It was Arts Week 1991 and Seamus Heaney had been reading in our Dominican Black Abbey. As presenter of Radio Kilkenny’s Arts show I approached the man who had just been described as ‘the greatest living poet in the English language’ for a few words. The following ensued.
G.M. Seamus Heaney you have been acclaimed as the greatest writing poet in the English language, the greatest living poet, how do you feel about that and does it affect your writing?
S.H. Well it doesn’t affect me personally at all. I don’t think it affects my writing, I take it all as a lot of blarney, it’s a way of being praised excessively which makes other people immediately suspicious as your question (laughing) implies. The thing about writing is it’s no bigger than you are yourself, those things have to be forgotten about, it’s one of the first lessons you learn. My first book was published twenty five years ago and one of the things you learn after a book is published is that there’s a creature called by your own name who isn’t quite you and that creature is invented in the minds of others from the book and he goes about the world on other peoples’ lips as you, but you’re different from that imagined creature so that’s the creature who’s sometimes praised, sometimes blamed, sometimes honoured, sometimes reviled and you have to have a very clear understanding that your personal life, your life in the eye of your family, friends, citizens is a different life from the imagined, fictional Seamus Heaney.
G.M. You mentioned in the reading today that one poem came to you as a gift, are you still a disciplined writer, do you sit down and write regularly or do you wait for the gift, the inspiration?
S.H. It would be difficult to write without something like inspiration, it’s a large, ancient word, it means a sense of possibility, it means something that tempts you, it means something that suggests you could go ahead, a little flicker of energy, now it doesn’t need to be dramatic but there has to be some faint sense of possibility and without that you can’t go ahead, I would say you need inspiration but it doesn’t need to be melodramatic.
G.M. In a week where I’ve seen paintings I cannot understand and readings I cannot relate to, is art getting out of hand, are we losing track of the simple poem, the simple painting?
S.H. I don’t know when this simple poem, simple painting you’re talking about existed, there’s never such a thing, I mean the poem as a kind of populist utterance as a kind of local ballad that’s fine but the poem as an expression of a sensibility of an individual’s sense of the world, that has always been a little odd and a little resistant and there have always been complaints about it, it’s not necessarily its function to be immediately available, ah it’s not any put down of a work to say ‘I don’t understand it’, ‘I don’t like it’, the work itself is the real thing, it must have integrity, it must be interested in doing its own work not in pleasing an audience
G.M. But who decides that integrity you just spoke of?
S.H. People who have some knowledge of the art and who believe in the art rather than anything else.
G.M. Seamus Heaney, thank you, you have been very gracious with your time, one final question, what qualities do you NOT like in people?
S.H. Well…self-satisfaction…complacency….arrogance…stupidity…smarminess…I could go on.