Marvels and murders

Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96 by Seamus Heaney Faber pounds 20/pounds 12.99: If you took the rejected poems from Seamus Heaney's new Selected, he'd still be awesome

"Their beat embalms them" was Robert Lowell's funereal phase for how poets survive their poems. Seamus Heaney's beat has been sounding now for more than 30 years, and shows no sign of abating, as the publication of his new, enlarged, selected poems makes clear. As crucial as the beat, but harder to characterise, is the vocal timbre - the tone and texture which carries the living voice and keeps it alive. Almost anywhere the reader might chose to alight on in this book, the lines carry an unmistakable signature:

That midge-veiled, high-hedged side road

where you stood

Looking and listening until a car

Would come and go and leave you lonelier

Than you had been to begin with ...

The compound-laden, densely patterned acoustics of that first line move into a perceptual clearing in the next, alerting the senses. And the way, instead of writing "Than you had been before" with its iambic, lacquered finish, Heaney ruffles the last line with a deliberate awkwardness - all these effects show both a steady vigilance and a continued receptiveness not just to the realm of the senses but also to what they open on to. "Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable", as he writes in "The Harvest Bow', might stand as a fitting motto for his entire work.

In Heaney's early poems there is an awareness of density and weight, both of the earth and of languages, and he has never abandoned the perception of the earthbound and the creaturely: "I grew out of all this / like a weeping willow / inclined to / the appetites of gravity". And yet his poems have become increasingly susceptible to the anti-gravitational force of the imagination. In "The First Flight" he assumes the alter-ego of Sweeney, the Irish King who was turned into a bird:

I was mired in attachment

Until they began to pronounce me

A feeder off battlefields

So I mastered new rungs of the air

To survey out of reach

Their bonfires on hills...

If Heaney were not so "mired in attachment", weighted down by relationship to his community and to the history of the place, the ascent would be less charged and far-reaching. Feathers - regardless of the expression - don't fly. The heavier the weight the further it goes, at least holds true for poems, or as Heaney puts it, employing the metaphor of a ploughshare, "the more brutal the pull / and the drive, the deeper / and quieter the work of refreshment."

Heaney has weighed the claims of heritage against the (sometimes counter- ) claims of the art, and by fully acknowledging both he has managed to betray neither. He has never shed his "attachment" - and even the word "mired" doesn't entirely succumb to a negative value in this poet who is drawn to the "darkened combs" of what has sunk in the bog. Yet he refuses to be circumscribed or entrapped by these attachments. This is at least in part, what makes the elegies of his fifth collection Field Work such formidable masterpieces. "Casualty" especially, which records the murder by the IRA of a fisherman friend, is one of the finest poems to emerge out of the Troubles. Its power is one that takes apprisal also of the civilians killed by the British Army on Bloody Sunday, but it lives in the evocation of this particular figure's sly, gestural, freewheeling life beyond the exigencies of community.

The imagery of weighing and of scales not only marks a dedication to sensory experience - of how we know the world - but also implies a concern with justice, with what the world might or ought to be. This can give rise to the self-mockery of a poetic stocktaking:

As I sit weighing and weighing

My responsible tristia

For what? For the ear? For the people?

For what is said behind backs?

Elsewhere, as in "Station Island III", his reworking of an earlier elegy for Colum McCartney, in which the dead man accuses Heaney "For the way you white- washed ugliness and drew / the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio / and saccharined my death with morning dew", it leads to a genuinely mordant examination of conscience and yet, in its return at this point to terza rima, it still remains, intact and unapologetically, the powerful Dantesque consciousness of the former poem.

Heaney, in his Nobel lecture "Crediting Poetry", claims that he "began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imaging for the marvellous as well as for the murderous". The secret of "Fosterling', with its dialectic of weight, its lift-off and final pun on "lighten" shows how such space was made:

Heaviness of being. And poetry

Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens

Me waiting until I was nearly fifty

To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock

of tin cans

The tinker made. So long for air to brighten,

Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

Heaney's poetry has always allowed a space for the marvellous - as early on as `The Diviner" whose "forked hazel stick" picks up "Spring water suddenly broadcasting / Through a green hazel its secret station". Or take the final image of the raindrops on the telegraph wires in "The Railway Children":

Each one seeded full with the light

Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves

So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle.

The incisive clarity of these lines recalls an Escher engraving only to excel it in imaginative force.These poems find - in the dowser's gift and the child's perception of the world - images of the marvellous that are also wonderfully grounded. They work deftly as symbols of the poetic act, but rather than being conscripted as such are given free rein to be themselves. There are many figures of traditional crafts throughout Heaney's poems which offer similar, unforced parallels with the art of poetry - the thatcher "pinning down his world, handful by handful", the blacksmith who "expends himself in shape and music" and the tailor: "My Lord Buddha of Banagher, the way / is opener for your being in it".

It's entirely apt that the last poem of Opened Ground should close on the word "open", which has a talismanic quality for Heaney:

You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange

things pass

As big buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

This ending, that seems to catch something of the optimism of the ceasefire, has a Zen-like readiness for the unexpected and, despite its title, "Postscript', the gift of writing through to, rather than after, the event. The book, which has the feel of work very distinctly ongoing, also includes the Nobel lecture. Heaney is a poet who deserves to be read in entirety - a remark often made and rarely true. Out of what's been omitted from even this fuller selection, another Selected could be assembled (just think of the excluded "Freedman", "A Postcard from North Antrim", "An Ulster Twilight" and so on) that would still place him at the forefront of contemporary poetry.

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