The Poet's Perspective
Adam Kirsch, in New York, interviewed Seamus Heaney, in Ireland, by fax in mid September.
Kirsch: When I was a student in one of your workshops, about 10 years ago, you had the class translating fragments of Beowulf which, I realize in retrospect, must have been the project you were working on at the time. This leads me to wonder about how close the connection is between your work as a teacher and your life as a writer.
Heaney: Teaching and writing have tended to proceed on parallel lines, but there have been times when there was indeed carry-over from the classroom to the creative work. In the 1970s, for example, I found myself learning to relish the poetry of Andrew Marvell and Sir Thomas Wyatt, and getting a handle on poetry of plainer speech than I had dwelt with heretofore. Which led me into a new appreciation of middle Yeats, of the short three-beat line and forward-driving syntax, and that paid in, in turn, to a poem like Casualty in Field Work. The traffic, however, was usually the other way. My teaching was animated by what I was reading and being excited by as a poet. Early on, Ted Hughes. Very early on, [Gerard Manley] Hopkins.
Kirsch: Do you miss teaching now?
Heaney: I dont miss teaching. Im learning to take my time for myself. When I was teaching, I gave a lot of my mind and anxiety to it. There was always something clenched and anxious in me until the classes were over. Once I was on the job, once I had got started, I felt safe enough, but the anticipation made me tense.
Kirsch: Teaching leads naturally to the subject of Harvard. Did you find the University a good environment for writing?
Heaney: Harvard created wonderful conditions for me as a writerbut the writing was done, almost entirely, when I got home. The appointment gave me economic safety, writerly support, and intellectual self-respectplus eight months to myself every year. From the beginning, and before the beginning, as it were, I felt welcome.
Kirsch: Are there any especially important friendships you made there?
Heaney: Even though Helen Vendler wasnt on the Harvard faculty when I came first in 1979, she was a guardian spirit; Robert Fitzgerald gave me the use of his study in Pusey Library. Monroe and Brenda Engel kept open house, Bob and Jana Kiely made me at home in Adams House. Then, too, in 1979, Frank Bidart, whom Id met in Dublin after the death of Robert Lowellhe was over seeing Caroline BlackwoodFrank brought me into his circle of friends, including Robert Pinsky and Alan Williamson. And most amazingly of all, through Frank and Helen, Marie and I were often in the company of Elizabeth Bishop and Alice Methfessel.*
So Harvard meant a lot in my writing life from the beginning, even though I didnt actually do much composition on the spot. The poems I did write there include Alphabetsthe 1984 Phi Beta Kappa poemand A Sofa in the Forties. And, of course, the John Harvard poem for the 350th anniversaryVillanelle for an Anniversary.
Kirsch: Do you find that American readers approach your work differently from Irish and English readers?
Heaney: Irish readers, British readers, American readers: is it odd that I havent a clue about how differently they react? Or better say, I cannot find the words to describe my hunch about them. Best to say that once a poem is finished I trust it to make its way, and I trust readers will find their way to it and through it, if the thing has got itself rightly expressed.
Kirsch: In District and Circle, there are a number of poems where the shadow of the September 11 attacks can be felt. Am I also right to sense, in The Aerodrome, an implied censure of Americas conduct in the world after September 11, or at least a statement of Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance?
Heaney: I felt implicated in American affairs in a new way in the past five years. Outraged at the blatant lies about Iraqs involvement in al Qaeda, at the regimes arrogance and stupidity, Guantnamo Bay and all the rest of it. But the poems at the start of District and CircleAnahorish 1944, The Aerodromearent particularly aimed as criticism. On the contrary, theres a recognition of the big contribution to world order made in Europe during World War II.
Anything Can Happen, on the other hand, is not only about the atrociousness of the September 11 attack, it is also a premonition of the deadly retaliation that was bound to come. Anything Can Happen is also, incidentally, a poem that arose from teaching. Id talked about the Horace Ode (I, 34) [on which the poem is based] in a lecture I gave at Harvard in the fall of 2000entitled Bright Boltsand remembered it after the Twin Towers attack.
Kirsch: In The Birch Grove, you offer an idyllic vision of a poet in retirement, ending with the lines: If art teaches us anything, he says, trumping life/With a quote, its that the human condition is private. The poem made me reflect on how many times you have written about the burden of the public, of the demands made on you by the communal and historical. Do you feel that being responsible, to an audience and a historical situation, has been a happy fate for you as a writer?
Heaney: Yes, I suppose I did feel a certain public pressure always. One of the very first poems I wrote was DockerThat fist would drop a hammer on a Catholicand one of the sturdiest was Requiem for the Croppies, written 50 years after 1916 [the year of the Easter Rising]. Being responsible and what it means, what it demands, have indeed preoccupied memaybe too much. But this is it, this is the thing, this is what youre up against.
*Helen Vendler, now Porter University Professor, joined the Harvard faculty in 1981. The late Robert Fitzgerald was Heaneys predecessor as Boylston professor. Professors Monroe Engel and Robert Kiely were and are Heaneys departmental colleagues. Bidart, Pinsky, and Williamson are contemporary American poets. Caroline Blackwood was Robert Lowells third wife. Alice Methfessel was Elizabeth Bishops companion.