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Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus…
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Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney

by Dennis O’Driscoll

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Out of the many books written on the poetry of Irish Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, I selected this as one that might provide a broader context to my reading of his work. O’Driscoll’s book consists of an extensive series of interview questions, organized by chapters that mainly correspond to Heaney’s poetry collections, beginning with Death of a Naturalist (1966) and ending with District and Circle (2006). Published in 2008, it briefly touches upon his August 2006 stroke that features prominently in his most recent volume, Human Chain. Stepping Stones took seven years to reach publication, with Heaney responding to O’Driscoll’s questions primarily in writing through the mail. In his introduction, O’Driscoll describes the book as biographical, but it is more accurately a blending of biography and autobiography, with the guiding hand of O’Driscoll as interviewer and the true content found in Heaney’s response.

This book does not pretend to be an authorized ‘reader’s guide’ to Seamus Heaney’s poems, but rather a survey of his life, often using the poems as reference points. It offers a biographical context for the poems and a poetry-based account of the life. It reviews the life by re-viewing it from the perspective of Heaney’s late sixties…

Born in 1939 on a farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, Heaney’s family was part of the Catholic minority. The interviews trace in detail his life and the influences of people, places and events on his poetry, including his school and college years, his marriage and family life, university lectureships and readings at home and abroad, and his receipt of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature. Themes of rural life, early childhood, family life, and the Troubles are recurrent throughout. Heaney also devotes considerable attention to the many poets, both predecessors and contemporaries, whom he admires and was influenced by, crediting Ted Hughes with having inspired his earliest interest in poetry. While not intended as an analysis of his works, Heaney does frequently reference both collections and specific poems in the context of their settings, sources and inspirations. In the end, I am left with the impression of Heaney as a man, who while extraordinary in his literary accomplishments, is refreshingly quite ordinary in his origins, daily life and sources of poetic inspiration.

This is a book that is dense with detail and reflection. I read it in its lengthy entirety, although I was several times tempted to give up. While I would not hesitate to recommend it to admirers of Heaney’s poetry, I found the question-answer format wearisome for a book of nearly 500 pages (including addendums), and its full appreciation seemed to require a knowledge that I did not have. Although including a brief glossary of terms, several maps, and more extensive chronological and bibliographical glossaries, it otherwise lacks supplemental explanations and presumes an understanding of Irish culture, vernacular, traditions, politics and historical events, as well as a close familiarity with Heaney’s work and a broad background in poetry.

I am highly ambivalent about my rating of this book. Torn between the limits of its accessibility for myself as an unprepared reader and its merits as an enlightening account of Heaney’s life and literary contributions, I have chosen to emphasize the latter, despite having done no justice to these virtues here. My hope is to someday return to the relevant chapters of Stepping Stones, having spent more time with Heaney’s poems and ready for a deeper understanding of their origins in the author’s life. ( )
4 vote Linda92007 | May 19, 2012 |
While the book is written by O'Driscoll this has to count as an autobiography. It is everything you would have wanted to ask Seamus Heaney if you had been face to face with him. O'Driscoll doesn't let him get away with any loose talk without challenging him. By the time you have read this book you will have been taken through each of Heaney's poetry collections in turn and been told a great deal of detail about the origins of many of the poems. At the same time you learn about Heaney's personal and academic life. To be honest, I can't really see any biographer beating this book after Heaney is dead. It's utterly brilliant. ( )
  PeterClack | Aug 20, 2010 |
Irish Non Fiction Award 2009

Stepping Stones by Seamus Heaney and Denis O Driscoll. Its ISBN is 9780571242528 and it is published by Faber and Faber. Dennis O’ Driscoll interviews Seamus Heaney in this book. Seamus supplies samples of essays, plays, translations and his poetry. He also supplies personal interview and family photographs in a lovely collection. It is well written and a pleasure to read. A must buy from one of the great poets of our time. Reviewed by Annette Dunlea author of Always and Forever and The Honey Trap. ( )
  ajdunlea | May 13, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0571242529, Hardcover)

Widely regarded as the finest poet of his generation, Seamus Heaney is the subject of numerous critical studies; but no book-length portrait has appeared until now. Through his own lively and eloquent reminiscences, "Stepping Stones" retraces the poet's steps from his early works, through to his receipt of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and his post-Nobel life. It is supplemented with a large number of photographs, many from the Heaney family album and published here for the first time. In response to firm but subtle questioning from Dennis O'Driscoll, Seamus Heaney sheds a personal light on his work (poems, essays, translations, plays) and on the artistic and ethical challenges he faced, providing an original, diverting and absorbing store of reflections, opinions and recollections.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:52 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Widely regarded as the finest poet of his generation, Seamus Heaney is the subject of numerous critical studies; but no book-length portrait has appeared until now. Through his own lively and eloquent reminiscences, Stepping Stones retraces the poet's steps from his early works, through to his receipt of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and his post-Nobel life. It is supplemented with a large number of photographs, many from the Heaney family album and published here for the first time. In response to firm but subtle questioning from Dennis O'Driscoll, Seamus Heaney sheds a personal light on his work (poems, essays, translations, plays) and on the artistic and ethical challenges he faced, providing an original, diverting and absorbing store of reflections, opinions and recollections.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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