Books: A poet for all seasons

What St Seamus needs now is a flick of wickedness, argues Robert Crawford: Opened Ground: poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney Faber, pounds 12.99/ pounds 20, 352pp
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SOME POETS come to represent poetry. In the earlier 20th century, this role fell to T S Eliot and Dylan Thomas, who in their very different ways seemed to stand for the art they practised. They were the tradition-bearers. For many readers today, Seamus Heaney has come to occupy this position in English-language verse.

Richard Ellmann once remarked that, unlike many modern writers, Heaney actually "spoke like a poet". While one might not want poets to scale Parnassus in their conversation, a good deal of Heaney's talk and published prose have a richness and surprise that are one with his poetic achievements. Even before his Nobel Prize, he was an Ambassador from the Land of Enjambment.

Opened Ground, which collects verse from his earlier books, falls between a Selected and a Collected Poems. Its title, suggesting not only the field work of agricultural fertility, but also the graveyard and the archaeological site, looks to death as well as life. Its dark cover, an infant Christ carrying a toy cross, reinforces this ambivalence.

Poetry for Heaney has always been a delight brushed by mortality. "Digging", which has supplanted Wordsworth's "Daffodils" as The Poem for Use in Classrooms, speaks of the writer's pen "snug as a gun". Like many other Irish poets, Heaney has registered in his work the impact of killings, whether of "slashed" victims discovered in the opened ground of Danish bogs, or "dumped" by Ulster roadsides. Yet the presence of non- violent death in his recent work has continued a testing of the boundaries of insight and vision which must be called religious.

Snooty critics snub Heaney as a peasant poet. That put-down may still be heard in some quarters. There is glory in it, as the example of Robert Burns demonstrates. Yet, like canny, uncanny Burns, Farmer Heaney has also learned from metropolitan culture. Where the 18th-century poet rode to meet the literati of Edinburgh, Heaney has jetted to Oxford, Harvard and Stockholm. More than Burns, but like that other lover of peasant terrain, Heaney's admired Wordsworth, this Irish poet has developed a love not just of mossy stones and mudscapes, but also of the transcendent, spiritual, and visionary.

Opened Ground makes that development clear. While youthful Sixties poems of fields and firesides lead towards later visitations to similar territories, the Nineties spirituality of Seeing Things and The Spirit Level also illuminates earlier work. "The Diviner" and "Oracle" from Heaney's first books anticipate his current preoccupation with miracles and visions. While one might argue that there was a moment of illumination around the time of The Haw Lantern (1987) - when Heaney sloughed the mud off his boots, grew diaphanous wings and ascended into heaven as St Seamus - this caricature doesn't quite fit. His medieval-modern Sweeney, "in flight" and "tensed for first light" in the early Eighties, is already a mystery-man.

Opened Ground contains few previously uncollected poems. Fortunately, though, it collects work from Heaney's fugitive 1975 pamphlet Stations, whose rituals and "listening for the silence under the ground" complement work from Station Island (1984), and the pilgrimage of Seeing Things.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance to Heaney of his Catholic religious sensibility. As in the "Presence" sequence by the Australian poet Les Murray, that "peasant mandarin" with whom he has a good deal in common, Heaney has a Hopkins-like sense of the "inscape" of beings and things. His finest poems seem to speak of a mysterious spiritual frequency that resonates through the grain of words and matter.

The deaths of Heaney's parents have intensified this aspect of his writing. His father's death as much as his own experience is at the heart of Seeing Things, that beautifully structured collection which may be Heaney's finest.

Opened Ground ends with Heaney's Nobel Speech. Its magisterial closure seems a little ominous; its trust in marvels reinforces the sense of poetry as kinned with religious belief. What Heaney needs now is a flick of wickedness which will liberate him from the weight of his medals. One senses him attempting this in the four-letter words of the recent "Mycenae Lookout". Opened Ground is not yet the end.

With Simon Armitage, Robert Crawford is co-editor of the forthcoming Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945