I‘m two thirds of the way through Stepping Stones, Dennis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Seamus Heaney, which effectively constitute an autobiography. (So expect the Heaney tag in the sidebar to keep getting bigger.)
It’s like reading in High Definition.
There are some spectacular moments, like Heaney’s description of a visionary experience among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, which is as powerful as anything in his verse. It’s on page 32 — I can’t do it justice by quoting it, you need to read the whole passage. But all the way through, you’re aware of his phenomenal command of language, in little details like the unexpected richness and appositeness of the vocabulary. E.g. this description of the writing of the ‘Squarings’ sequence in Seeing Things:
I felt free as a kid skimming stones, and in fact the relationship between individual poems in the different sections has something of the splish-splash, one-after-anotherness of stones skittering and frittering across water.
The book is full of insights into the poetry, like this description of the writing of ‘Casualty’:
I began to hear and value in a new way poems in the three-beat, pressure-raising line you find in ‘middle Yeats’ — ‘Easter 1916’, ‘The Fisherman’, ‘Men Improve with the Years’… That was the one time when Yeats was an actual tuning fork for a poem I was writing. ‘Casualty’ commemorates the eel fishermen Louis O’Neill — whom I’ve mentioned — and I was counting up the metre to keep in step with ‘The freckled man who goes / To a grey place on a hill / In grey Connemara clothes’.
He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
is ghosted by
I have met them at close of day
coming with vivid faces
from counter or desk among grey
I hadn’t noticed that, and probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been pointed out to me. And it definitely adds to the pathos and resonance of ‘Casualty’, as if the metre carried something of the karmic charge, the shockwaves of the events of 1916, still rippling out and claiming victims in the 1970s.