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Nobel-winning poet muses on the tension between speech and silence

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Seamus Heaney
Novel Laureate Seamus Heaney says aftyer seeing the Guthrie production of "The Burial at Thebes" he's almost tempted to write another play. He hesitates to call himself a playwright however, feeling more comfortable with being a poet.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

When Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 his biography stated how his work revolves around the "inner tension between speech and silence."

It's a reference to Heaney's upbringing in a family of 11, with a loquacious mother and a taciturn father. It also harkens back living through the troubles in Northern Ireland. 

Heaney will speak in Minneapolis tonight at the Guthrie Theater which is presenting his play "The Burial at Thebes." Heaney believes that tension between speech and silence is central to the play.

"The Burial at Thebes" is Seamus Heaney's retelling of "Antigone" a play written two-and-a-half thousand years ago by Sophocles. He says it's lasted well.

"It has had a good afterlife, shall we say," chuckles Heaney.

It's about the confrontation between Creon the King of Thebes who has declared Antigone's dead brother a traitor. He then proclaims anyone who tries to bury him will be executed. But Antigone won't be deterred, and fearlessly faces the consequences. This leads to Creon's own demise.

"Burial at Thebes" was first produced in 2004, following the Allied invasion of Iraq. Like Sophocles, Heaney uses a chorus, a group of actors which comments on the dramatic action. He says the story may be millenia-old but it resonated well at the time. 

"The exchange between Creon and the Chorus is a kind of parallel to the exchange between the White House and the Pentagon, and the rest of the world of 'If you are not for us, then you are against us,' you know. 'Are you terrorists or are you with us on the War on Terror'?"

The Antigone story has been adapted and re-mounted down through the centuries. Heaney said its appeal goes back to that tension between silence and speech.

"I think it's a perpetual question about between the demands of self-respect, a sense of your own honor or nobility in the case of Antigone, and adjusting to civic reality or the law of the land," he said.

Heaney has been a poet most of his life, and turned to plays later in his career. In fact he hesitates to call himself a playwright. However he said he likes the Guthrie's adaptation of "The Burial at Thebes" so much he's almost tempted to venture into play-writing again. 

At 72, Heaney doesn't sprint through poems as he did as a young man, eager to finish so he can show it to someone. Now, he likes to use ideas as though they are batteries, to see how long they can keep him writing before they run out. 

But he said writing doesn't get any easier, nor knowing how to choose which ideas will produce the best work.

"I think you can learn to be something else, a lawyer maybe, and you get better at it as it goes. But in the arts world it's like Samuel Beckett said, 'Fail, and fail better, fail better!' "

Asked to recite something, Heaney muses for a few moments, and then chooses a piece he wrote shortly after his mother's death. It's based on a ritual he had with her of going to early Sunday mass, then returning home to prepare lunch before the rest of the family returned from the late service.

"When all the others were away at mass, I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one, like solder weeping off the soldering iron.

Cold comfort set between us, things to share, gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall, little pleasant splashes from each others work would bring us to our senses.

So when the parish priest at her bedside went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying, And some were responding and some crying.

I remembered her head bent towards my head. Her breath in mine. 

Our fluent dipping knives, never closer, the whole rest of our lives." 

Seamus Heaney will appear in conversation with Artistic Director Joe Dowling 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Guthrie Theater 818 South 2nd Street Minneapolis. Topic for discussion is still open, Heaney said, but it seems likely they'll come up with something.