Yale Bulletin and Calendar

November 3, 2000Volume 29, Number 9

Seamus Heaney

Heaney recalls when 'poetry
came like a grace into my life'

There was a time in Seamus Heaney's life when he thought being a poet was beyond his capability.

In fact, from the time the Nobel laureate was a young teenager, he had a "yearning" to write poetry but was "afraid of it," he told a small gathering of students and others at a master's tea in Jonathan Edwards College on Oct. 25. During his visit to campus, Heaney also gave a reading of his works before a packed and rapt audience in Battell Chapel. The event was offered as part of Yale's 300th birthday celebration.

"I had a sense that [poetry] belonged to some other dimension or realm, and that I wasn't in that dimension or realm," Heaney told the audience at the master's tea.

Heaney then waxed poetic as he summarized his rise to world fame, comparing his increasingly public life to an ever-widening series of ripples in a pool into which a stone has been dropped. Student members of the audience, most clutching volumes of Heaney's verse, chuckled at the poet's modest account of his path from the family farm in Mossbaum in County Derry, Northern Ireland, where he spent his early years, to his status as an internationally known writer, Harvard professor and the 1995 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was while he was teaching at a Belfast college that Heaney finally decided to "take a shot" at writing poetry -- motivated, he said, by "some desperation to compensate for the other inadequacies in the rest of my life."

"Poetry came like a grace into my life," Heaney told his audience.

His earliest poems, he recalled, were influenced by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh and English poet Ted Hughes, and his first published works were "pastiches" of Gerard Manley Hopkins' verses. Having the latter works published by the Belfast Telegraph, Heaney commented, was "an important confirmation" for him as a young writer. From there, his "ripples" as a poet grew as his works were published in the Irish Times, The Observer and The New Statesman, among other publications. But his real "entry into the other dimension," he said, was when Faber & Faber, T.S. Eliot's publisher, invited Heaney to submit his work. "Eliot died, and I got in," quipped the poet.

With "Digging," the first poem in his first volume, Heaney said he felt he had hit "something like a vocal stride."

Still, even after producing several publications and winning several major awards, Heaney grappled with issues concerning his role as a poet. In the mid 1970s, he resigned from a teaching post at Queen's College and moved his family to the countryside in the south of Ireland, where he devoted himself entirely to writing. "I felt I had to find out what being a poet meant," explained Heaney, who is also a critic, translator and playwright.

Heaney continued to publish more volumes of poetry as well as other works and eventually returned to teaching, holding posts in Ireland and at Harvard University, where he became the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and is now the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence.

"I was teaching, writing, bewildering, hurrying -- doing too many things and risking my poetry through being busy, but I've always done that," he told his audience. "So, that's where you find me, at risk now ... thinking about how perilous this is and still doing it."

After Heaney's personal reflections, the poet addressed questions from Marie Borroff, Sterling Professor Emeritus of English; David Bromwich, the Bird White Housum Professor of English; Penelope Laurans, associate dean of Yale College, assistant to President Richard C. Levin and a lecturer in English, who is a friend of the poet; and members of the audience. Periodically, Heaney would recite lines of poems as he discussed such topics as finding his own voice as a poet or the difficulties of offering up new translations of classic works while remaining true to the original.

Many questions concerned Heaney's recent award-winning translation of the Old English epic "Beowulf." After comparing some lines of the medieval work with his own translation, the poet admitted, "Sometimes you take creative liberties."

Asked which poets he most admires, Heaney said that he appreciates fellow Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, whom he described as a "19th-century sage" who has the "voice of someone grave, friendly and very experienced." He said he found Dante's work poignant, both for its beauty and for the poet's insights on human experience, which Heaney said he found particularly relevant at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

That conflict, the poet told his audience, has been central to both his work and personhood. "I grew up bonded to the political and anthropological culture of Northern Ireland," said Heaney. "I felt deeply implicated."

Heaney hailed the efforts of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell and President Clinton in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and called the peace accord "epoch-making." "Everybody has experienced a change and everybody has changed a little bit" because of it, he said. He noted, however, that the threat of a return to violence is constant, and lamented, "the desolation is always with us."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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