The double act: Dennis O’Driscoll and Seamus Heaney

On the fifth anniversary of poet Dennis O’Driscoll’s death, Martin Dyar considers the collaborative spirit of the book of interviews he wrote with Seamus Heaney

Seanus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll in London in 2008 on the morning after the London launch of Stepping Stones. Photograph: Julie O’Callaghan

Seanus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll in London in 2008 on the morning after the London launch of Stepping Stones. Photograph: Julie O’Callaghan


Dennis O’Driscoll begins Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by asking the following questions:

‘You’ve said that, having so often read that you were born on a farm in County Derry in 1939, you scarcely believe it any more. Can public life as a prominent writer rob you of your private life? If so, does poetry restore the missing life or at least provide some recompense?’

Heaney replies:

Many of the poems are doing something like that. You end up dropping back through your own trapdoors, with a kind of ‘they-can’t-take-this-away-from-me’ feeling. There’s a paradox, of course, since the poems that provide the recompense are the very ones that turn your private possessions into images that are, as Yeats said, ‘all on show.’ Yet a poem saves as well as shows. The remark about not believing I was born on a farm comes less from the poems than from reading too many Notes on Contributors.

Together the two poets teased out the book-in-progress, nursing it along, conceiving and negotiating and honing their questions and their answers

Part of the challenge of Stepping Stones as an undertaking is revealed here. Early in his career Seamus Heaney decided that he would not hide from his success, that he would not, as he once put it, conduct a Beckettian or Frielian standoff with readers and critics. Neither would he allow himself to abandon his published work out of an intolerance for glory, or even out of anxieties related to the need to preserve his powers of concentration. Instead, he would try to accompany what he’d written some of the way as it disembarked from his desk and quested outward into the realms of its reception. ‘To speak for the poetry’ was one of his core artistic commitments.

And yet, by his own admission, he felt a reluctance with respect to exposure. His first answer in Stepping Stones suggests that he’d had a long relationship with a wearying ‘they’, and that they at times appeared relentless.

His friend Dennis was not in this category. And yet for this book, intended from the outset to be substantial, the interviewer’s role was to attempt to retrieve as much of Heaney’s experience as the subject might permit.

Throughout Stepping Stones, O’Driscoll suggests Heaney quotations to Heaney himself, sometimes as a matter of context, as a way of presenting a reminder, and sometimes seeking clarity on an opinion that might have changed or mellowed over time.

At one point, the poet Louis MacNeice is the focus. ‘You once attended a poetry reading by Louis MacNeice. What effect did this have on you?’

Heaney responds, ‘Not a great deal.’ And then he suggests that his recollections are thin. He is unsure of the venue in which the event took place. A later familiarity with a recording of MacNeice reading might have created a false memory; there was a nasality to MacNeice’s voice, and this may have caused him to remember that he had a big nose.

These responses are personable, but they are also vigilant. There’s a sense of what Heaney later says he admired in the poet Robert Frost: a shielding mix of charm, intellect and decoy. He is holding back, riddling in order to avoid a direct statement to the effect that MacNeice was not an impacting source or example for his writing.

The decoy might have worked. But O’Driscoll gambles on the Nobel laureate’s willingness to be more honest. He allows that the past is distant, and he accepts that Heaney, in his own biblical terms, as an undergraduate, ‘hadn’t the ears to hear’ MacNeice. But he also carefully restates his question: ‘And what happened when you did read MacNeice? You once said that the Collected Poems kept you at a reader’s distance. What did you mean?’

O’Driscoll is not afraid to suggest that a better answer is possible. Indeed he proposes that there is a better answer already on the record. Here, and in the many moments like it in Stepping Stones, a certain competitiveness emerges. In this instance, O’Driscoll has just played an ace in the form of a quote. And it leads to a wonderful answer from Heaney, a paragraph as wrought and welcome as a slab of honeycomb, one of the most memorable in the book:

‘Put it this way,’ Heaney begins, as if taking a breath and, within the cut and thrust, seeming to allow himself to be coaxed if not quite ushered in his responses. Then he continues:

Some poets and poetry you admire the way you admire produce in the market. Natural, beautiful stuff, delightfully there in front of you, thickening your sense of being alive. But you’re still looking at it. You’re savouring it but you can move on to the next display. Then there are other poets and poetry that turn out to be like plants and growths inside you. It’s not so much a case of inspecting the produce as feeling a life coming into you and through you. You’re Jack and at the same time you’re the beanstalk. You’re the ground and the growth all at once. There’s no critical distance, as yet. [Patrick] Kavanagh and [Ted] Hughes had the latter effect on me. But not MacNeice.

The power of Stepping Stones as a collaboratively composed work hinges on the truth of the friendship that existed between O’Driscoll and Heaney, on their chemistry and rapport, on their similarly energetic and playful ways with language, and on their respective commitment to approaching the interview form as a genre, as a set of artistic possibilities waiting to maximised.

But Stepping Stones also relies on O’Driscoll’s willingness to signal his own expertise; there’s the sense of an intense familiarity that has been distilled to an expression of curiosity for the sake of the performance of the interview, and ultimately for the sake of posterity.

Here’s another question from the first chapter:

‘Before we talk about your books and how you came to write them, could I take a guided tour around your first place, Mossbawn?’

The word ‘talk’ is deliberate, but it is also inaccurate. Stepping Stones is not a book of transcripts, it is a book of written interviews, created for the most part out of a long correspondence: thousands of questions sent to Heaney’s home in Sandymount in Dublin from O’Driscoll’s office in the Revenue Commissioners at Dublin Castle; replies sent back to the castle, replete with various omissions, over a period of at least six years.

Together the two poets teased out the book-in-progress, nursing it along, conceiving and negotiating and honing their questions and their answers. There was far more artifice involved than the word talk would suggest. Talk is used or, rather, deployed for the reader’s sake. This is the book’s opening, and there’s an effort to create a sense of an open house, inside which the reader might be tempted to linger, as they listen to two men extemporising, merely batting the breeze.

Playing along, Heaney cuts directly to a guided tour, a kind of conjuring of the past, in wonderfully accessible language:

We’re talking about a one-story, longish, lowish, thatched and white-washed house, about thirty yards in from the main road. Parallel to the road. Somebody riding past on a bike would have seen it through a thorn hedge and a screen of young alder trees growing on a bank just behind the hedge … If you stood facing the front door, you had on your right side the front window of the ‘upper bedroom’. On your left, you had the front window of the ‘lower bedroom’ and, beyond that, the stable door.

With the words ‘you’ and ‘yours’, Heaney is nodding to others, to his co-author, and to the man on the bike, granting them a kind of primacy in the spoken dream. Building on this, O’Driscoll quickly turns the tour into a live event: ‘When I reach the farmyard, what outbuildings do I see? What’s inside them? What’s in the yard? […]If I stand for a minute in the yard, what sounds might I hear?’ And then, a little later: ‘Did you really hear rats on the ceiling boards above your head in the bedroom? What other sounds could you catch in your bedroom? When you look through the different windows of the house what do you see?’

Throughout O’Driscoll’s own work, there are numerous parallels with this explorative present tense approach to the personal beginnings of poetry. Here he is, from an essay called ‘Circling the Square’, on the experience of growing up in Thurles:

I remember studying the Mithridatic wars in a bedroom that threatened to curl with the heat. Summer was a rich cacophony of sounds – a pheasant like a squeezed toy, the lingering bark of a fox, the teasing call of a cuckoo, an air force of insects. A ball thuds on hard ground. The conversation of two cyclists rises and falls. Maybe rock ‘n’ roll music can be heard from a carnival in the town and the imagination takes in chairoplanes and bumpers.

The change in tense at the end of this passage is a Stepping Stones manoeuvre. O’Driscoll has been pursuing what is past through the use of the past tense, and then, just as he seems to catch it, there’s a sense of finding lift off. A passion of retrieval kicks in, and he pivots to the present tense. It’s somehow not sufficient for him to say that the sounds could be heard. An impulse of writing and telling causes him to say that these things can be heard. And he goes back to this personal, signature place when, sending Heaney deeper into the well of his memories, he asks questions like, ‘What kind of cars are on the road?’ and ‘Can I peek into the different rooms?’

In 2008, on the Abbey Theatre stage, during an event to celebrate the launch of Stepping Stones, Heaney prefaced a reading of the poem ‘Miracle’ with the following intriguing words: ‘To my Friend Dennis, who carried me through this book.’ This was probably not a pre-planned declaration, but it was certainly not a throwaway remark.

To read the Stepping Stones interviews as literature is to have an opportunity to recognise that Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll, two writers of supreme poise, made no watertight secret of their mutual regard, and even their mutual reliance, things which granted additional magic to their lasting and harmonious work.
Martin Dyar’s collection of poems Maiden Names (Arlen House) was shortlisted for the Pigott Poetry Prize in 2014. He holds the 2018 Arts Council writer in residence fellowship at the University of Limerick. In October of this year, he delivered the Dennis O’Driscoll Memorial Lecture at Kildare Readers Festival, an excerpt from which has been adapted for this essay

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