Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney visits Charles University

Seamus Heaney, photo: CTK

It's not often that students at Prague's Charles University get to meet Nobel prize-winning writers, so it was a major event last week when the Irish poet Seamus Heaney - often described as the greatest living poet in the English language - held a seminar at the university, and later gave a public reading. Ian Willoughby spoke to Mr Heaney after the reading, and began by asking him were there any Czech writers in particular he admired.

Seamus Heaney,  photo: CTK
"Well, I'm not going to claim great originality say when I think Kafka is a wonderful writer (laughs). I knew personally (Czech poet Miroslav) Holub. I did get a lot from his kind of poetry, and from the man himself. I think I met him - I had lunch with him - I think 1979. Then I probably met him about four or five other times at conferences, because he was someone who travelled quite a bit. I wrote about him then, in the 1980s."

It was said in the introduction to the reading that you translated (Czech composer Leos) Janacek - is that true?

"I translated...that is rather too strong a term...I did verse versions, I did versions in verse of the songs in the sequence."

Based on the music?

"No, they were to be sung to the music, yes, but they were based on translations done into French and into English, which I could understand. Through listening to the songs being sung in Czech and through looking at the metre in the old, the previous English version and the French version, I tried to get a singable version."

This morning you did a seminar here with students at Charles University - how is it working with students for whom English is not their first language?

"Well, these students it seemed to me were very well prepared. First of all, not only were they totally alert linguistically - their English was perfect - but they were prepared in a literary way, they had read Irish poetry. I think that there may be two things at work. First of all, there's a certain, I think, parallel between the cultural, political, religious, post-imperial history of the Czech Republic and Ireland. And the second thing is the quality of the teaching they're getting, people who are in the department have been to Dublin and so on, so there's a clued-in quality about the teaching. It isn't just 'off the page', there's a kind of vernacular sense of Ireland that they have from their teachers, too."

Is this your first time in Prague?

"This is my first time in Prague and I've found it an entrancing city. One of the highest praises I can give to anything now is it does not disappoint. Usually you hear some places praised and then you say 'oh well'. But Prague certainly does not disappoint. It's an extraordinary, beautiful place.

You said you've been here for 36 hours and you've been enjoying the beer.

"Yes, it's very good beer, I thought. The Pilsner has a wonderful aftertaste of the hops from it."

By the way the song cycle by Leos Janacek that Seamus Heaney was referring to is called Zapisnik zmizeleho in Czech, and Diary of One Who Vanished in English. Janacek's work was based on anonymous poems published in a local newspaper in 1916. It was not until 1977 that one Ozef Kalda was identified as the author of the poems.