December 20, 1998
Digging Down

A collection by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, plus a critical study of his work.


Selected Poems, 1966-1996.
By Seamus Heaney.
444 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

By Helen Vendler.
188 pp. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press. $22.95.

In the first poem in ''Opened Ground,'' Seamus Heaney contemplates the pen resting between his finger and thumb, then says, ''I'll dig with it.'' The ground opened by his pen in poem after poem is dense with the bodies of the ancient and recent dead, and the emptiness left by his digging is filled with glowing visionary memories. Heaney has selected the contents of this volume from all his earlier books, added a few previously uncollected works and appended his 1995 Nobel Prize address, ''Crediting Poetry,'' as a commentary on the poems. The book belongs, he writes, ''somewhere between the two categories'' of a ''Selected Poems'' and a ''Collected.'' At 59, with the prospect of decades of work ahead of him, Heaney has assembled a collection with a satisfying heft and more than enough variety of subject and style to delineate the shape of a long and constantly evolving career. It eloquently confirms his status as the most skillful and profound poet writing in English today.

Heaney began by writing about objects, then turned to absences, some of them caused by the violence of the northern Irish ''Troubles.'' More recently, as he says in his Nobel lecture, he has tried ''to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvelous as well as for the murderous,'' but in fact the marvelous has never seemed distant from him. In his early poems, simply by repeating a local place name to himself, he was able to dig deep into the ground of memory. In ''Toome,'' his mouth shapes the name of a childhood village, and ''under the dislodged / slab of the tongue / I push into a souterrain / prospecting.'' He works his way down ten thousand years of

loam, flints, musket-balls,
fragmented ware,
torcs and fish-bones,
till I am sleeved in

alluvial mud that shelves
suddenly under
bogwater and tributaries,
and elvers tail my hair.

Other poems from his first three books, ''Death of a Naturalist'' (1966), ''Door into the Dark'' (1969) and ''Wintering Out'' (1972), imagine in the soil of Denmark and Ireland the preserved bodies of the ''bog people,'' to whom Heaney gives voices in poems that leave the reader uncertain, in the first few lines, whether the speaker is the poet or someone unimaginably ancient.

Heaney invented for these early poems an abrupt tactile vocabulary of moisture, stickiness and fullness. The poems display a craftsman's delight in compressed, short-line stanzas packed with phrases like ''mucky gaps'' or ''his hands grub,'' often followed in the closing stanzas by Latinate or learned phrases, as if the poems were returning to the world of words with a prize taken from the world of nature. The lines of these stanzas often open with an unusually harsh, strong beat, and Heaney typically postpones more comfortable iambic meters until a poem has established a trochaic opening as its norm.

Heaney's reputation was made by this memorable and authoritative style, but it threatened to become a tic. In ''North'' (1975), ''Field Work'' (1979) and ''Station Island'' (1984), his verse became more meditative and expansive, with no loss of excitement, and he sometimes dispensed with verse in order to write spare, almost entirely unrhythmical prose poems that relied on the exactness of their vocabulary for their effects. All these books were suffused with affectionate domestic detail, but they were shadowed by the Troubles, as Heaney labored to incorporate questions of justice into his poetry without joining the haters on either side. His first responses were angry ones, as in ''Whatever You Say Say Nothing'': ''O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod, / Of open minds as open as a trap.'' Then they modulated into mourning, sometimes in puzzled, tentative memorial poems to those killed in earlier wars, like the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who died for England in World War I: ''In you, our dead enigma, all the strains / Criss-cross in useless equilibrium.''

Heaney is a poet of localities, not nations. Villages and rivers are named throughout his early poems, but in ''Opened Ground'' the name ''Ireland'' first occurs halfway through the book, in a translation from a medieval romance that refers to ''all the madmen'' there. Later in the book it occurs only in poems on historical subjects and in his Nobel lecture. During the Troubles, Heaney translated fragments from Dante, and took lessons from Dante's exemplary combination of local loyalties with universal themes.

By the time he wrote the disturbing profundities of ''The Haw Lantern'' (1987), Heaney had worked his way past the angers and bafflements of his first responses to public themes. Many reviewers regretted the loss of his earlier glint and hardness, but Heaney had stopped writing clever poems and had begun writing great ones. The magnificent parable ''From the Republic of Conscience'' records his return from the ''frugal republic'' named in the title of the poem and his status as ''a dual citizen'' of the republic of conscience and the profligate monarchy of esthetics, expected to speak on behalf of the first in the tongue of the second.

Caroline Forbes/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Seamus Heaney
Having won his wrestle with politics, Heaney now wrote more and more as a visionary. The first poem in ''Seeing Things'' (1991) translates the lines in the ''Aeneid'' about the golden bough that opens the way to the underworld -- yet another instrument for opening ground -- and the rest of the book glows with breathtakingly luminous visitations to empty places and lost persons. The three-line poem ''An August Night,'' evidently a memory of Heaney's father, reads like an extended haiku: ''His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable. / When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets, / Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.''

In his most recent collection, ''The Spirit Level'' (1996), and in his Nobel lecture, Heaney combines the visionary and the concrete with a hard-won air of effortlessness. He compares the ''order of poetry'' to two varieties of worship, one illustrated by a legendary Irish saint who let a bird build a nest and raise her young in his hand, the other by a carved relief in a museum in Sparta, ''possibly set up to Orpheus by a local poet.'' Like the Spartan poet, Heaney claims a sacred vocation for his art, but, like the Irish saint, his vocation is in service to the bird's nest and its fragile contents.

Helen Vendler's compact study, ''Seamus Heaney,'' traces the full arc of Heaney's career with lucid efficiency. A rapid series of close readings emphasizes the literary ancestry and techniques of individual poems. Each of Vendler's seven chapters summarizes the central themes of one or more of Heaney's books, then describes his ''second thoughts'' on these themes in later books. If Vendler sometimes belabors the obvious, as in a three-page catechism summarizing Heaney's poem about the bird-nurturing saint, her book is nonetheless a model of a kind of criticism now alarmingly rare, a sympathetic exposition addressed to intelligent readers in or out of academia.

At crucial moments, though, Vendler writes less as a critic than as a courtier reassuring a conscience-stricken monarch that his troubles are not of his own choosing. She writes on her opening page that ''conditions forced Heaney . . . into becoming a poet of public as well as private life'' and later that the ''carnage in Northern Ireland . . . compelled Heaney to gather representative alter egos,'' as if his pen had been guided by forces outside himself. She closes by reasserting her book's recurring argument that ''the genre of the lyric obliges its poet'' only to represent his responses to his personal situation ''in adequate imaginative language.'' But Heaney's efforts to reconcile ethics and esthetics are more generous and complex than Vendler implies, and the effect of her polemic is intermittently to represent him as a lesser poet than he is.

Like every ambitious writer who continuously seeks a larger field for his vision, Heaney sometimes missteps. He is superb at rendering menace -- he transforms the thuggish roadblocks set up by Northern Irish combatants into mythical way stations on a dangerous quest -- but when he portrays violence his verse turns lifeless, estheticized and inert. Every few years since the early 1970's he has written a poem detailing violent acts against women or children, sometimes in a crude vocabulary that in recent years has included the starkest of four-letter words. Although eloquently appalled by such violence, Heaney in his prose also speaks repeatedly of his wish to make his art equal to it. But in these few poems he achieves only the spurious toughness that afflicts much 20th-century writing when an inherently gentle imagination tries to think its way into moods it finds repulsive. Critics, Vendler among them, become notably defensive when praising what she calls the ''merciless'' quality of these poems, and it is perhaps a measure of the value placed on toughness for its own sake in modern literary culture -- and of an underlying sense of vulnerability -- that they feel obliged to praise them at all.

Heaney finds a more plausible and powerful treatment of these matters in his forthcoming translation of ''Beowulf'' (recently excerpted in The Sunday Times of London), in which archaic hatreds and mythical violence sound out through the harshest glories of his verse. ''Opened Ground'' is the work of the one living poet who can rightly claim to be the ''Beowulf'' poet's heir.

Edward Mendelson's ''Later Auden'' will be published early next year.

Return to the Books Home Page

Home | Site Index | Site Search | Forums | Archives | Marketplace

Quick News | Page One Plus | International | National/N.Y. | Business | Technology | Science | Sports | Weather | Editorial | Op-Ed | Arts | Automobiles | Books | Diversions | Job Market | Real Estate | Travel

Help/Feedback | Classifieds | Services | New York Today

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company