Death of a debut: the publisher that let Heaney slip away

Thomas Kinsella reveals truth behind myth that Dolmen rejected Nobel laureate’s debut

The recently unearthed letter from Liam Miller in 1965 returning Seamus Heaney’s manuscript

The recently unearthed letter from Liam Miller in 1965 returning Seamus Heaney’s manuscript

 

I read occasionally that Seamus Heaney’s poetry was rejected by the Dolmen Press. This is a fiction, and has gone uncorrected until now only because I was unaware of its appearance at the proper time. For its latest appearance, an article on the Irish Times website on May 18th, where Heaney’s poems are returned possibly unread, I happen to be on hand.

Usually an editorial triumvirate are involved in the rejection. The names of the triumvirate vary with the version; as the only name on all versions I can confirm that there was no triumvirate. The Dolmen Press was a one-man concern, Liam Miller making all decisions.

Austin Clarke, Mervyn Wall, secretary of the Arts Council, and Liam Miller on March 3rd, 1967 at the launch of Clarke’s Old Fashioned Pilgrimage. Photograph: Gordon Standing
Austin Clarke, Mervyn Wall, secretary of the Arts Council, and Liam Miller on March 3rd, 1967 at the launch of Clarke’s Old Fashioned Pilgrimage. Photograph: Gordon Standing
Liam Miller, publisher of the Dolmen Press. Photograph: Jack McManus
Liam Miller, publisher of the Dolmen Press. Photograph: Jack McManus

In its early years the Dolmen Press had a family character: young poets in Dublin were warmly welcomed. The quality of their poetry was secondary; it was accepted, if publishable at all, as material for the design and printing of handsome books and booklets. These were marketed by Miller with special book dealers and in a few Dublin bookshops.

Miller was always looking for work as material for the development of the press.

By the late 1950s a significant number of books had been published, including a series by Austin Clarke, in a late revival of his career. Three young poets in particular had appeared: Richard Murphy, John Montague and myself. We knew we were fortunate to have a publisher in Ireland; creative writers at that time were dependent totally on English publishers. Educational and university publishers issued occasional titles, and there was a nationalist and a religious press. But the Dolmen Press was the first to provide professional publication in Ireland, initially on a small scale. Writers, especially of poetry, were not rejected.

Seamus Heaney’s first collection, published by Queen’s University, Belfast in 1965
Seamus Heaney’s first collection, published by Queen’s University, Belfast in 1965
Seamus Heaney’s debut Faber collection, much of which was in the manuscript sent to Dolmen
Seamus Heaney’s debut Faber collection, much of which was in the manuscript sent to Dolmen

I was accepted into the workings of the press from our joint beginnings; permitted to set up my own first book; admiring Miller’s great energy and skill, operating from a crude beginning, in a difficult place and at a difficult time.

I was aware of a number of his early books as they passed through the stages of publication. I was aware of a proposed book by Seamus Heaney. Miller was glad to add this to the body of new Irish poetry gathering around the press. I was enthusiastic, even without seeing the full contents. I had seen some of Heaney’s early poems and knew he was important. A strong image out of Bogland described what I myself had seen in the dark hall of the Natural History Museum:

They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, and set it up,
An astounding crate full of air.

And I have a clear memory, when Heaney asked for his book back, of Miller’s disappointment.

Heaney, describing the affair in his interview with Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones, is clear that he asked Dolmen for the return of the book, but implies that this was to be done only if Dolmen said they did not want to publish:

“I wish I had the letters in order to establish dates, if nothing else. The documentary evidence that exists is confined, as far as I know, to my copy of the manuscipt and an entry in a Dolmen register recording either its receipt or its return…

“… I didn’t tell Dolmen that Faber was interested, so I’d left myself open to complications if Dolmen said they wanted to publish. But they didn’t, they sent back the poems and I went on to a new track. As a matter of fact, Tim O’Keeffe wrote to me that spring also, suggesting that I might submit to them. I was steeped in luck."

Seamus Heaney around the time of the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966
Seamus Heaney around the time of the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966

Apparently the affair remained in his mind. In the poem, The Sounds of Rain:

“The eaves a water fringe and steady lash
Of summer downpours : You are steeped in luck.
I hear them say, Steeped, steeped, steeped in luck.”
Seeing Things (1991)

*

The Irish Times: While it is clear from the letter we published and the accompanying article that Seamus Heaney’s work was not rejected as such, nor was an offer made to publish it, neither in the months preceding his request for the manuscript’s return nor in response to that request, as one might have expected if Liam Miller was keen to publish it and disappointed to be asked to return the manuscript.

Can you shed any light on why no offer was made? Was it usual to take months to make a decision on whether to publish? Did he discuss the manuscript with you? Did he say he planned to publish it? Was he in touch with Heaney at all?

It has been suggested that Liam Miller may have been somewhat disorganised, and this may have been at the bottom of the failure to make an offer to Heaney to publish his work. Is that possible?

Thomas Kinsella: The answer to all your questions is in the amateur, unbusinesslike nature of the early Dolmen Press.

Offers were not made; it was assumed that in giving your work to the press you were eager for its publication. There was no question of payment. Timing was not a consideration: your book took its turn. Miller showed me the Heaney manuscript; we were agreed as to its excellence. I don’t know if he was in touch with Heaney, other than via the manuscript.

*

The documentary evidence

From the Dolmen Press archive, Wake Forest University - custodian Dillon Johnston:
October 15th, 1987: Letter from Dillon Johnston to Thomas Kinsella, referring to an article in the journal the Phoenix:
“ … speculating on the value of Liam’s rejection letters to Heaney and Larkin (It seems not to have occurred to the author that should those letters exist, they are in the possession of the recipient, not the sender)…” 1.

March 16th, 1998: Letter from Thomas Kinsella to Dillon Johnston : “… there must be some traces of the alleged rejection of Heaney…”

October 28th, 2001: Letter from Thomas Kinsella to Dillon Johnston: “… Could I ask again for a photocopy of Liam’s letters rejecting Heaney…”

December 28th, 2001: Letter from Dillon Johnston to Thomas Kinsella : “… I have looked through every box that might reasonably contain this letter… I can find no letter…”

March 15th, 2002: Letter from Dillon Johnston to Thomas Kinsella: “… I wish I had the answer to your question about the Heaney rejection by Dolmen. It happened but what Liam wrote on that occasion seems lost…”

May 18th, 2017: The Irish Times: The missing letter surfaces after 15 years, where one would have thought to find it in the first place – in Heaney’s papers. Reproduced with an article on Sorting Heaney’s Study. A few reluctant lines returning the book as requested, trying to maintain contact.

1. Copies would, however, be kept on the sender’s file. Philip Larkin’s only connection with Dolmen was through Donald Davie who had dealings with Dolmen, Davie was friendly with Larkin. I don’t think he was interested in publication by Dolmen.

For more see: Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

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