“If I do write something, Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”

In today’s Observer Henry McDonald notes a recent post by Danny Morrison on his blog where he takes issue with an account by Seamus Heaney of a chance meeting between the two on a train – a meeting which informed part of a poem in his 1996 collection The Spirit Level. The account appears in the recently published collection of interviews with Heaney by Denis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones. From the Observer article.

In the recently published book of interviews with Heaney, Stepping Stones by Dennis O’Driscoll, the poet recalls the train journey when he is asked a question about his 1996 poem The Flight Path, which also recounts the incident. Heaney replies: “The account of what went on in the train is as it happened, yes. I make the speaker a bit more aggressive than he was at the time, but the presumption of entitlement on his part, which was the main and amazing aspect of that meeting, is rendered faithfully.

“It was all done pretty discreetly, actually. My interlocutor was the Sinn Féin spokesman, Danny Morrison, whom I didn’t particularly know at the time. He came down from his place in the carriage and sat into the seat in front of me for maybe eight or 10 minutes … I didn’t feel menaced. It was a straightforward face-to-face test of will or steadiness. I simply rebelled at being commanded. If anybody was going to pull rank, it wasn’t going to be a party spokesman.”

“This was in pre-hunger-strike times, during the ‘dirty protest’ by Republican prisoners in the H-Blocks. The whole business was weighing on me greatly already and I had toyed with the idea of dedicating the Ugolino translation [his version of an episode in Dante’s Inferno] to the prisoners. But our friend’s intervention put paid to any such gesture. After that, I wouldn’t give and wasn’t so much free to refuse as unfree to accept.”

Those lines from the poem The Flight Path

So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?’ ‘If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’
And that was that. Or words to that effect.

According to Danny Morrison,

“I saw Seamus Heaney sitting two seats down across the carriage from where I was. I went over and asked if he minded me sitting down and talking to him. He was very polite. Back then I would not have had the media profile I later had so I explained who I was. I told him about the dire situation in the jails and the fact that the prisoners were talking about going on hunger strike. I asked him to consider if there was anything he could do on their behalf, if he could add his voice to the growing complaints. For example, Archbishop O Fiaich had, by this time, visited the H-Blocks and, to the embarrassment of the British government, had compared the prison to the sewers of Calcutta.

Seamus told me he was writing a poem and had been thinking about the prisoners. He told me the story from Dante’s Inferno of Count Ugolino who was imprisoned with his children and grandchildren underground and left to starve, Ugolino’s eating his dead children’s flesh to delay his own starvation. Seamus said he imagined that this could be some sort of metaphor for hunger striking though I was lost as to what he meant.”

Which doesn’t actually contradict Seamus Heaney’s account. Both men could have been perfectly polite during the exchange and yet the request, “to consider if there was anything he could do on their behalf, if he could add his voice to the growing complaints”, would clearly imply a taking of sides on the part of Heaney.

Danny Morrison also, helpfully, includes this in his post

In ‘Stepping Stones’ Seamus Heaney elaborates further on 1981. O’Driscoll says: During the H-Block hunger strikes, it must have been impossible not to feel something like guilt at not being able to help alleviate the situation or contribute to its resolution.

“It was impossible, yes. This was during the time when ‘Station Island’ was being written, and the self-accusation of those days is everywhere in the sequence. Also in individual poems such as ‘Chekhov on Sakhalin’ and ‘Sandstone Keepsake’ and ‘Away From It All’. Because of my earlier brush with Mr Morrison on the train, during ‘the dirty protests’, I was highly aware of the propaganda aspect of the hunger strike and cautious about being enlisted. There was realpolitik at work; but, at the same time, you knew you were witnessing something like a sacred drama. If I had followed the logic of the Chekhov poem, I’d have gone to the prison, seen what was happening to the people on the hunger strike and written an account of it, ‘not tract, not thesis’. In truth, I was ‘away from it all’ during those months: at a physical remove, living in Dublin, going on holiday in France.” [added emphasis]

In ‘Frontiers of Writing’, you touch on the evening when the body of Francis Hughes – a neighbour’s son and the second hunger striker to die – was being waked in his home in County Derry. You were not only in Oxford when he died, but staying – of all places – in a British cabinet minister’s rooms.

“It was bewildering. Charles Monteith had brought me as his guest to that year’s Chiceley dinner in All Souls College. The Fellow’s room I was assigned for the night was one that belonged to Sir Keith Joseph, the then Minister of Education in the Thatcher government. It took me ten years to come back to that occasion and see it as emblematic of the general stalemate. Francis Hughes was a neighbour’s child, yes, but he was also a hit man and his Protestant neighbours would have considered him involved in something like a war of genocide against them rather than a war of liberation against the occupying forces of the crown. At that stage, the IRA’s self-image as liberators didn’t work much magic with me. But neither did the too-brutal simplicity of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘A crime is a crime is a crime. It is not political.’ My own mantra in those days was the remark by Milosz that I quote in ‘Away From It All’; ‘I was stretched between contemplation of a motionless point and the command to participate actively in history.’ [added emphasis]

Heaney has spoken elsewhere about the risks to a writer of “being enlisted”

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”.

And on Czeslaw Milosz, from one of my earliest posts on Slugger

Within characteristically dense but measured prose Heaney pays tribute to Milosz and his “wish that poetry in general should be capable of providing an elevated plane of regard” while the poet should seek to imbue the work with “awareness of the triteness and tribulations of other people’s lives [that is] needed to humanise the song”. A duality of being that Heaney identifies in Milosz’s work as “the speech of the whole man.”

And from another interview with Heaney

“Let me quote my hero, Milosz: ‘Poetry below a certain level of awareness does not interest me.’ I think there’s a problem with political poetry that is howling that it’s aware.”

Or as Derek Mahon said

“There was a time when people – much more English people than Irish – would ask, ‘Why don’t these Ulster poets come out more explicitly and say what they are for?’ But there is all this ambiguity. That is poetry. It is the other thing that is the other thing.”

But I suspect much of that will be lost on many too..

If it is lost, consider this instead – “the first step is to act with good authority by telling the truth to your own tribe”