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Poet Seamus Heaney, 74, Explored the ‘Wideness of Language’

August 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
World-renowned poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney died at age 74 in his native Ireland after a brief illness. Jeffrey Brown looks back on an interview he did with the poet two years ago, when Heaney reflected on his life and work and read a section from his poem, "Album."
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we remember the world-renowned poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. He died earlier today after a short illness in his native Ireland.

Two years ago, I sat down with him in New York, as he looked back on his life and work. Here’s an excerpt. It starts with Heaney reading a section from his poem “Album” about his parents.

SEAMUS HEANEY, poet: “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.”  

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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.

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: Seamus Heaney was 74 years old.

And, online, you can find our complete profile of the poet, and you can watch him read one of his best-known works, “Death of a Naturalist.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remarkable talent.