Stepping Stones: Interview with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll | Book review

Here, in effect, is Seamus Heaney's autobiography - and what a good way of doing it, says Nicholas Lezard

Here, in effect, is Seamus Heaney's autobiography - and what a good way of doing it, in 500 pages of conversational interview with Dennis O'Driscoll, himself an accomplished and indeed knowledgeable poet. He compiled the highly amusing Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, which included the Irish Farmers' Journal headline noting Heaney's Nobel prize: "Bellaghy celebrates as farmer's son wins top literary award".

Which isn't to make fun of the Irish Farmers' Journal: Heaney has always been rural, making much of his rustic upbringing, and I was completely charmed by his take on his move to County Wicklow in 1972: "Horace says: vivitur parvo bene. You can live well on a little . . . [I and his wife] had both grown up in the country, so for us there was something rich and unstrange about bathing the kids by firelight, having them play around in the farmyard next door, giving them an experience of the dark country nights. It was more than nostalgic. It seemed right to supply them with memories of hedgebacks and hayfields and an open fire." Of course, for a countryman he does get about an awful lot, whether picking up the Nobel, hobnobbing with the Clintons (Bill, apparently, is as good a reader as any academic), or having his toes trodden on by squirts like me at Poetry Society events (this is true: I did tread on his toes, and he was very nice about it). He has coped with his fame, and the demands of the book-launch and dinner-party circuit, with more dignity than just about anyone you can think of - only the more rabid Ulster Unionists get really upset by him ("you could hardly quarrel with that," says Heaney, quoting one vitriolic attack).

But you can wonder what all this has to do with poetry, and sometimes I find myself sympathising with Al Alvarez's condescending assessment of his work: "It challenges no presuppositions, does not upset or scare, is mellifluous, craftsmanly, and often perfect within its chosen limits." I must confess that I picked this book up more from a sense of duty than excited curiosity - I am not deaf to the virtues of Heaney's verse, but let's just say his Collected Poems would not be the volume I would rescue from a burning library, were I allowed only one.

So if I, who am not his number one fan, can love this book, then I can only imagine what transports the true Heaneyphile will be in. O'Driscoll's questions are very well chosen: as I said, he is knowledgeable, not just about poetry, but about the world, Heaney's influences, literary, historical and political; he has a knack for drawing his subject out without ever being banal or toadying.

And as for Heaney himself . . . well, no one of any account has a bad word to say of him and, after the publication of this, that position remains unchanged. There is an easy but firm intelligence behind everything Heaney says here: it might read as comfily as a fireside chat, but everything has been considered. See how deftly he parries The Problem With Larkin. Larkin had called him "the Gombeen Man" in his letters (Ted Hughes was "the Incredible Hulk"; "not bad," says Heaney); but Heaney is both magnanimous and insightful, saying not only "I suppose I was lucky to get off as lightly as I did", but "a lot of the time in the letters, he was writing a script for himself, lines to be spoken by his inner Steptoe, the Thersites of Toad Lane". That really does look like the best way to approach the Larkin persona; and, moreover, it is a memorable phrase.

So this really is a remarkable book. There isn't a dull, vapid or useless sentence in it; it's about what it is to be human, as much as it is about what it is to be a poet (or to be Seamus Heaney). It must have taken years, and an enormous amount of energy and thought on the part of both people. Even the index is highly commendable (always a good sign that a book has had properly lavish attention spent on it). It is packed with both insight and good humour. Even those possessing only scant familiarity with Heaney's verse will like it. Unbelievably, it only costs a tenner. Off you go.


Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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