IT'S OFTEN SAID that few Nobel Prize winners produce anything of note after receiving the nod from Stockholm. The burden of expectations and the time-killing ambassadorial demands on laureates are considered fatal for creative energies. When Seamus Heaney was decorated mid-career by the Swedish Academy in 1995, fears that the then 57-year-old would fall foul of Stockholm syndrome were rampant. Extra-literary concerns clearly contributed to the Nobel committee's choice of an Irish writer, coming on the heels of historic strides towards peace in Ulster. Yet the gesture was rare in recent Nobel history in attracting scant opposition. A decade later, and three books deeper into his career, Heaney has proved himself immune to the Nobel curse. After the death of his close friend Ted Hughes in 1998, he's indisputably the most celebrated living poet in the English language. Eschewing the obscurity of modernists such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Heaney's books are as popular as they are critically lauded. They sell in the hundreds of thousands, figures almost unheard of for poetry. In Britain, Heaney's volumes make up two-thirds of the sales of works by living poets. His often-remarked-on humility was similarly unaffected by 'the Stockholm thing' or 'the N-word' (as Heaney embarrassedly calls it). He continued to shoulder a full teaching load at Harvard University, where he was poet in residence. 'I didn't want to seek special status because I was a poet - didn't want to confuse my calling with my profession,' he says. Rather than just conducting poetry workshops, Heaney lectured in British and Irish poetry because, he says, 'I didn't want to swan about in the robes of my creativity.' He writes in an ascetic attic of his Dublin home, where he lives with his wife of four decades, the author Marie Heaney (who, along with her husband, is a guest at the literary festival). Heaney's office is fitted out with only a desk, a photocopier, a single bed and books. 'I don't want to don the armour of ego or the costume of the stage poet, with my special set of pencils and handmade paper,' he says. 'I want a hand-to-hand engagement with myself - self-forgetfulness rather than self-consciousness.' Heaney wears his learning unpretentiously, his commentary sprinkled with quotations from his heroes: Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Eliot, Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats. Commenting on the process by which a poem emerges, he quotes Frost: 'Sight, excite, insight.' 'By the time you start to compose, more than half the work has been done. The crucial part of the business is what happens before you face the empty page - the moment of first connection, when an image or a memory comes suddenly to mind and you feel the lure of the poem life in it.' He's also in touch with schlock culture. Last year, he made headlines for throwing his weight behind rapper Eminem, who, in one typical number, asks his mother to 'bend over and take it like a slut'. Heaney likened the cultural force of the rapper to John Lennon and Bob Dylan, for the linguistic energy his lyrics spark in people. Heaney's appreciation for language has equally unlikely origins. Born in 1939, the oldest of nine children, he was raised in a three-bedroom thatched house on a cattle farm in County Derry. He absorbed the mandatory Catholic litany and the cadences of the BBC shipping forecast, overlaid by the potato drill's background rhythms. Heaney's parents were unbookish, even hostile to his literary leanings. At 12, he won a scholarship to study in Derry. 'One part of me can still sit at the head of a farmhouse table, be the man I might have been had I not won a scholarship to St Columb's College and look from that distance at the person I've become as at a stranger,' he says. 'I may have grown up in a thatched house, but at 13 or 14 I was at home in the world of butlers and Bertie Wooster, thanks to the perfect pitch of P.G. Wodehouse's prose.' While still a student, he met Hughes, nine years his senior, who encouraged him to submit poems to local publications. Reading Hughes' View of a Pig, Heaney realised his rural boyhood needn't be the albatross that he'd taken it to be; instead, it could serve as a rich wellspring for poetry. His 1966 debut, Death of a Naturalist, was swampy with the puddles and peat of his childhood. He contrasted his writing tool with that of his spade-wielding ancestors: 'Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I'll dig with it.' Published to rapturous acclaim, the book led Heaney to be critically anointed as heir to the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who died the year of his literary son's birth. A minority of critics dismissed his poems as conventional pastoral, criticising Heaney for evading the sectarian clash bloodying his country. One reviewer carped: 'Put on your wellies, here comes Heaney.' During a teaching stint at Berkeley College, California, in 1970, Heaney observed how black writers compromised the independence demanded by their craft, through pouring themselves into the civil rights movement. He was determined that the pressures to become a political mouthpiece in Ireland wouldn't lead him to do the same. In The Flight Path, an IRA militant assails Heaney: 'When, for f***'s sake, are you going to write/ Something for us?' He responds: 'If I do write something, I'll be writing for myself'. Yet with the publication of North in 1975, the Troubles started bleeding into his poems. 'I needed to do so in order to breathe more freely,' he says. Some, who previously felt that he shirked his obligations as an Ulster Catholic poet, were satisfied by the political turn. But Heaney also outraged partisans who felt let down by the ambiguity of his political stance. Other, mostly British, reviewers lauded his refusal to subordinate poetry to polemic. For the North poems are less about 'the Irish thing' (as he once referred to it) than the artistic dilemmas they present. The tension between the prettifying effect of poetry and the cruelty of political violence surfaces in poems such as Station Island, where Heaney stands accused by the ghost of a dead cousin for sanitising his death: 'You confused evasion and artistic tact/ The Protestant who shot me through the head/ I accuse directly, but indirectly, you.' In 1972, when Heaney moved his family to a rural cottage in the Irish Republic, some felt that he was betraying his tribe. Whether his heading south was prompted by the North's political conditions depends on which journalist he's talking to. Now he stresses that the shift was non-political. Heaney's 1991 book Seeing Things marked his biggest change of key since North. Although the Troubles were still raging in Ulster, Heaney felt that sectarianism was exhausted as a theme. He returned to the more introspective tenor of his early work. Yet where he'd previously recoiled from visionary tones - words such as 'spirit' and 'soul', which his early mentors taught him to avoid - Heaney here 'exalt[ed] everyday miracles' (as the Swedish Academy put it). The earthy imagery of his early bogland poems ceded ground to transcendent descriptions of water and air. As Heaney writes in Fosterling: 'I wait[ed] until I was nearly fifty/ to credit marvels'. The recent deaths of his parents freed him to develop this ecstatic edge. 'Call it the flight of the soul or the spirit,' he says. 'It helped me to lose my shyness of the vocabulary of eternity.' Heaney returns to an ominous political backcloth with his new book, District and Circle, examining 'the post 9/11, post-Iraq invasion world of violent polarisation, crack-down and reprisal.' Memory remains the springboard for Heaney's poems, but is now infused with a piercing sense of threat. 'The underground train journey which is the motif of the title sequence really starts in 1962, when I had a holiday job in London and rode either the District or the Circle line every day,' he says. 'What's different is the level of awareness. An underground journey now is shadowed with a certain menace. Not only do you have the archetype of the journey to the land of the dead, but you have the actuality of the bombings of the London tube train in July 2005.' In Polish Sleepers, Heaney's tactile description of sleepers is overhung by the shadow of the Nazi death camps. 'The physical reality of railway sleepers is something I'd always have enjoyed writing about - the textures and bulk and reliability of them,' he says. 'But when sleepers from old railway tracks in Poland were supplied by a landscape gardener as curbs for a new lawn, I couldn't help thinking of what trains might have rolled over them in the 1940s.' The title evokes Heaney's enduring preoccupation with the tension between the English and Irish facets of his identity. Heaney made his anti-assimilationist sentiments clear in the early 80s by refusing to be anthologised in The Penguin Anthology of British Verse. Yet, while calling himself Irish, he has long resisted being conscripted into the nationalist cause. He never forgets that he's working within an English literary tradition, nor that his calling was nurtured by London publishers. 'Its associations are primarily with London rather than Ireland or the countryside,' he says of District and Circle. 'I liked it because it's somewhat unexpected. But on second thoughts a reader might realise, 'Ah, yes, in spite of the London poem, in most of the others, he's circling his own district. And yet another might think, 'The people on the Circle line - aren't they a bit like the souls in their circles in Dante's Divine Comedy?'' In 1997, Bill Clinton toured Ulster and quoted Heaney's poetry in nearly all of his speeches. He treated Heaney's lines like a blueprint for peaceable co-habitation: 'History says: don't hope/ On this side of the grave./ But then, once in a lifetime/ The longed-for tidal wave/ Of justice can rise up,/ And hope and history rhyme.' Given his reticence about political matters, one might imagine Heaney's discomfort at being treated like a living peace emblem. But his telling is subtler. 'The opposite of war is not peace but civilisation, so I'd like to be considered a representative of W.B. Yeats' hope: 'That civilisation not sink,/ Its great battle lost.'' What, in Heaney's view, is poetry's power? 'To give pleasure. To draw the mind, as Eliot says, 'to afterthought and forethought'. To create a shared culture of inwardness and tenderness, conscience and scepticism. To help us recognise ourselves and how we are in the world.' On the eve of his first visit to Hong Kong, Heaney is eager to test his expectation that 'the complicated history of the place has made Hong Kong people ironical and detached and acute about politics and life'. But it's the morning after he arrives that he's anticipating most keenly. 'What I look forward to is the newness,' he says. 'I like the sensation of coming up for air and seeing the world afresh.'