Seamus Heaney: 'Hope is something that is there to be worked for'

For years an outspoken opponent of apartheid, Seamus Heaney has only just made his first visit to South Africa. In a rare interview, the Nobel prize-winning poet explains to Shaun Johnson the parallels that he found there with the troubles in his native Ireland

Thursday 31 October 2002 01:00 GMT

The great poet sits squinting and sweating in Cape Town's early-spring sunshine, his pale Irish skin growing pinker against wild white hair. He looks like a proper poet, the fine silver frame of his spectacles topped by eyebrows like alarmed white caterpillars. But it is the voice, that soft/loud voice, that most engages. "A voice like sand and glue," David Bowie said of Bob Dylan; for Seamus Heaney's, you can add a portion of thick cream and stir.

Heaney visited South Africa recently – the first time he set foot on African soil – to receive an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University, and pay a tribute to the retiring Professor of English there, Malvern van Wyk Smith. His experience of African wildlife clearly left a strong impression. "A lion roared for us," he says. "Maybe roared against us! Twenty yards away. I'd never heard that sound before. We encountered a rhinoceros, as big as a tractor. But our favourites were the maidenly giraffes – they're very delicious movers. I came away [from the Eastern Cape game park] saying it was a heavenly day. And then I revised it to say that it was the earthliest day of my life. It was a reminder of your own creatureliness."

What does Heaney, who famously wrestles with the question of what political role, if any, poetry should play in society, make of this country he is visiting for the first time? "I had a particular interest in South Africa in that I was involved with the anti-apartheid movement in Dublin for a number of years," says Heaney. "I'd met a couple of the writers. I'd met [Breyten] Breytenbach in Rotterdam, Nadine Gordimer at Harvard, and read desultorily [André] Brink, and then, more recently, [J M] Coetzee.

"And of course, the crisis in South Africa, and the miraculum, as I call it – the wondrous change and wondrous intervention of Nelson Mandela – that was a magical moment in the 20th century. In 1989, I remember watching as one regime after the other gently came down in Eastern Europe. And the following February, Mandela came out of prison and it was a memory-marking moment for anybody. The world was entranced with South Africa."

Heaney was at Harvard University at the time of Mandela's release. "I was translating a play called Philoctetes, about how a marooned man comes back and helps the Greeks to win the city of Troy. The play is really about someone who has been wounded and betrayed, and whether he can reintegrate with the betrayers or not. Human sympathy says yes, maybe political vengefulness says no, but the marooned man in Sophocles' play helps the Greeks who betrayed him to win Troy. It seemed to me to mesh beautifully with Mandela's return. The act of betrayal, and then the generosity of his coming back and helping with the city – helping the polis to get together again."

About Mandela himself, whom he met in Dublin, Heaney says, "Of all the heroes, he's the great one. There's a great transmission of grace there – and, of course, great stamina to go with it".

Does Heaney believe that there are lessons for the new South Africa in the experience of the Republic of Ireland, which has, in the last decade, become so prosperous and self-confident? There has been, he says, in socio-economic terms, "a gradual shift in the country's sense of itself, from being a self-denying, frugal republic, to being an equal consumer nation. I think young middle-class people have benefited enormously, and there's a terrific sense of confidence, freedom, relish of it all. No sense of embarrassment about being Irish.

"But there is an attendant problem over these 40 or 50 years, and that is that some kind of metaphysic has disappeared from the common life [in Ireland]. The religious life of the country has dwindled considerably. The inner ethic that came with this authoritarian church, which gave much of the character to Irish life – its puritanism, OK, but also its sense of service and readiness to go on missions and so on.

"I think the dwindling of the faith and, secondly, the clerical scandals have bewildered things. I think we still are running on an unconscious that is informed by religious values, but I think my youngsters' youngsters won't have that. I think the needles are wobbling in that way."

Accepting the contention that one of the new South Africa's greatest and most tragic problems is the widespread emigration of citizens who cannot conjure up enough faith in their African future, would Heaney say that the reversal of emigration in Ireland has been a key to the country's success?

"The reversal of emigration was a symptom of change, and from the minute it stopped, it was a fortification of the country in terms of its manpower, its womanpower, and its perception of itself." Does Heaney believe that South Africa might, too, one day put a stop to the spasms of departure for other lands? "Looking at South Africa's future, I would have to use the word 'hope' in the way that Vaclav Havel used it. Not just optimism – hope is something that is there to be worked for, is worth working for, and can work.

"In Grahamstown, on the Eastern Cape, where Rhodes University is situated, there was a starkness: on one side of the town, the Settlers Monument and the rather beautiful architecture of the town, the demure and admirable quality of the persons; on the other side, on the hill, the poverty factor, the cemetery overfilled, the desolate housing. But my permanent memory of there was of midday in the townships, thousands of schoolchildren immaculately turned out, beautifully presented, walking in the road, not obstructing the cars, standing aside, without resentment, with a kind of communal ease.

"That was one of the sweetest moments I had. It was an image of possibility, an image of South Africa for me, because it held the two worlds together. These could have been school children in County Derry or Dublin. The uniform was not an image of oppression, it was an image of aspiration and things on the go and of some kind of, maybe, inner rule for each individual."

Does he think that the "rainbow nation" can continue to hold together? He believes, he says, that Mandela changed something in South Africans more profound even than their political system. "The sense I have is that of course there are divisions, but it's more of a household now – you're all in the courtyard. One isn't at the gate with his sword. It's an image of possible change, of a household coming together."

Heaney is reluctant to make judgements about the quality of literature in other countries, but he is intrigued by the question of what might come to replace the "struggle genre" in post-apartheid South African writing. He says that now – much more so than in the apartheid past – it comes down to individual talent rather than political relevance. He chooses to frame his answer in terms of Russian rather than South African literature.

"Under the old Soviet regime," Heaney says, "any form of dissidence had voltage. It meant, of course, that middling writers had more voltage than they might otherwise have had. But if you remove that overarching political climate of repression and resistance, then meaning is disseminated and slackened in some way. The only one true thing about writing is that individual talent is the most important thing, and I suppose it exposes the reality of that truth when you take away the political situation.

"Once every 20 years, you expect something big, maybe once every 50 years, the big writer who changes writing, and then the people who imitate him or her for a while." In other words, if such a person is to emerge, or has emerged, in South African literature, they will do so outside the context of anti-apartheid literature.

The sun has gone in and then come out again in the garden, beneath the looming Table Mountain chain, and it will soon be time to take Heaney away for lunch with South African friends, old and new. What was he working on at the moment? "Oh, I'm fiddling away at the moment," he says, looking slightly shifty. "I'm always doing the occasional poem." How would he answer the simplest of questions, the centuries-old question that still vexes even those acclaimed as the greatest of poets: how does one know whether one has read (or written) a good poem?

"It's a puzzle to poets," says Heaney. 'There are simple answers, but they don't really help. The sense of something coming right. The sense of something moving for you, a little ahead of yourself. I think we all know, when we've finished a piece of work, that there is pleasure, something you say 'Yes' to. So in any genre, you want first of all that feeling of a completed thing. In poetry, I suppose you want a sense that the thing has told you something, or that you have gone a little further than you expected to go. You don't just set down a description. The description leads to a little surprise in the words.

"Utterance is the basis of poetry. If you had no technical knowledge, you'd have difficulty writing good verse, turning the rhymes. But poetry is more than the shape of its verse, it's more than its line-turnings, and its pirouettings. It's a combination of some form of truth, wisdom, and a new way of seeing it, of saying it – as a refreshment of what you know. I believe that people can enter the kind of thing that poetry is without the slightest technical knowledge. I think of an old fellow down in Co Donegal, beside the sea. He looked at the waves and said: 'It's very shabby out there today.' It's seeing the thing absolutely refreshed – the world, seen again.

"Robert Frost once said of poetry: sight, excite, insight. And I think that people can be excited and have insight and utter things. I don't think poetry is a profession, it's a vocation. There is a distinction. You have to commit yourself to it, there's no degree-awarding or diploma-awarding body that will say, 'You're a poet, and you're not'. It's the common consensus among readers and poets.

"The other truth is that there's no beginner's course in poetry. If you're a 12-year-old and you write a line, that line has to stand in the glare of Homer and Sappho and Keats. It's either right or it's not right. And if it's right, it's equal to the rest."

After all his epic achievements, is there any new, unattempted literary form he wants, at 63, to try? "I've done only one play – which I call my cultural homework – and I haven't ventured into novels," he said, guardedly. "The question is whether or not to bother with an autobiography. My poems are so autobiographical. As for biographies, there are none, thank God – I would try to keep the biographers off the path..." He smiles. "Until afterwards..."

Anybody presuming to write the great poet's life for him would, you suspect, soon find themselves fed to the lions of the Eastern Cape game park.

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