HC: In your elegy for Lowell, by the way, why does he say at the end, Ill pray for you?
SH: I suppose the fact that it is true is no reason why it should be there . . . He did actually say it to me, at the end of a week Id spent in his company at an arts festival in Kilkenny in 1975. Wed come up to Wicklow to this small house where we were living, really very confined; a couple of bedrooms and a living room and a kitchen. When Cal came in the kids were running around and I remember him saying to me, You see a lot of your children, because, of course, he lived in this mansion in Kent - Milgate - where there was a nanny in the west wing with Sheridan, and Cal and Caroline had separate work rooms, and came together to dine in the evening.
HC: So he said Ill pray for you because of your children?
SH: It was when he was taking his farewells. He didnt mention the children, but there was a tenderness in it. And I think it was partly his way of saying, I was once a Catholic too. Also a way of saying that he knew that I was out there in the cottage putting myself to the test as a writer. And he could probably see that there was something isolated and frail about the venture. But then too, there may have been the faintest backlight of irony in what he said, a hamming up of the old Catholic bit, I dont know. But there was kindness, I know, and he probably foreknew that what he said in farewell would be remembered. Anyhow, I took it as a positive, ironically hedged goodness.
HC: What about Hardy?
SH: From the moment I read The Oxen, the moment I read the opening chapters of Return of the Native, I was at home with him - something about the vestigial ballad atmosphere, the intimacy, the oldness behind and inside the words, the peering and puzzlement and solitude. He was there like a familiar spirit from school days. I remember hearing the poem Weathers read on the BBC radio when I was eleven or twelve and never forgetting it. The Oxen I learned by heart around that time also. I loved the oddity and previousness of the English in it. The lonely barton by yonder coomb - that can still make me feel sad and taken care of all at once, le cor au fond du bois with a local accent.
SH: I was sort of pupped out of Kavanagh. I read him in 1962, after Id graduated from Queens and was teaching at St. Thomass, where my headmaster was the short-story writer Michael McLaverty. He lent me Kavanaghs Soul for Sale, which includes The Great Hunger, and at that moment the veil of the study was rent: it gave me this terrific breakthrough from English literature into home ground.
HC: Are you aware of a great deal of cross-fertilization between Irish and American poetry? Do you think there is still an Anglo-American matrix?
SH: Definitely. But this is not a new thing. Irish poets of the 1950s were very deliberately involved in absorbing and coming to terms with American poetry. John Montague had been a graduate student in Berkeley; Snyder and Creeley and Carlos Williams were among the people he had met and been influenced by. There was genuine cross-fertilization there because Montague perceived that these writers could help to develop a new ecology in Irish poetry, more erotic, more Olsonian, a global regionalism, as he called it. Before Paul Muldoon lit out for the territory, there was a move on to go west. Thomas Kinsella, for example, began under the sway of Auden, but in a very deliberate way moved towards Pound. This was fundamentally an aesthetic move, a case of opting for a more cantified way of getting at personal and mythological matter, but there was also something Hiberno-countercultural about it, a shrug at the English models.
HC: It is notable that if you look at a handful of American universities, you find Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, Eamon Grennan, Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney.
SH: And John Montague is over there in Albany. Well, maybe the forms of Irish poetry and of Irish society are still in some uneasy, self-questioning relation to the determining power and example of England and English and the whole Anglo tradition. Theres something fleet and volatile in Ireland, and in the young people especially - they would recognize their vibe, if youll pardon the expression, in a line like O my America, my new found land. Paul Muldoon is a clear example of that. His phantasmagoria had always involved two Americas: the native American experience and that other LA-Hollywoody-Raymond Chandlery scene. And then there was the power surge that came from America to the womens movement. Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich were animating and ratifying for Eavan Boland. Eamon Grennan is a genuine dual citizen, on the campus at Vassar, but as Irish as the strand at Ventry. And Derek Mahon had already been to Lowell country back in the seventies, when he was knocking around Cambridge and then writing his own Marvellian octosyllabics in the wake of Lowells Near the Ocean volume.
HC: What about your critics? Is there one you find especially perceptive?
SH: Well, reading Helen Vendler is always a corroboration. She is like a receiving station picking up on each poem, unscrambling things out of word-waves, making sense of it and making sure of it. She can second-guess the sixth sense of the poem. She has this amazing ability to be completely alive to the bleeper going off at the heart of it, sensitive to the intimacies and implications of the words and your way with them, and at the same time she has the ability to create the acoustic conditions where you can hear the poem best, the ability to set it within a historical context and to find its literary coordinates. And then there is just the sheer undimmed enthusiasm. Helen has been a friend to me as well as a critic, and the friendship has been tonic because all that critical élan comes out in her social self as sheer exhilarating intelligence. The great thing about Helen is not just her literary capacity, its her sense of honesty, justice and truthfulness. I value these things deeply in her as a person and, naturally, they are part of her verity as a critic.
HC: In your poem The Sounds of Rain, an elegy for your friend Richard Ellmann, you speak of yourself as being steeped in luck with good health and love and work. Do you cease to feel steeped, steeped, steeped in luck?
SH: No. I still think I have been inordinately lucky. I regard first of all the discovery of a path into the writing of poems as luck. And the salute that my early poems received and the consequent steadying of direction and identity in my life all coinciding with, as you say, love - I do regard it as a real benediction. And, of course, theres the whole matter of friendships and family solidarity and the trust of cherished ones.
HC: How did you meet your wife?
SH: I met her at a dinner in Belfast at the university. It was a valedictory event for one of the chaplains and she came as the guest of someone else. I talked to her across the table and arranged to pair off with her at the end of the meal. I walked her back to her apartment and on the way called into my own flat to get a book that I lent her and then told her that I would need it back on the following Thursday. So on the Thursday I met her again and we went to a party being run by this marvelous character called Sean Armstrong (Sean was shot in the early days of the Troubles and theres a poem about him in Field Work, and about that night at his place, the one called A Postcard from North Antrim). Anyhow, we stayed late at the party, and I dallied around her apartment later still and by the wee hours we had more or less proposed to each other.
HC: Youve been married how many years?
SH: Twenty-nine years.
HC: Youve written many poems about your wife, but by comparison very few about your children. Do you find the experience of fatherhood unsuitable for the lyric?
SH: Theres something traditionally sanctioned about the woman as the beloved, as the locus of the lyric. Youre playing the old tunes again, to some extent unthinkingly. With the children I suppose I felt I would be intruding on them. I read an interview recently, for example, with Michael Yeats - whos now a man in his seventies - and he said a poet shouldnt write about his children until theyve left school. A parent has a sort of emotional upper hand. Its not that the children arent very dear to me.
HC: Do any of your children write?
SH: Michael is a freelance journalist in Dublin and covers the general area of popular culture. Reviews and interviews of bands. Columns on concerts and movies. Does it all with some brio. But none of them so far does creative writing.
HC: Does your son thats in a rock band write songs?
SH: No, but hes part of the whole band-buzz thats come to life in Dublin recently. Hes a drummer and a good one. And Catherine is still in college. Who knows what Catherine will do?
HC: How do your poems begin? When you write, do you finish everything you begin?
SH: I finish nearly everything. But I dont always get to the finish with that sense of rightness and supply that youre always longing for. And like everybody else, I dont understand where the sense of rightness comes from in the first place. You live for that given joy, that feeling that the words are coming out like fiats, that now you are Sir Oracle and can issue the edict. Im what Tom Paulin once called a binge writer. My typical surge would last three or four months. Not every day necessarily but in a coherent self-sustaining action, when you have that happy sense of being confirmed. When youre high as a kite, really, on a high that only poetry can give.
HC: How much is form and prosody on your mind when youre writing, as you begin a poem?
SH: Its hard to be exact about that. Form and prosody arent usually on anybodys mind until after the first line or two. Theres a summons in those first words; theyre like a tuning fork and if things go right the tune of the whole poem will get established and sustained in the opening move or movement. Usually, to tell you the truth, I just follow my ear. If Im working with pentameters, I do often beat out the line with my fingers - Marie used to tell me to watch the road when shed see me starting to tap the steering wheel. But early on I tended to go more with the camber and timbre of my voice and didnt think too much about keeping the accent or being metrically correct. In fact, I intended the thing to be a bit bumpy and more or less avoided correctness of that kind. If anything has happened over the years, its that Ive become more conscious of the rules. I take more care with the tum-ti-tum factor. And Im not sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopkins was my first love, after all.
HC: Is irony something you prize in poetry?
SH: I have no prejudice in favor of it. The word can suggest at worst a knowingness of tone that just irks me. I like irony that is tragic-historical rather than emotionally protective. Zbigniew Herbert, for example. Or something mordant to the point of savagery, like Joyce or Flann OBrien or Milosz in a poem like Child of Europe.
HC: Do you think you can make generalizations about the poetry of Ireland? That it is musical or rhythmic, self-consciously so? Or that it is not experimental? That there are no Ashberys or Ginsbergs? That emotional expression is constrained? Or that it is searching for an Irish conscience? That it is rural rather than urban?
SH: I dont think any one of those things could be maintained with confidence any more. For example, the poetry of Medbh McGuckian represents something experimental. She seems to me to have access to a language you might call Kristevan, something that could be set beside Ashbery. Not influenced by Ashbery, however. Medbh is sui generis. And theres Paul Durcan, for example, in the Republic of Ireland, and Paul has brought this liberationist disruptive surreal satirical element into play. Its not Irish in an expected way. Its certainly not rural. Its deadpan and passionate all at once, its saying something like The spoof will make you free. In its way, its out to forge the uncreated conscience of the race but its very aware that forgery has always been a problem dogging this matter of conscience. And of course you could say that too about the work done by the other Paul - Paul Mulboon, as I once called him. Muldoon is a mixture of attachments and detachments that are as much part of his genius as they were of Joyces. Hes an heir to the mordant thing in Stephen Dedalus but hes also swimming in the meltdown of English after Finnegans Wake. And he swims in the wake of the Irish language too, and picks up on that unsentimental, unpathetic pride in wordcraft, in being a penman. Hes bardic in that strictly professional sense. Hed find the god Lugh in the word ludic, and that would only be the start of it. Yet its all grounded in his need to answer. But if he heard me saying so, hed probably remember thatanser is the Latin for goose and start to cackle. He has a merry way with weighty matters. And others have learned from him - Ciaran Carson, for example, who is very writerly but very roguish and clued in to the local scene in Belfast. I suppose Im talking about younger writers because they have complicated the picture of Irish poetry. As have the writers of poetry in the Irish language itself. Translation has opened things up. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill has now a wide audience in English and the paradox is that this has made Irish a kind of world language. And come to think of it, theres nothing emotionally constrained about Nualas work.
HC: I know youve been criticized by feminist Irish writers recently. What is your response to them?
SH: This is a criticism grounded in a corrective impulse. It insists on rereading the tropes - the trope of Ireland as passive suffering female, the trope of Ireland as ruined maid and so on. . . . All that traditional iconography of Irish poetry is under scrutiny. And sensibilities affected by that kind of thing are being challenged. It flows out of the liberationist, subversive energy thats coursing in the country. And it was inevitable that some poems Ive written would come in for ideological stick. And then theres the visibility you referred to earlier on. I think Im perceived as not only being visible but being in the light, so that opening a few holes in me can be regarded as a contribution to a new illumination scheme.
But in a more general way, the target of Eavan Bolands criticism, for example, has been the idea of poetic authority as it derives from a male invention of tradition. She wants to expose it as a kind of false consciousness, a formation proceeding from Romantic and from some specifically Irish precedents, something that has hampered and disoriented women poets and skewed their chances of self-recognition and transformation. Boland has mobilized a lot of oppositional thinking on this front and has become emblematic of the resurgence of women in and through poetry, and I think male poets have taken cognizance of this as a big element in the intellectual life of the country. It is a part of the new weather in the Irish consciousness. For example, it was behind the feminists attack on The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing a few years ago. Their anger and complaints were certainly to be expected when you consider that all the directors of the Field Day Theatre Company - of which I am one - were men, and so were all the editors. Astonishing, really. And there was no section in the anthology devoted to that whole new body of Irish feminist discourse which has been emerging over the past three decades. So there was a scandal for feminists in that.
The odd thing is that the anthology was very much a postcolonial reading of the Irish situation and therefore should have been sensitive to the silencings that women and womens writing had undergone, but I think that for everybody involved the pressure at the horizon was from Northern Ireland politics rather than gender politics. The warp in the Field Day glass was very much a matter of the northern background of the directors. But the other truth is that this was and is a magnificent three-volume conspectus and a critical rereading of fifteen hundred years of Irish writing in Latin and Norman French and Irish and English, from the time of St. Patrick to the 1990s. It remains a monument to the genius of Seamus Deane, who was the general editor. Its just a pity that the absent section doomed everything else that was present in those four thousand pages. I suppose one good result has been the fact that a fourth volume edited entirely by women is now in preparation. But it was instructive at the time to watch the proscription in action. Some women writers who were included talked as if they had been left out. And some as if they would have preferred to have been left out. It became a whipping boy, or a boy-whipping. A real hosting of the she.
HC: What are your plans for your forthcoming sabbatical?
SH: I plan to stay as still as possible and to get into the habit of going to the cottage in Wicklow - which we were eventually able to buy in 1988. I want to do a lot of reading and take things as they come. The last time I had a year off I was determined not to set up a lot of writing goals. I more or less convinced myself that there was no need to do anything. And that worked. I really got going on those twelve-line poems in Seeing Things. So Im taking the same line now: reading, stillness, maybe a journal, trust in poetry.
During the preparation of this interview for publication, Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in literature. The following brief update seemed necessary.
HC: In your new volume, The Spirit Level, do you feel your work has taken you in any new direction . . . as in a poem like Cassandra?
SH: Cassandra was written very quickly. It came out like a molten rill from a spot I hit when I drilled down into the Oresteia bedrock thats under Mycenae Outlook. When I went home from Harvard in 1994, shortly after our interview that May, the really big shift - big at all levels, personal and public - was the IRA ceasefire the following August. That was a genuine visitation, the lark sang and the light ascended. Everything got a little better and yet instead of being able just to bask in the turn of events, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at the waste of lives and friendships and possibilities in the years that had preceded it. It was 1994 and we had got no further, politically, than we had been in 1974. Had slipped back, indeed. And I kept thinking that a version of the Oresteia would be one way of getting all of that out of the system, and at the same time, a way of initiating a late-twentieth-century equivalent of the Te Deum. The three Aeschylus plays could be a kind of rite envisaging the possibility of a shift from a culture of revenge to a belief in a future based upon something more disinterested. At any rate, I began to read the Aeschylus, and as I did, I also began to lose heart in the whole project. It began to seem too trite - art wanting to shake hands with life. Ideally, what I needed was the kind of poem Andrew Marvell wrote on Cromwells return from Ireland and what I was setting up for was a kind of Jonsonian masque. At least thats what I began to feel. And then the figure of the Watchman in that first scene of the Agamemnon began to keep coming back to me with his in-between situation and his responsibilities and inner conflicts, his silence and his knowledge, and all this kept building until I very deliberately began a monologue for him using a rhymed couplet like a pneumatic drill, just trying to bite and shudder in toward whatever was there. And after that first movement, sure enough, the other bits came definitely and freely, from different angles and reaches. In a way, that material had as much force and underlife for me as the bog bodies.
HC: How did you choose what to say in your Nobel lecture?
SH: Two specific things helped me to get started on that address. First of all, I read the lecture Kenzaburo Ôe delivered to the Swedish Academy in 1994 and the direct, personal nature of what he said inclined me to take a similar approach. And then one night in Dublin, in the course of conversation with Derek Mahon, we played with the question of whether or not Yeats ought to be mentioned in the lecture. Not to do so would be a bit overweening, but to bring him in could be a bit overpowering. But even so, we decided he had to be brought in. And thats how I got started. It should also be said, however, that the lecture was done at a frantic pace. The six weeks between the announcement of the news and the deadline when you have to deliver your manuscript for translation are probably the most hectic and distracting weeks of your life. Youre going through the world like a skimming stone. There was nothing for it but to hit the podium at full tilt.
HC: What was your response to receiving the Nobel Prize?
SH: It was a bit like being caught in a mostly benign avalanche. You are totally daunted, of course, when you think of previous writers who received the prize. And daunted when you think of the ones who didnt receive it. Just confining yourself to Ireland you have Yeats, Shaw and Beckett in the first group and James Joyce in the second. So you soon realize youd better not think too much about it at all. Nothing can prepare you for it. Zeus thunders and the world blinks twice and you get to your feet again and try to keep going.