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In ‘Human Chain,’ Nobel-Winning Poet Seamus Heaney Digs Into the Past

October 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his native Ireland, he's known as "Famous Seamus," and indeed, Seamus Heaney -- winner of the Nobel Prize in 1995 -- is a world-famous poet. Now 72, his new collection, "Human Chain," contains poems that are, as always for him, grounded in the physical world but also take a look back.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: reflections on a lifetime of verse.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his native Ireland, he’s long been known as Famous Seamus. And, indeed, Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1995, is that rare bird, a world famous poet.

Now 72, he joined me recently in New York at Poets House, a literary center and poetry archive, to talk about his newest collection: “Human Chain,” poems that are, as always for Heaney, grounded in the physical world around him, but also now filled with much looking back.

 SEAMUS HEANEY, “Human Chain”: The title came from a poem called “Human Chain,” which begins with a description of an old-fashioned  human chain, people passing one thing to another.

So, there’s that first — that’s the first meaning of it. And then I began to write poems about my parents, elegiac poems connecting up with previous generations. So that was part of the human chain.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Your parents, in fact, appear often here.

SEAMUS HEANEY: They do indeed. My parents appear early in the book at the moment that I imagine myself being conceived, between…

JEFFREY BROWN: You went all the way back.

SEAMUS HEANEY: I went right way back, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think that is, that you have gone back and reimagined your parents?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Funny enough, for decades, I never thought of them as young people. They were always the parents.

And I suppose you get to a certain stage yourself, you see things in another pattern. And you realize that you are now much older than they were nearly — when they were in their 30s, 40s at the time — 30s, must have been. And so that interested me.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the poem “Uncoupled,” Heaney conjures his mother: “Who is this coming to the ash pit walking tall as if in a procession, bearing in front of her a slender pan?”

And later his father: “Who is this, not much higher than the cattle, working his way towards me through the pen, his ashplant in one hand?”

In the poem “Album,” he imagines them together.

SEAMUS HEANEY: “Now the oil-fired heating boiler comes to life abruptly, drowsily, like the time collapse of a sawn-down tree. I imagine them in summer season, as it must have been. And the place it dawns on me could have been Grove Hill before the oaks were cut, where I would often stand with them on airy Sundays, shin-deep in hilltop bluebells, looking out at Magherafelt’s four spires in the distance. Too late, alas, now for the apt quotation about a love that’s proved by steady gazing, not at each other, but in the same direction.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Heaney grew up in a rural family farmhouse called Mossbawn in Northern Ireland. He was the first of nine children who lived a life very grounded in the soil.

His famous early poem titled “Digging” portrays his father working the earth with a spade and ends with an announcement to the world that he, the young poet, will use a different tool.

“Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests. I will dig with it.”          

In his Nobel address, he spoke of making a life journey into — quote — “the wideness of language.”

SEAMUS HEANEY: The first poetry a writer feels he can trust and come to a point that you think that is a poem, that is a life-changing experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you remember that?

SEAMUS HEANEY: I do, yes.

SEAMUS HEANEY: It was certainly when I wrote “Digging.” You know, I felt — when you’re beginning, you’re not sure. I mean, is this a poem? Or is it just a shot at a poem? Or is it kind of a dead thing?

But when it comes alive in a way to feel that’s your own utterance, then I think you’re in business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Five years ago, Heaney suffered a stroke. In one of the new poems, he describes his trip to the emergency room, “strapped on, wheeled out, fork lifted, locked in position for the drive, bones shaken, bumped at speed.”

SEAMUS HEANEY: I was scared all right. But I didn’t think this is the end. Maybe that’s a kind of protection racket that consciousness sets up. I was very grief-stricken, really, being helpless and weepy. Of course, you can’t move or control yourselves and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a short section that I wanted to ask you to read from one of the poems, “In the Attic.”

SEAMUS HEANEY: Oh, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is again remembering childhood, right?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And reading?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yes, that’s right, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then there’s a section here at the end.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: “As I age…”

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yes. This is all true.

JEFFREY BROWN: All true?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yes.

“As I age and blank on names, as my uncertainty on stairs is more and more the lightheadedness of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging, as the memorable bottoms out into the irretrievable, it’s not that I can’t imagine still that slight untoward rupture and world tilt as a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.”

JEFFREY BROWN: So this is the poet as older, frail fellow looking back at his younger self.

SEAMUS HEANEY: Very much, yes, yes. There’s a lot of elegy in here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s because of what you see around you. Friends?

SEAMUS HEANEY: Yes. That’s right, yes, yes. But I think I need to change it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s coming next then?

SEAMUS HEANEY: I don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the new collection ends with a look to the possibilities of the future, a poem about Seamus Heaney’s granddaughter flying a kite: “Until spring breaks and separate, elate, the kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.”