Heaney on poetry, physicality, language and politics

Gavin Esler with Seamus Heaney on Hard Talk Extra forty years after the publication of Death of a Naturalist. It raises memories of Gestetnered, blue ink copies of Blackberry Picking. Heaney early on acknowledges the physicality of his work, citing Kavanagh’s work and Hughes’ View of a Pig as things he linked to his own rural upbringing in Co Derry:

The pig lay on a barrow dead.
It weighed, they said, as much as three men.
Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.
Its trotters stuck straight out.

Interesting stuff on language, Co Derry, received English, and the Irish tradition. He reckons he has three languages: English, Irish and the local Co Derry language, “with a lot of Scots words in it”. He’s been translating into standard English, a fifteenth century Scots poet called Robert Henryson. “The more boundary crossing the better”. Nomenclature was basically what the civil war was about: British or Irish? But now after the Belfast Agreement, there is agreement that you can be British and Irish, it’s enshrined, there’s more permission.

On his refusal to lend his support to any given political cause: “Once a writer is levied or enlisted you have lost your self respect, which is a writer’s only passport to the future”.

Interesting stuff on his latest collection, District and Circle” title=”District and Circle”>District and Circle.

  • Pete Baker

    Seems to cover a lot of the same ground of recent interviews.. neatly *ahem* collected here

  • Did you know Seamus Heaney’s first book of poems is called “The Spirit Level”
    Not alot of people know that 😉

  • Pete Baker

    Actually, they [mostly] know that his first published book of collected poems is called Death of a Naturalist.. published in 1966

    The Spirit Level book of collected poems was first published in 1996.

  • Harry

    There’s only so many frogs and bogs a man can deal with. Heaney was hardly the sexiest writer. Remarkably quiet on the northern issue too.

    Between my finger and my thumb
    An Assembly suspended. Isn’t this fun?

    Below my window
    the clean rasping sound
    Of Hain digging deeper in gravelly ground.
    The GFA sinking, we all look down.

  • Mick Fealty

    North is your man. But as the man says:

    “Once a writer is levied or enlisted you have lost your self respect, which is a writer’s only passport to the future”.

  • Harry

    “Once a writer is levied or enlisted you have lost your self respect, which is a writer’s only passport to the future”.

    That is correct of course for a writer but the words ‘levied’ and ‘enlisted’ give the game away. Was Heaney unable to come to a conclusion that was simultaneously engaged and authentic? Can one not deal with a situation without becoming ‘levied’ and ‘enlisted’? Why are avoidance, non-enlistment and intellectual exile proper responses to the situation in northern ireland?
    Most likely because of the hopelessness of the situation, the paralysis engendered by britain’s definitive intervention and the inescapability of nationalist depowerment. What is left to a middle-class nationalist with a pernchant for not hurting people who nonetheless, with the ego of a writer, wants to live his life?

    And so in a sense his poetry and writing are little more than just another product of the political situation, a poetic expression of a mentality shared amongst many constitutional nationalists – a kind of blanking out and looking elsewhere.
    An invisible pall remains however, unexplored, unrecognised and quietly stifling; damaging integrity by depowering it.

  • hacker

    “Why are avoidance, non-enlistment and intellectual exile proper responses to the situation in northern ireland?”

    A little harsh. Heaney did address N Ireland in many poems, but in most appeared to take the view that the conflict was something encoded into the Irish DNA, thus unavoidable – thus all that stuff about bog bodies from prehistory showing signs of violence such as existed at the height of the troubles. “We sup our little destiny again” and all that.
    It reminds me of something George Mitchell said about the Northern people telling him “Senator, you’re wasting your time here” as if the conflict was something that existed outside of Ulster society and acted upon it. Unchangeable.