Seamus Heaney, Ireland's best-known living poet, is a reluctant guest in an airless chamber. He opens the door, flips a single key on the table and inhales the cool hotel-smell of the room, the merciless universality of it, the dead, disinfected odor that settles on the tongue like a lump of nickel.
Heaney smiles at the strangeness of such an otherworldly fragrance. His eyes narrow to slits of delight, his wide throat reddens to rose. His woolly tie, like a strip of moss brought from home, gives life to the sort of suit that all poets seem to own -- forgettably academic, a herringboned "utility" garment. The odd delight of the hotel hits him: "It's a strange flavor, isn't it?"
He remembers the same smell from a Las Vegas hotel: "I was there for a rather odd occasion. It was New Year's Eve and my priest, who had baptized my eldest child, was getting married. It was a strange evening."
Stately plump Seamus Heaney settles into a chair and stares out the window at the ice-white panorama of Southwest Washington in spring light, the nonstop brightness of it. "I got here last night and I wondered where you could possibly get a drink," he says. "Where was everybody? I never did figure it out."
More often his visits are a rush of readings and classes and urban activity. "I love the energy of being in America," he says, "but by the end of four months, I'm quite ready for the indolence of Ireland."
Heaney is here on a poetry swing: last Monday night's memorial service for poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, last night's lecture on the poets of Northern Ireland and tonight's reading of his own poems at the Folger. He has just finished teaching three spring-semester courses at Harvard and will return soon to his waterside house in Dublin where he lives with his wife Marie and their three teen-aged children.
Heaney is 46, the son of Catholic farmers from County Derry in Northern Ireland. He has published six volumes of verse -- most recently, "Station Island" -- a translation of the medieval Irish work "Sweeney Astray" and a book of remarkable essays on poetry and his "bog-bound" roots, "Preoccupations." He has won countless awards and grants, critical acclaim, a tenured position at Harvard that "provides just about enough money, a base for the whole year" and, occasionally, the dubious pleasure of appearing before American audiences in the role of "Irish poet."
"Oh, there's the expectation that I'll play the jovial, voluble Celt," Heaney says. "Sometimes I get the sense that audiences at my readings would accept anything from me, even if I didn't bother to prepare or bring along my poems. In fact they might prefer it if I weren't prepared and just told stories. When my students in Cambridge ask me to go out, it's always to The Plough and the Stars, an Irish pub. And that's all fine. I'm probably more secure about my ethnicity than, say, an Irish-American might be. But for me the idea is not to punt the current offered you. I see it as my position to subvert it all by being a strict and serious poet."
He is skeptical of the "poetry scene" in America, the pervasive professionalism of poets here, the horse-trading and logrolling. "There is a lot of poetry here that seems unnecessary," he says. "Unnecessary to the poet." He is grateful to Ireland not only for the life and resources it has provided for poems, but also for its kind of readership.
"If I publish a poem in The Irish Times on a Saturday morning I can be sure that members of the government will read it," he says. "Perhaps not with a sense of panting discovery, but they read it. And the auctioneer may not read it, but he'll note it. In Ireland I'm part of a life rather than a literary salon."
Heaney's voice and accent are informed by the historical ambiguity of Ulster, its Gaelic roots and the centuries of British occupation.
Or as he writes in "Traditions":
Our gutteral muse
Was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition . . .
"My accent really hasn't changed much over the years," he says. "It may have softened a bit. If you were to talk to my brother -- he works on building sites -- you might find he talks a little faster, a little more from the back of the throat. But it's mainly the same sound, the same voice of home in the north."
In September 1938 William Butler Yeats wrote "Under Ben Bulben," a valedictory poem that included a directive for future generations: "Irish poets, learn your trade." A year later, Seamus Justin Heaney, the eldest of nine children, was born at the family farm of Mossbawn between the villages of Castledawson and Toome.
"I try very hard not to take that line from Yeats as a direct address," Heaney says through laughter. "I take it as an easy handle for book reviewers." Ireland has a number of fine poets writing today -- Derek Mahon, Seamus Deane and Paul Muldoon among them -- but Heaney has received the most notice and Robert Lowell's thorny blessing -- that he is the successor to Yeats.
"I didn't grow up in a literary household, but it was not illiterate," Heaney says. The most prized reading materials in the house when he was a child were World War II ration books (pink for clothes, green for groceries), the Irish Weekly and the auction pages of the Northern Constitution. The one serious reader in the area was a solitary, bachelor farmer named Pat McGuckin "about whom stories were told."
After a few years of enchantment with cartoons -- Keyhole Kate, Julius Sneezer, Lord Snooty and Hungry Horace -- Heaney says he had his first "literary frisson" reading an illustrated textbook on Celtic mythology. It was Yeats who had implored Ireland to know its own history and mythology, and Heaney followed the order in innocence. He was absorbed in the "story of Dagda, a dream of harp music and light, confronting and defeating Balor of the Evil Eye on the dark fortress of Tory Island."
Heaney's imagination was also made shapely by the bogs surrounding his home, the "wide low apron of swamp on the west bank of the River Bann," the fields of pea-drills, Sweet William and elderflower. The bog became both fact and symbol, the landscape of his youth and a sign of history and memory -- the bottomless mud full of mythic skeletons, bogey men, mosscheepers, mankeepers.
Heaney also learned to adore the hard, glottal accents of Ireland, the wind-quick voices, the litany of place names in sight of that childhood home: Lough Beg, Slieve Gallon, Sandy Loaning, Bell's Hill, Brian's Field -- each name "a kind of love made to each acre."
His ear was stunned by words the way we imagine a young artist's eye is stunned by color, shape and size. He listened to his mother recite lists of affixes and Latin roots. Or it may be that the fascination began, Heaney writes, "with the exotic listing on the wireless dial: Stuttgart, Leipzig, Oslo, Hilversum. Maybe it was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland, Faroes, Finisterre; or with the gorgeous and inane phraseology of the catechism; or with the litany of the Blessed Virgin that was part of the enforced poetry of our household: Tower of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted."
With the help of a scholarship, Heaney left Mossbawn in 1951 to study at St. Columb's College, a boarding school in Londonderry, and later at Queen's College in Belfast, where he became absorbed in Gaelic literature and poetry, especially the spectacular rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins. After graduating Queen's with first-class honors in 1961, Heaney studied at St. Joseph's College of Education in Belfast for a year.
While teaching high school in Belfast, Heaney began writing his first serious poems and learned to trust his past and delve into Mossbawn and the resonant bog. Heaney wrote "Digging" in the summer of 1964 and published it in The New Statesman. He thinks of it as his first real poem. It is an assertive ars poetica, a clear declaration of purpose and dedication to an exalted form of parochialism. Here are the final lines:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with that.
In 1972, Heaney and his family moved from their home in Belfast to a cottage in County Wicklow:
"I was leading the generic life of my generation of Irish writers: the scholarship, the study, the first book, the marriage and the mortgage, the trip over to the United States. I left Belfast as a somnambulist, acting out of some inner command. I didn't leave because of 'the troubles.' It had to do with going into silence and wilderness. It was the first real move I had made that stepped away from the generic life."
Because he had rapidly become the most celebrated living poet in a country that honors its poets, Heaney's move from the British-occupied north to the independent Republic of Ireland was a move fraught with political implication. But Heaney insists it was a decision made for personal, artistic reasons:
"By leaving the north I didn't feel I was betraying anyone," he says, "but I did sense the pressure. The people you leave often feel they've been deserted somehow. There were even editorials in The Irish Times. But I suppose the submerged politics of leaving was that I did not want to be just an Ulster poet. I wanted to be an Irish poet."
Much of Heaney's work can be viewed as an extension of Yeats' project, the desire to explore and celebrate the history of a place and its particulars. His reading of P.V. Glob's "The Bog People," coupled with his personal experience of that landscape, helped produce many of the remarkable poems of the 1970s, including "Bone Dreams," "Bogland," "The Grauballe Man" and "Kinship": "earth pantry, bone-vault . . . /Ground that will strip/its dark side,/nesting ground,/outback of my mind."
But to be an Irish poet means to be, at least in part, an explicitly political poet. Heaney says he is not a follower of any of the country's myriad political parties and factions. In a new poem, "Chekhov on Sakhalin," he aligns himself with a political poetry that is "not tract, not theses," but rather a personal account of experience, something more like song than slogan.
"I wrote the poem during the hunger strikes in 1981 when the IRA was making demands for political status," he says. "I was haunted by that dirty protest and did not want to write something that merely became part of a violent propaganda campaign.
"Chekhov was exemplary to me, the way he is determined to be cool, to record, not preach," Heaney says. "When he was 30 he spent the summer of 1890 interviewing and ministering to the prisoners on the island of Sakhalin. You could say that he took a year off for politics, although it was much more serious than the modern version of getting a foundation grant or of Joan Didion spending two weeks in El Salvador. He was distraught about the conditions, the brutality there. Before he left for Sakhalin, his friends gave him a bottle of cognac. He drank it when he got there and the luxury and pleasure of drinking brandy on a prison island became an emblem to me, an emblem of a right to practice lyric art in the face of public horror and indifference."
Heaney and his family moved from the country cottage in County Wicklow to Dublin recently "for reasons of practicality, schools for the children and the rest." For four months of the year, Heaney teaches two poetry workshops and a course on modern poetry at Harvard. The rest of the time "I live a strange combination of a family and literary life" in Dublin.
He has tried to navigate a steady course between the instructions offered by the Scylla and Charybdis of modern Irish literature and the distinctive ways of life and literature they offer:
"Yeats says take everything into yourself, make for yourself the heroic role. While Joyce is the opposite, you get on with your secret vision, withdrawing from the world to write for the sake of writing."
Heaney's life keeps shifting, between the public and private, the Harvard lectern and the secluded countryside. "And as soon as I feel myself settling into some extreme, it might be time to shift the balance."
Poetry is the constant, the way of understanding history and Ireland. The poems Heaney writes are the way he defines himself. Or as he says in an elegy dedicated to his friend and predecessor at Harvard, Robert Lowell:
The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life. . .