Year of Publication: 2008
Number of Pages: 522
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Sub-Genre: Interviews, biography
As far as I know, there exists no full-length biography of Seamus Heaney. I thought that was an odd omission for the world’s biographers to make, until I heard about this book, a marathon series of interviews covering the entirety of Heaney’s life and career, from early childhood to the publication of what was then his latest book, District and Circle.
While this book does aim to be a “biography in interviews,” these interviews go far beyond strictly biographical material: in addition to that, we also get commentary on Heaney’s main influences and contemporaries, meditations on Irish politics, thoughts on the craft of poetry, etc. If you’re just starting to get into poetry, or if you’re fairly new to Heaney’s work, all of the minute detail about people and poems could start to bog you down. (Pun not intended, unless you like it.) If, on the other hand, you already love poetry, this is the book for you.
Right from the beginning, O’Driscoll’s questions are penetrating and wide-ranging, while Heaney’s answers are thorough, insightful, and rather poetic in their own way, especially when he talks about the poets and poems he most admires: R. S. Thomas, for example, is described as a “loner taking on the universe,” while poems like Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and Ted Hughes’s “The Bull Moses,” he says, “put me through the eye of my own needle.” Heaney and O’Driscoll knew each other well even before embarking on this project, so they play off of each other brilliantly. (If you want an idea of what these conversations are like, the Lannan Foundation in New Mexico filmed one of these interviews and later posted the video on their website.)
Over the past few years, I’ve been keen to learn as much about poetry as I can, so it was wonderful to hear someone who lives and breathes poetry talk about what makes it work for him: things like the importance of the word “now” in the first line of Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” or the example that Osip Mandelstam–the Russian dissident poet who spent years dodging Stalin’s secret police –sets for poets living in times of political turmoil. I find that Heaney is better at talking about poetry than most, so for me, the analytical parts of the interviews were fascinating.
I had been wanting to read Heaney’s biography for a while, but in some ways, this is better than a traditional biography: it’s more free-ranging, more thorough, and it gets down deeper into the poetry itself. It has also made me eager to read more biographies, interviews, and memoirs of authors, so if you know of any good ones, leave them in the comments.