We welcome the arrival of this thick (over five hundred pages) collection of interviews with Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney conducted over the past decade by Dublin civil servant, poet and essayist Dennis O'Driscoll, who describes his interviewing role thus: "My own role here is that of prompter rather than interrogator -the book was in no sense envisaged to be a 'tell all' account of Seamus Healey's life. ( . . .Yet)The only stipulation made at the outset by the poet was that he would not engage in detailed analytical discussion of individual poems. ( . . .)This book does not pretend to be an authorized 'reader's guide' to Seamus Healey's poems as reference points. It offers a biographical context for the poems and a poetry-based account of the life. It reviews the life by re-viewing it from the perspective of Heaney's late sixties: a life which has itself been monitored - sometimes almost as closely as his books have been reviewed - by critics and
journalists (Introduction, pp. xi, xii)."
With those caveats this massive work goes on to explore freely all of the above and more.
If you wish a profound, technical, thematic examination of the earlier works of Heaney (up to 1998 and The Spirit Level) you do very well to read carefully the much briefer (not 200 small pages) work of the great critic and professor Helen Vendler in Seamus Heaney. In any case her work is the most accessible and kindest manner to approach this great Irish poet's opus; she truly and gently lies open the meaning and possibilities of his writing in a global manner limited only by the demands of the shortened space, much as she did with Heaney's forefather more fully in Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form as well as The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Here, as Irish poet O'Driscoll cautions, we may not find the poet's technical explication of the development of his writing, although this tangentially is inevitable. We find the life and the context granted by that life for this most transcendent yet deeply involved poet. That life in times of Troubles and of woe and of political and spiritual waste, of human waste, provides much which troubles the poet deeply in his search for a true expression of a deeper (transcendent) meaning, one which we may discover as well through careful reading of the work.
Stylistically this book is set up in a catechetical question and answer format reminiscent of that penultimate episode in Ulysses (Gabler Edition), another influence for Mr. Heaney. This might bring a smile to some readers' lips, or a compulsion to read; it is refreshing, and one feels the humility, the subtlety, the invisibility which O'Driscoll brings to his enormous task.
The chapters are arranged around the volumes of work; as cautioned above the discussion will be neither technical nor analytical of individual poems, but of the life which gave them fruition. In a way we may find this disingenuous as this life cannot be separate from this poetry; a close discussion of certain relevant lines and their significances is inevitable and unavoidable and very, very welcomed.
The Nobel Laureate and Irish Poet Seamus Heaney has been one of our greatest poets in English in this past half century; we do well to read him now as ever to understand where we come from and where we stand and to where we may be going: this is the service, the grace, the gift of any great and serious poet, and in particular the gifted, trained Heaney.
Let us start at the beginning to understand his life's work once more. The individual volumes are readily available here upon this broad amazon, but it might be more favorable to get the recollection of the early volumes in Poems, 1965-1975: Death of a Naturalist / Door Into the Dark / Wintering Out / North. In any case I urge you to collect all that you can of him, including the several recordings, and read or listen as carefully and deeply as possible, repeatedly, as lectio divina, and learn about our world more than any news broadcaster or commentator can holler at you. Heaney has thought most deeply about these things, and shares most clearly and succinctly Truth, generously, with us within the tradition of poetry in the English and Saxon and Irish tongues. Oddly we find not much discussion of his excellent translation (and recording) of Beowulf.
Read this book. A worthy Christmas gift!
Within the text, Heaney discusses the very phenomenon we find mentioned by O'Driscoll in the Introduction, that a meta-analysis of the poetry itself serves no one well. In discussing the "solemn" Station Island, Heaney comments: I didn't begin, as you know, by writing at the head of my page, 'Now I shall punish lyric.' After the poem was published, I was trying to characterize it from the outside - and doing so, I suppose, in order to give a new reader some orientation. There's a very earnest note to the thing, but I don't think I could have done it any other way. The literary critic in me might have fun with what eventually came out, but the poet in me just had to work through the material that was piled up in the middle of his road. Then if you'll excuse the expression, he lightened up and got a bit of lift-off in Sweeney Redividus' (p. 240)."
The best orientation a new reader might find lies within Vendler's study, although it is ten years too short. This present study adequately makes up the short fall and far more. Meet our greatest living poet, and study him very well.
Excellent, comprehensive bibliography, glossary, maps and chronology, etc., accompany these interviews, as one would expect from such a precisely academic work. Give it to one you love very deeply. Give it to yourself to grow in love and in wisdom, but read it!