Seamus Heaney: poet of the Irish land and mind; Field Work, By Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux $8.95
Fieldwork: of the farmer, the observer of nature, the social or political scientist, the artist. The title of this book implies the intention of the poems: to be in contact with the world, to bring back raw experience for analysis. Seamus Heaney's fifth book of poetry, his first to be published in the United States, carries his explorations from "Wintering Out" and "North" deeper into the Irish land and mind.
Heaney, having recently completed visiting teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University, has gathered wide acclaim for this collection of fine-crafted, hard-edged verse. If the speculation about "a new Dylan Thomas" is not uncommon, Heaney wisely sidesteps the rush for literary canonization and typecasting (a process all to common in the communications media, that often spotlights the man and obscures the poetry); Heaney wants his poems to stand their own ground.
Though several of his poems concern the violence in Northern Ireland (the poet was originally from Derry and lived for several years in Belfast), Heaney is not really a political poet. His overwhelming concern is for the personal spirit of the artist, and of the Irish people. By excavating and enlivening his nation's native imagination, he hopes to find a new consciousness and style of life.
Yet the imagery is always real and present -- not the sort of metaphorical creations that immediately imply alter egos. The poet uses the sound, texture, and vision of each line to draw us to the subject. The resonance of his images in such that a multitude of overtones plays around the imagination after the first chord is struck, as in "A Drink of Water": She came every morning to draw water Like an old bat staggering up the field: The pump's whooping cough, the bucket's clatter And slow diminuendo as it filled, Announced her. I recall Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel of the brimming bucket, and the treble Creak of her voice like the pump's handle. Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable It fell back through her window and would lie Into the water set out on the table. Where I have dipped to drink again, to be Faithful to the admonishment on her cup, "Remember the Giver" fading off the lip. The poet's eye for acute detail, his precise use of tactile language, is so captivating that it is only after a second exposure that the reader becomes aware of the formal structure of the poetry. Instead of the great bells of rhyme, tolling at each line's end, Heaney rings his verse throughout wth alternating rhymes, the quiet chimes of half and internal rhyme, and the delicate music of perfectly paired words. "Drink of Water," with its offrhymes, is actually a Shakespearean sonnet disguised in modern clothes; the tone of voice is contemporary but the dancestep traditioal. The blend id deceivingly "easy" in first appearance, but grows more beautiful with each approach.
Though most American poets shy away from rhyming and fixed verse forms, this Irish poet works them as an integral part of his modern palette. (A section of 10 formal sonnets forms the center of this book.) In each poem, we witness a masterly craftsmanship and sense of design. Surprisingly, if there is any problem with this collection, it lies within this realm of craft. Though the technicical skill of the poet serves to gather, preserve, and glorify language, it occasionally contradicts the rough beauty of the poem's subject and brings a falseness to the final creation. While the feel of a poem might be earthy, wild sprung from the world's work, the language often cuts with a scholar's agility and a poet's flare. Where the undisguised heart of a farmer or fisherman is called for, the Artist suddenly appears. As in "Casualty," the "real" man of the field casts a suspicious eye on the business of "poetry."
Perhaps the perfect blend of the two worlds would place the reader in physical contact with the subject, though unaware of the poet's skill in bringing him there. (Robert Frost was often able to create such a blen.) But as the poet's heart deepens -- and we feel that growth everywhere in this new book -- I imagine the poem's heart too will surrender its steely edge. In the end, it is not merely the artifice that we admire in Heaney's work but, again and again, the shrewd human assessment, the careful measure of history's loss and gain, the vulnerable spirit approaching the world.