Famous Seamus

October 20, 1995

Seamus Heaney admits to Simon Targett that even Nobel laureates get embarrassed giving low marks to favourite students.

He looked like a farmer with dress sense. His burly agricultural frame, topped by wild silvery-grey hair and peat-bog dark eyebrows, was an unlikely model for a trendy linen jacket and a tieless shirt buttoned to the neck. He shuffled to the table, as if walking back to the farm after a long day out in the field, settled on the uncomfortable folding chair, and poured a glass of carbonated spring water. Ordinarily, the photographer wouldn't have wasted film on him, except perhaps as a late 20th-century curiosity. But on this occasion, the cameras clicked and whirred, capturing his every movement, his every word. That is because this husky Hiberian is Seamus Heaney, the latest Nobel Laureate of Literature.

His publisher, Faber & Faber, had plucked him from an obscure hotel in Greece, where he had been sun-lounging with a book after a particularly happy lunch, and plonked him before a posse of photographers and journalists. They were not going to miss an opportunity to parade their latest Nobel Laureate - their seventh, according to Heaney. But although "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats" politely expressed his "joy" at being at Faber & Faber's Bloomsbury headquarters, he looked as if he would rather have been somewhere else. Questions about the Troubles, about the money and how he will spend it, about his favourite poem - these were all pushed aside, to be answered another day.

Yet there was one subject Heaney did talk about freely: teaching and lecturing. Maybe it was the classroom atmosphere of the press conference: the rectangular room, the rows of regulation plastic chairs, the behind-the-hand whispering at the back. Whatever, there was a definite sense that Heaney the poet is also Heaney the pedagogue, if in that order.

Originally, Heaney was a full-time teacher. After he left Queen's University in Belfast, graduating in 1961 with a first in English, he took a job at a secondary school, St. Thomas's in Belfast. Later, he became a lecturer at St. Joseph's College of Education in Belfast before securing a job at his old university in 1966. This was an important backdrop to his early career, a time of poetical insecurity - "I had no name, I had no connections", he says - and slowly receding obscurity. During the day he would teach, leaving the rest of his time for writing poetry that was published everywhere from the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Times to the New Statesman.

Quite plainly, the day job was bread and butter work, a money thing. "I taught for a living," he acknowledges. And when he thought he could - after an exciting year as a visiting professor at Berkeley - he took a gamble, resigning his lectureship at Queen's University and turning his pastime into a profession. He has often presented poetry as a vocation, perhaps justifying his profession to his forefathers, who were the peat farmers he so obviously resembles. In Digging, one of his earliest pieces, he compares the poet's pen to the farmer's spade, saying "Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I'll dig with it". The break from teaching was important because, as he explains now, "I wanted to commit myself to writing and to make a rite of passage".

By 1972 he felt it was time to be a poet fullstop. There was a feeling that, as he puts it, "poverty is a condition of the poet", and teaching had been keeping the wolf from the door. Heaney did well enough. He won the Denis Devlin Award and the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, supplementing his income with some freelancing for the BBC and RTE, the Irish radio station. But poetry did not make for comfortable living, and after three years, he returned to teaching, taking a post at an obscure institution, Carysfort College. "By that time, we had three children, so I went back into teaching, back onto the conveyor belt, back onto the mortgage belt." That makes teaching sound pretty miserable. Yet, at other times, he points to the romantic side of teaching, conveying the passion evident in the Robin Williams film The Dead Poets Society. "I think, like all teachers, I dread the thought of it but actually enjoy the action of it. I get a sort of - a simple word, really - fulfilment or pleasure." This, he says, will ensure that he will still stand at the front of the classroom and lecture hall, even though the prize money of Pounds 635,000 means that he never needs to look at another student in his life. "I will be continuing to teach for honour, if not for a living," he reveals, conducting a crescendo of admiring grunts and camera clicks.

These days, though, his teaching experience is far removed from the chalk and blackboards of a secondary school in Belfast. Since 1985, he has been Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard - the post he will continue to occupy - and between 1989 and 1994, he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The two jobs are quite different. The Oxford post, dating back to 1708 and held by such poets as Matthew Arnold, C. Day Lewis and W. H. Auden, is "a lap of honour" according to Heaney. "You stand up, and you speak about poetry in a celebratory way. You don't have the real test or work of teaching: that is, groups of students to meet, to mark their essays, to have the embarrassment of giving them a low grade when you liked them, to have the tedium and the verity of that kind of relationship."

The Harvard job is more obviously a job: a lecture course on British and Irish poetry and a series of workshops which run for a term, leaving him eight months to write. He gets close to the students, whom he describes as "wonderfully enthusiastic", and he gets considerable adulation. "You end up like a mini-Gulliver, with these Brobdignagian students hanging onto your every word." If this is a fame of sorts, it is nothing compared to the fame he must now enjoy or endure.

So his decision to stay at Harvard, to remain undazzled by all the money and all of what he calls "the magic" of the Nobel Prize, says something important about the alliance of teaching and poetry. It also says something important about Ireland. As Famous Seamus puts it, "in Ireland, everybody is famous from birth".

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