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

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.

  • 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.”

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