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NONFICTION: Heaniverse

Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones (Faber & Faber, 2008)

Stepping Stones, a new collection of interviews with Seamus Heaney conducted by Dennis O’Driscoll, attempts to elucidate the poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel Committee called, “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

The interviews, the majority of which were conducted by mail, span from 2001 to 2006 and give a painstaking portrayal of Heaney that is both revelatory and familiar. In the closing section of his 1995 Nobel Laureate lecture, Heaney gives an idea of the overarching goals of his poetry throughout his career:

The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.

What is most significant about Stepping Stones is an accumulation of details that support Heaney’s feeling that poetry’s “power” derives from its ability to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.” Though overtly sympathetic, the portrait is one of a poet given to the life-task of navigating the chaotic political and social realities of his country via the didactic integrity and formal elegance of his poems.

The first section, “Bearings,” is primarily about Heaney’s childhood, the farm he grew up on and ancillary details—the vegetables that grew in his family’s garden, the animals they slaughtered at home and the ones they bought at the market. These initial interviews will inevitably appeal to hardcore Heaney fans, but for those who come to Stepping Stones with only a general sense of Heaney’s work, the meticulous cataloging of people, relations, and farm animals may seem tedious. Regardless, these minutiae provide insight into O’Driscoll’s project and into a widely held vision of Heaney’s work. Affirming and reaffirming the connection between Heaney’s poetry and its inextricable ties to locality, it is perhaps the most vivid editorial statement made by O’Driscoll throughout Stepping Stones.

In the middle section, “On the Books,” O’Driscoll uses Heaney’s books as chronologic markers, allowing the texts to guide the direction of his questions. Unafraid to let one question serve as a wormhole into an array of others, O’Driscoll leaves ample space for Heaney to elucidate, recollect, and pontificate, while maintaining a sense of the linearity of historical events. Of particular interest are Heaney’s remarks on other poets such as Robert Frost, Czeslaw Milosz, and Ted Hughes, which lend insight into his own aesthetic values and social context.

The final section of Stepping Stones, “Coda,” mainly serves to allow Heaney a look back at his career. Topics such as death and legacy arise, but with characteristic tact, Heaney manages to conclude the collection without a grand summation of his life and works.

What is derived from the 560 pages of interviews is a burgeoning portrait of a poet whose task has been to negotiate the space between the realms of public and private, or, perhaps more accurately, between the chaos of reality and the order of his imagination.


Ben Mirov

Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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