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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue
Books In Conversation

Ed O’Shea with Tony Leuzzi

Edward J. O’Shea
Seamus Heaney’s American Odyssey
(Routledge, 2022)

Spring 2023 saw the release of a book that should be essential reading for anyone invested in the study of twentieth-century Irish literature and, more specifically, certain cultural and aesthetic intersections between Irish and American letters since 1965. The book is Edward (Ed) J. O’Shea’s Seamus Heaney’s American Odyssey (Routledge), a well-researched and compassionate examination of the 1995 Nobel Laureate’s experiences in and affiliations with the United States, its writers, and its politics. O’Shea’s lifelong commitment to Irish Literature and his academic training in close reading enable him to approach the material with the kind of graceful insight and authority that distinguishes the best studies.

While Seamus Heaney remains one of the world’s most beloved poets, few people are aware of the extensive time he spent in America, nor of the long-lasting relationships he formed there. However, as O’Shea astutely notes in his “Introduction,” Heaney’s fascination with the United States long predated his first residency at Berkeley in 1970. Beginning at the age of five, when the poet saw American GIs stationed in Northern Ireland, he felt “conflicting emotions” about the nation and its people, what O’Shea identifies as “an attraction but a wariness.” Concurrent with this, the book attends to Heaney’s “career-long internal debate about how a poet can incorporate contemporary events into his poetry and drama without violating his own esthetic principles about the purpose of art in a time of violence and war.” Finally, as O’Shea reveals in the book’s final chapters, Heaney’s associations with the United States persisted even after he ceased teaching there. Densely-layered and patiently-presented, his scholarship honors the complexity of these themes without closing the proverbial door to further inquiry.

Recently, O’Shea agreed to a series of email exchanges which spanned five days. As is evident in his responses below, he is passionate yet objective about Heaney, quick in his enthusiasm but careful not to make sweeping judgements about the poet, his work, or of the ways in which Heaney’s American encounters may or may not have influenced his poetry.

Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Hello, Ed. I am thrilled to talk to you about your new book, Seamus Heaney’s American Odyssey,  which, among other things, examines the Nobel Laureate’s “reaction to America in all its variety: American poetry, but more broadly American culture.” You are a scholar of modern Irish literature whose passion for Heaney’s poetry goes back several decades. When did you begin to form ideas about this book and, considering the breadth and depth of your research, what were some steps you took in preparing for it coming into being? 

Ed O’Shea: The first nudge to write about SH came from my students in a number of NEH seminars that I taught in Ireland over some years. Most of my career was spent teaching and writing about the poetry of W.B. Yeats, and I remember at the end of a few of the seminars someone would say “what about Heaney?” When I first began thinking about writing about him in about 2015, I remembered that one of my graduate school classmates had written a dissertation on W.B. Yeats’s lecture tours in the US. Yeats’s lecture tours were much more modest in scale and scope than Heaney’s became. My classmate never was able to publish her work, but fortunately when Roy Foster wrote the two volumes of his biography of Yeats, he was able to draw on her research about Yeats in America.

My first step was to develop a rudimentary chronology of Heaney’s time in America. The initial part was easy since Heaney first came to the states for an extended period in 1970 to ’71 to teach at Berkeley. It was more difficult to establish the end point of my book since he had a number of dwindling temporary appointments at Harvard and his reading tours continued in the States until the end of his life. I knew that there was no one repository of all of his correspondence. For example, although there were major collections at a few places, most notably Emory University in Atlanta, which has the most extensive collection of SH material. But no collected letters existed and in fact they're just now talking about collected letters perhaps coming out in the next few years. So, what this means for researchers is that you need to travel to many different locations to look at correspondence; and another major source for me were people who knew Heaney and that led to an extensive number of interviews both by phone and in person.

Since I’m something of a linear writer, I knew I first needed to go to Berkeley where Heaney himself started in the States. I was fortunate to find two major resources at Berkeley. The first was his friend and fellow faculty member at the Berkeley English department, Bob Tracy or Robert Tracy. He knew Heaney very well. He was in his mid-eighties, now deceased, but his memory was prodigious and we sat in his living room for a number of hours reminiscing about Heaney in the English department at Berkeley. I was also fortunate to find at the Bancroft Library a notebook that Heaney had kept from the earliest time at Berkeley. This was a compositional notebook, and it contained many drafts of poems that he was writing at that time. Many were eventually published in his first volume after Berkeley, Wintering Out, but many were never published and existed only in draft form. He had the habit of many poets of dating a poem when it got to the point where he regarded it as reasonably finished, so this was very helpful for a researcher like me. While I was reading the notebook in the Bancroft Library, a librarian who had been very helpful one day dropped on my desk Heaney’s personnel file which helped me to establish among other things the salary at Berkeley that drew him there and allowed him and his family for some period of time to leave the increasingly violent atmosphere in Belfast. While I was researching the Bancroft notebook I was puzzled because the notebook broke off in the spring of 1971, unaccountably, and I knew that the Heaney’s had not left Berkeley until the end of that summer. But when I was researching at Emory, I found a single sheet of paper that indicated that he had in fact left Berkeley for a period of time that spring to embark on what I eventually called the Michigan poetry circuit, although it was not limited to Michigan. And this led me to my second chapter called “On the Road” and one very seminal reading that Heaney did at the 92nd Street Y in New York in the spring of 1971 and for which a good audio recording exists.

If there were more Bob Tracys and Bancroft notebooks my job to trace Heaney’s career through the US would have been a lot easier, but rather, I needed to visit many locations and talk to many, many people before I could complete my book. However, another stroke of luck was provided by the staff at Lamont Poetry Room at Harvard. After working there for a while one of the staff showed me two boxes containing cassette tapes of a series of lectures that Heaney gave on modern and contemporary American British and Irish poetry in 1975. The tapes were in fragile condition and never transcribed into digital, but very generously the staff said to me “if you don't listen to these cassette tapes there is no one more in need of them than you, given your subject.” So, the Lamont staff generously digitized a number of the most important lectures for me, those on Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath, and so I was able to incorporate more of the “oral Heaney” into my book. The remainder of the tapes have now been digitized and are in the Harvard library catalog.

As I followed or attempted to follow Heaney’s lecture tours or at least a sampling of them through the US from the earliest times through around the year 2000, my sources were sometimes rare audio recordings that existed in special collections, oftentimes in very small colleges in the US. Student newspapers and local newspapers were also extremely helpful because they often contained at least a brief accounting of Heaney’s readings.

One other major bonanza for my research came from the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. There almost by chance I was able to locate an extensive series of exchanges mostly in the form of faxes that Heaney exchanged with a Professor Alfred David who was a medievalist and one of the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. For most of the exchange Heaney was in Dublin and Henry at Indiana and David would work over the drafts and proofs and overnight them to Heaney by fax. And the next morning Heaney and his family would find that the fax machine had disgorged more work for Heaney to do to perfect the translation. Heaney’s fax machine was so important for his working sessions that it's now ensconced in what's called The Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, Ireland. This led to one of my final chapters on the making of Beowulf since Professor David had been appointed by Norton to be Heaney’s “minder,” that is the old English expert who could guide or help Heaney in making his Beowulf translation, which is now one of the most brilliant of Heaney’s translations and, as predicted, became something of a standard for his Beowulf translation. It now has been collected in a very recently published posthumous volume simply called The Translations of Seamus Heaney.

I was also fortunate to receive from the American agent Steven Barclay a long but not entirely complete schedule of Heaney’s readings from 2001 until actually after his death in 2013. That is, a listing of readings that he was never able to complete and this list is an appendix at the end of my book.

Rail: In your own words (from your “Introduction”), Heaney’s “attraction but wariness” regarding many aspects of the United States provided an unusual stimulus for his own poetry. As a way into this discussion, and as an opportunity to clarify the book’s argument for would-be readers, could you outline your focus and explain its relevance for Heaney scholars—and for anyone interested in the state of American poetry during association with this country? 

O’Shea: Yes, that key phrase “attraction but wariness.” When Seamus Heaney came to Berkeley in 1970 and ‘71, he was coming from a very small country, that is Northern Ireland, and he was coming to a much larger country with considerable cultural weight and also baggage, that is the United States. Of course, he was worried that his own cultural identity and his own gifts as a poet would somehow be submerged in this cacophony of American voices and American culture that he was encountering at Berkeley. Berkeley, after all, was not placid at this time; it was in the throes of a cultural and even political revolution.

When Heaney first came to America his poems had been almost entirely domestic and circumscribed, writing, as he did about for the most part a rural childhood in a small town which itself was isolated, even though, just as he came to America, he was living in Belfast, a larger metropolis. He was fascinated by the counterculture that California and particularly Berkeley was known all over the world for. As I say in my book, Seamus Heaney was not a person and a poet who was likely to jump in with both feet. But he did try his hand modestly at some American subject matter, and I talk at length in the first chapter about the poem initially called “Easy Rider” and eventually called “Westering.” The story of how the poem came to be called “Westering” after first titled “Easy Rider” encapsulates Heaney’s wariness. The subject matter is not the narrative from the famous movie of that title, but rather is a complex journey mostly taken in the West of Ireland but then by extension the enormous traversal of the distance between Northern Ireland and California. Heaney would return to this trope of the gazer and the moon much later in his career in the Harvard PBK commissioned poem, “Alphabets.” (At the beginning of the poem, Heaney is gazing at the map of the moon taped over his desk in his Berkeley apartment.)

Heaney had read extensively in American fiction and American poetry before he came to America. He knew William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, certainly Robert Frost and Charles Olson. When he got to Berkeley, he got to know better the poetry of Gary Snyder and Robert Bly as two instances; he went to some anti-war readings but he was never entirely convinced by the rhetoric and the directness of some of the antiwar poetry that he heard. Overall, he was not so much influenced by the subject matter of American poetry, rather the greater looseness and even slackness of the forms of let's say William Carlos Williams. He had imagined himself writing a tight little poetry, somewhat constipated really, and the American formal influences encouraged him to write looser forms Heaney himself says.

But my subject is not Heaney’s influence on American poetry or exactly the influence of American poetry on him. It is the broad narrative of Heaney’s encounter with not only American culture but also its political history from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War. Heaney was always aware of the dangers of America’s superpower status and its political might. Being a newcomer to the US early on he stayed clear of the Vietnam War, but after he won the Nobel Prize in 1995 he felt it his responsibility to speak out, sometimes, as in The Burial at Thebes, (his translation of The Antigone) more directly than he had (wisely) allowed himself to speak about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, though there is evidence that he thought better of this direct commentary in the final performance of that play at the Peacock Stage at the Abbey which removes all the direct satire on George W. Bush.

Because many of my sources are in Heaney’s readings and lectures at Harvard and elsewhere, my emphasis is often more on oral Heaney rather than the writerly Heaney, and this and this the emphasis on Heaney’s American narrative is the original contribution of this book to Heaney studies.

Rail: Thank you for that clarification between “encounter” and “influence,” the former term being more applicable to your book. Still, I am tempted to conflate the terms because there are points in Seamus Heaney's American Odyssey where various encounters have appeared to have had a noticeable, even profound effect on Heaney's imagination and/or his process. In fact, the phrase I used—“unusual stimulus”—makes me think of his early encounters with Robert Bly and Gary Snyder; and then, later of his time at the Tamalpais Road home. The former encounters with Bly and Snyder, whose earnest antiwar poems “gave him pause,” reminded Heaney that he “needed another way to maintain his own essentially lyric talent but also register the violence ratcheting up in Northern Ireland which his new friends in California were urging him to take on more directly.” As a result, he began working towards new poems from what would become Wintering Out, poems that “moved away … from polarizing positions.” Learning what not to do in the service of doing is portrayed quite well in your chapter “American Pastoral, 1970-71,” as is your discussion of Heaney’s decision to revise towards distance those poems addressing political upheaval in Ireland. The second major encounter I was thinking of was when Heaney began composing his famous poem “The Skunk,” which alludes (in terms of title) to Robert Lowell but was triggered by the erotic visitation of a female skunk on the property. What fascinates me here is how, once again, Heaney’s encounter with an American poet broadens his conception for what poems can do and yet warns against certain procedures. As you say, Heaney “walked a careful line” where he acknowledged “that the artist needed to ‘transmute’ lived experience into a work of art which might carry the watermark of the artist's experience but was something separate from it, an artifact rather than a transcription of life.” Whereas Lowell’s later poems seem transcriptions of undigested experience, Heaney’s “The Skunk” celebrates conjugal love through an extended metaphor. Would you be willing to discuss Heaney’s tendency, in both instances, to absorb what he needed from American poets while retaining his own firm aesthetic principles? 

O’Shea: Heaney took notice of Bly and Snyder’s anti-war poems without wanting to imitate them.  He himself was moving towards a more direct engagement with the Troubles back at home, but he said in the context of Bly and Snyder that he and his contemporaries back in the North knew that “it was not that simple” and that there was always some complicity in the violence and social unrest back in their country, at attitude most typified by an early poem that recognized self-guilt, “Punishment.”

Heaney’s attitude to Lowell was much more complex. First, there was their friendship, though often at a disequilibrium. And the fact that that the older poet labeled Heaney “the most important Irish poet after Yeats.” What Heaney admired in Lowell was his willingness to take on large subjects and engage contemporary history as in his resistance to the Vietnam War. As in Heaney’s “The Skunk” Heaney was encouraged by Lowell’s late poems to write his own domestic, marital, conjugal poem, though always with a difference. Heaney never “let fly” to use a phase he applied to Lowell. He was encouraged by Lowell to be more colloquial, to test the limits of decorum (the erotic element in “The Skunk”) but never to jettison decorum entirely as Lowell had done in  “Dolphin” where he had used unpermissioned letters from his former wife to the great scandal of some readers and even Elizabeth Bishop. Heaney never writes confessional poems, or if he does, they are self-revealing (a poem like “Exposure”) rather than implicating those close to him. 

Rail: Your approach to Heaney’s experience in America proceeds, chronologically, from his earliest days as Visiting Professor of English at UC Berkley; through various reading tours in the early seventies; followed by his second stint at Berkley; his eventual transition to Harvard; and onto his years navigating his fame with his ever-more complex relationships to poetry and teaching. Through all of these stages, we see Heaney encountering both American poets and American poetry as regarded by academic institutions throughout the seventies and eighties. One of the sub-themes of the book involves the gradual movement from celebrated formalists, such as Robert Lowell, to a more diversified inclusion of women and gay poets, and poets of color, who were working with traditional and non-traditional idioms. In this way, I find Seamus Heaney’s American Odyssey to be not only a compelling study of Heaney’s “education into the paradoxes of American culture” but a revealing portrait of the ways in which many of our finest universities, knowingly or otherwise, upheld patriarchal models of inquiry and prioritized a default whiteness in the writers who were considered worthy of study. By the time we get to the mid-to-late-eighties, the inclusion of poets like Kevin Young into Heaney’s orbit felt like an enormous gust of fresh air. 

O’Shea: We have to remember that Heaney was born in 1939 and given Northern Ireland’s political dependency on England, as a schoolboy and then later as university student Heaney was exposed to a largely British curriculum. Some of his first enthusiasms were Wordsworth, Hardy and that uniquely-situated poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. As we’ve discussed already, he did know American fiction and poetry more so than we might expect. It’s something of a paradox that Heaney really only immersed himself in the poetry of the South of Ireland especially W.B. Yeats after he came to Berkeley and was encouraged to read more deeply in Yeats by members of the Berkeley faculty. After coming to Harvard, he became a great admirer of the work of Elizabeth Bishop and one of his most interesting Harvard lectures is on the poetry of Bishop. In his writing seminars at Berkeley and especially at Harvard and at a summer course Heaney did at the University of Notre Dame in Belmont, CA he was exposed to the whole range of American students. Two African American students who were in his seminars were Tracy K. Smith and Kevin Young. He never expected his students to imitate his own poetry which would be difficult anyway given his Irish identity and subject matter. However, Kevin Young talks about how Heaney’s origins in very rural Ireland among farmers gave him (Young) the assurance that he could write important and interesting poetry about his own family origins in the American South.

Admittedly there was no “Tribe of Heaney” as there was a “Tribe of Lowell.” What students took away from Heaney’s seminars was his absolute dedication to his career as a poet and as Kevin Young says he showed them how you could be “a poet in the world,” that is someone with a diversified career rather than a Mandarin career producing work that few people outside of a writing seminar would read. Heaney talks about his own father who was a cattle broker as a member of a Guild, but when he thought about the best situation for would-be poets, he rejected the idea of a Poetry Guild with arcane rules whose members would only value each other's work.

Rail: One of my favorite sections of Seamus Heaney's American Odyssey occurs in the “Heaney at Harvard, 1979” chapter where the poet reads that aforementioned lecture addressing the works of Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. His observations, well-summarized by you and supported with choice excerpts from the lecture, are fascinating, often on-point, and though occasionally unpopular, hardly surprising. Given Heaney's poetry and his strong attention to detail and place, it does not shock me that he preferred Plath’s earlier poems to later iconic ones like “Ariel” and “Daddy.” Of even greater interest to me is his recognition of Bishop’s unique achievement in American letters. On the surface, it would appear that he and Bishop would not have a shared sensibility, but it is clear that her poetry is of great importance—or at least curiosity—to him. I am wondering if you would be willing to unpack some of the ways in which you see Bishop and Heaney's poetry, or their approaches to poetry, as intersecting.

O’Shea: In respect to Heaney’s approach to Elizabeth Bishop, it is more, but not exclusively, a question of admiration rather than imitation.  Heaney, in his Harvard lecture on Bishop, begins by “heavily chalking” the word “observare” on the blackboard.  Not coincidentally, he begins his essay on Bishop “Counting to One Hundred” with the same word. Bishop’s poetic stance is typically at first “wary” as she scrutinizes the object almost as a scientist, looking at it from different angles, with one act of scrutiny revising the previous.  Or as in “Brazil,” she begins with a generalized, almost abstract color or shape and then particularizes it like a painter laying down the ground or generalized shapes and then refining them. But as Heaney says, she is not content with objective advancement on the object; at some point she goes beyond the objective and “submits” to it. Like Bishop, Heaney had a certain wariness in his interactions with others. A friend talks about how, at first encounter with a stranger, Heaney was almost switching on a radar, scanning that new person. At some point the radar is turned off, and Heaney becomes more relaxed. One poem that does model Bishop’s typical approach to the object is “Punishment” and some of the other bog poems with their forensic examination of the Viking burials, but this is not Heaney’s typical approach, and he injects an element of self-guilt missing from Bishop’s poems. 

And Heaney’s and Bishop’s compositional processes are different. Heaney’s drafts begin often highly particularized and often quite revealing, as in the drafts of “The Aerodrome” and then become more generalized and less revealing on a personal level as the poem nears completion. In “One Art,” Bishop begins with the less revealing mundane losses and only reveals “the secret” at the end of the poem. 

Rail: In the same chapter on Harvard, you mention that Heaney “in the company of Walcott, Milosz, or a Brodsky” would eschew shop talk to discuss “poems and the Parnassus of the great books they mutually admired.” You then write: “On those occasions they would live in a rarefied poetic atmosphere with the whole Anglo-Irish poetic tradition as a point of reference. American poets might be inclined to circle in a lower orbit, aware that, except in rare cases like Lowell’s, the American culture would simply not support someone whose identity was that of a Poet and not more modestly ‘a poet among other things.’” Assuming this is true, why do you suppose this is the case in America? How might, for instance, a poet whose identity as a Poet be out-of-step with American life and culture? 

O’Shea: This question is, unfortunately, rather easily answered. American culture, insofar as it is egalitarian, media-saturated, and acquisitive, always assessing the monetary worth of the thing or occupation, has little regard for poetry or poets much less Poets. The need for would-be or even achieved poets to teach and work in an academic environment limits the time for writing poetry or developing a complete body of achievement. Heaney was fortunate, from early on, that he had time to write poetry, though often at some considerable personal cost, as when he moved his family to Wicklow and produced the Glanmore poems. Or, later with his appointment at Harvard where he would teach for a semester and then go back to Ireland and write poetry for the rest of the year. His friends talk about his absolute conviction of the value of writing poetry, notwithstanding the fact that he, like any creative person, had doubts (Incertus) and fallow periods. Heaney also had a developed “personal anthology” of poems that represented work in his estimation at the highest standard. To use a term not so popular today, he did have and believe in a “canon” of poems that became “touchstones” (another word not so much in vogue) for his own writing.

Rail: For me, the resilience of American poets in the face of our nation’s widespread neglect and devaluation of poetry makes the achievement of poets (no capital P) more fascinating, even heroic. For instance, in the sixth chapter of Seamus Heaney’s American Odyssey, “Following Heaney, 1983-85,” we learn of Jane Brox, a young, Nantucket Island diner cook who happened upon a classified ad in New York Times Book Review. The ad mentioned a summer poetry workshop in San Francisco that was to be taught by a “famous poet.” On this information alone, she submitted a handful of poems for consideration. Brox did not have the luxury to solely identify as capital-P Poet, but her eagerness to study with Heaney outweighed any economic challenges she was facing. As you mention in the chapter, she risked losing her job, had to pay for a plane ticket, and coughed up $600 (in 1983) for the tuition. This takes a lot of grit. I loved reading about her and her impressions of the workshop. I also loved that in an effort to “keep up the momentum for her writing” she applied and was accepted as a “special student” in Heaney’s writing seminar the following year. How did you happen upon her? Hers seems like such a specifically American success story—one that exemplifies the good effects of our egalitarian outlook.

O’Shea: I too really love the Jane Brox story. I was referred to her by the poet David Gewanter who also figures in that chapter, and I was referred to Gewanter by, I think, Tom Sleigh. Gewanter said “Jane Brox will remember more of that seminar with Seamus than I will,” and indeed she did. We had a long wonderful phone conversation; then I think followed by an email, or maybe it was vice versa. I think the Jane Brox lead sent me to Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, and there a kind librarian sent me the whole file on the summer seminar. This is how my research went; it’s like a detective story, one lead leads to another and that was really the most fun of doing the book, that and the writing but not pitching the proposal to dozens of presses, it seemed. And yes, Jane Brox’s story does illustrate the persistence of American poets!

Rail: One of the things I really appreciated about your book is how well you document two impressive Heaney-related achievements. In chapter eight you provide informative background information about how Bill Clinton came to cite the poet in his famous “Hope and History” speech at Guildhall in 1995; chapter nine discusses Heaney’s slow-going but ultimately successful translation of Beowulf. Neither of these accomplishments would have been made possible without the efforts of unsung heroes behind the scenes. Clinton’s speech was written by Carter Wilkie. Norton’s inclusion of Heaney’s Beowulf in the then newest edition of its British Literature anthology was the result of editor Alfred David’s incredible patience and magnanimity. In both cases, you demonstrate how two well-placed experts knew their roles within the limits of the systems they navigated. Talking at length about each of these momentous events (one political, the other literary, both a little of the other) would require a separate interview. However, I am curious if you were drawing a conscious parallel between the two chapters through Wilkie and David’s respective labors. 

O’Shea: I hadn’t noticed the connection between Carter Wilkie and Alfred David, but I’m glad you as a reader did.  Those are the kinds of discoveries that you hope readers make. Both Wilkie and David were modest “helpers.” I remember Wilkie writing that once he delivered the speech to Clinton, the speech was Clinton’s and not his. Likewise, Alfred David, a distinguished scholar in his own right, was smart enough to see his role as a midwife to a great translation. Coincidentally, right now I’m doing a blog for the Lilly Library which has the David-Heaney fax correspondence. They are so happy someone is using those files buried away in their special collections. And David’s son who is now a professor of art history in the NW was thrilled that someone was recognizing his father’s contribution to Heaney’s Beowulf

Rail: Speaking of translations, you devote a fair amount of space to Heaney’s versions of Sophocles’ Philoctetes (retitled The Cure at Troy) and Antigone (renamed The Burial at Thebes), which he renders more as “loose translations” than as straightforward adaptations. Could you provide a bit of background for those reading who do not know the occasions which triggered these translations and the author’s change in approach from one to the other? What, for instance, were Heaney’s impetuses for acclaimed rendering Philoctetes? How might his handling of Antigone be considered comparatively weaker, and why?

O’Shea: Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy is a loose translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Heaney chose the title because he believed the Greek title was too off putting, and he liked the word “cure” because of its associations with miracles, and as he says, healing wells. In the play Philoctetes is marooned on an island by Odysseus because of a festering wound on his foot that makes him unfit for human company. But Odysseus eventually needs Philoctetes because he has a magic bow that Odysseus and the other Greek warriors need in their continuing attack on Troy. Philoctetes is persuaded, not easily, to return to Troy and with his magic bow helps to secure the fall of Troy. The play has obvious echoes of the conflict in Northern Ireland where the two sides were so steeped in hatred and resentment that there seemed to be no resolution to the conflict. The play was a great interest to Irish critics, but it was Heaney’s added choruses that drew the admiration and attention of political figures like Bill Clinton among others:

History says. Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

What made The Cure at Troy such a successful translation was its obvious relevance to the historical situation in Ireland but also the superb choruses that played to Heaney’s great strength as a writer of memorable verse.

Heaney’s translation of an even more famous play by Sophocles, Antigone, entitled The Burial at Thebes was less successful for a number of reasons. For one thing it was a commissioned translation for the Abbey Theatre’s one-hundredth anniversary. Heaney doubted that he could vie with the many translations already made, even in contemporary Ireland, and this and the fact of the commission was often a warning sign for Heaney or might have been. We think of another commissioned work, “Villanelle for an Anniversary” for Harvard’s 350th that even some of his friends and some readers think comes off as forced. However, not all of Heaney’s commissioned works were less than successful, and one thinks of the magnificent poem commissioned by the Harvard PBK called “Alphabets.”

But the larger problem with The Burial at Thebes was Heaney’s inability to refrain from taking easy shots at George W. Bush (as Creon) and the Iraq war with such phrases as “I'll flush ’em out” and “whoever isn't for us is against us,” so its uneasy topicality doesn’t fit the play. It is revealing that in the second performance of The Burial at Thebes, Heaney dropped the references to George W. Bush altogether.

Rail: As we near the end of our discussion, I’d like to take you back to the beginning of the book, to Chapter 1: “American Pastoral, 1970-71,” where you open the chapter with a vivid outline of traditional pastoral poetry: “Pastoral can signify many things: from Virgil and Milton through A. E. Housman, we imagine shepherds lazily tending sheep with plenty of spare time for writing love poems. Or with times changing, it could mean long-haired men in blue jeans, barefoot, hanging out in a local park. Or girls in flowing patterned dresses. Guitars replacing flutes. A flower thrust into the barrel of a guardsman’s rifle.” Here you set the stage for a somewhat idealized version of hippie counterculture at Berkley at the time of Heaney’s arrival. However, the poet’s conception of the pastoral refuses such idealizations: “In Heaney’s poetry, moments of the pastoral and the marvelous are seldom unalloyed with something darker and more ominous.” Not only does this opening section of the book astutely observe qualities of Heaney’s poems, but it establishes a useful metaphor for the poet’s ambiguous relationship to America—a place where so much stimulation and generosity were punctuated by outbursts of violence on local and national scales, and in aspects of the nation’s foreign policies. In what way(s), if at all, do you think Heaney’s complex feelings about America and Americans enriched his imagination? Did his poetry benefit from time in the US and/or time away from Ireland?

O’Shea: Not to be understated, Heaney’s teaching positions at Berkeley and Harvard as well as the income from his poetry readings and the sale of his books to a vast American audience gave him the financial security to write his poetry in the off season, so to speak. He was very clear about this when he was at Harvard, that he would not necessarily write much poetry while he was teaching, much like any other poet with an academic affiliation, but once he got on the plane back to Ireland, he could look forward to a large space of time to write his poetry and his other works in many genres. Early on especially, the enthusiasm and even the size of his American audiences affirmed for him the importance of his subject matter which early on was his family and rural life in Northern Ireland, but later when he took on the topics of the Troubles his audiences affirmed the importance of that civil conflict in a very small country halfway around the world. His teaching and lecturing spilled over into his poetry as with the “Bright Bolts” lecture at Harvard or the essay by one of his colleagues at Harvard that helped him formulate the theme of The Cure at Troy. My book emphasizes that we should not limit American influence to American subject matter, though there were some like the early “Westering” or “In Iowa.” Also, Heaney used the American experience to help make him become an internationalist, not that he had ever been a nationalist in the narrow sense of the word. The scope of his interests kept growing to writers in Eastern Europe but also political conflicts in that part of the world. So, the importance of the American experience for Heaney should not be regarded too narrowly.

Rail: Ed, I want to thank you for being such a good sport about these questions and taking a lot of your time to respond to them. As we conclude this discussion, I am wondering if you might clarify for those who are unfamiliar with Heaney what they might learn by turning to his poetry?

O’Shea: Readers will find a great variety of both genres and subject matter in Heaney’s work. He writes some of the best poetry of early childhood in books like Death of a Naturalist, a very insightful book about a child growing up in a community and in a family but from a starkly unsentimental perspective. He has written some of the most poignant poetry about mothers and fathers, and I’m thinking about the unforgettable poems about his mother in the “Glanmore Sonnets” and about his father in the poems “Digging” and “The Harvest Bow.” Like Yeats, he wasn’t afraid to take on the largest historical and political topics but in a most personal and non-ideological way as in the bog poems. He could write a connected series of poems after Dante in the volume called Field Work with its incisive portraits of historical writers like Carlton and Joyce but also a terrifying portrayal of a neighbor assassinated at the door of his house in the middle of the night by partisans. Heaney often says in his readings that he deliberately tried to make his early poems very “muddy.” And we think of the menacing bullfrogs in the flax dam in the signature poem “Death of a Naturalist” in the book of that title. And then in a later volume like Seeing Things are poems that are ethereal, almost mystical, like his short poem about traveling on a bus back to Berkeley and watching a young American soldier disembark for Vietnam and evanesce, very likely to an eventual death. We are just beginning to realize the oneiric element in Heaney, the way in which dreams have been recovered and led to sometimes surreal poetry as in the unpublished “A Thomas in the Wilderness” that he read on his first poetry circuit at the 92nd Street Y. And readers have yet to discover what a magnificent letter writer Heaney was as we look forward to his collected letters appearing before long. This book has also emphasized the oral Heaney, the lecturer at Harvard and the reader on the circuit who impressed his listeners with his distinctive Irish voice, his wit, his humor and his expansiveness in setting the context of the poems he was about to read.

Like some of the best of his contemporaries, and we think of Yeats, of Eliot, and Auden, Heaney wrote impressive literary criticism about both individual writers and the what must be called poetics or esthetics. And then there are his translations from the Irish like Sweeney Astray, his translations of Dante, the plays, especially The Cure at Troy or his ambitious translation of Beowulf that he initially resisted, but then with the help of many individuals on both sides of the Atlantic, he turned into a translation that both students could use in the classroom and readers interested in great poetry could read by itself.


Tony Leuzzi

Tony Leuzzi is an author. His books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with 20 American poets.


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