MAN CAN EMBODY the truth but cannot know it," wrote W.B. Yeats a little before the end. On his deathbed 46 years ago he embodied, unknowingly, one truth that soon grew plain. He'd created an illimitable future for Irish poetry, and it was all dying with him.
His imagined Ireland, where they'd "sing the lords and ladies gay" but "scorn the sort now growing up," was to prove uninhabitable for anyone save himself. "Irish poets, learn your trade," he'd enjoined them. And for a whole generation, just getting free of his shade was what they'd work at. Patrick Kavanagh, for one, nearly crippled himself seeking ways to be unlike Yeats.
That's over, and one poet who is free is Seamus Heaney, born as it happens the very Yeats died. Yet the great ghost won't be wholly dismissed, and his metaphor of "trade" has lasted. "This sedentary trade," Yeats once called poetry. Heaney assents: not "song," but hand-work, like masonry, like digging, like shooting. No one forgets the lines that opened his first collection 19 years ago:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
The middle of that early poem celebrated a family tradition of digging: digging turf-bogs, digging potato-fields. And "Digging" ended,
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Though he's worked himself away from those dense enjambed rhythms, he keeps faith with his earliest image:
Take hold of the shaft of the pen.
Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.
That is "The First Gloss," and it's both an entire poem and the epigraph to a 20-poem sequnce, "Sweeney Redivivus." Heaney works in large forms now. But large things inhere in small gestures: here's a detail from "The Sandpit," remembered from the age of 7:
A fortune in sand then. Sandpits and sandbeds.
River gravel drying in the brickyards.
Clay-scabbed flints, skimming stones of slate,
sandstone pebbles, birds' eggs of flecked granite
all rattled in the caked iron mouth
of the concrete mixer.
We find a meaning for this dense jumble in what the bricklayer did next:
with one chop of the trowel he sent it all
into the brick for ever.
It has not stopped travelling in
in the van of all that followed:
floors hammered down, the pipes' first
gulping flow, phone wires and flags
alive on the gable . . .
It's pertinent that Yeats would have scorned the phone wires and the iron machine as emblems of vulgarity, not worthy of a poem. But now pipes as well as flints are integral to a poem's integrity, as they are to a house's. In an Ireland where it's still easy to see everything post-Georgian as spurious, that is a milestone achievement.
And now listen to this:
I was parked on the high road, listening
to peewits and wind blowing round the car
when something came to life in the driving mirror,
someone walking fast in an overcoat
and boots, bareheaded, big, determined
in his sure haste along the crown of the road
so that I felt myself the challenged one.
The car door slammed. I was suddenly out
face to face with an aggravated man . . . .
The car and the rear-view mirror: normal modernity. And yet it's not easy to be sure of the time. Those long syntactic arches, that stubborn variety in the measure, that grouping of lines in threes, that deft yet unsettling way of producing an apparition: those effects have been studied from Dante, and the "aggravated man" is William Carleton, stern moralist and storyteller, dead for more than a century. His first words are "O holy Jesus Christ, does nothing change?" (Nothing does; Ireland still carries on in ways he reprobated.)
That is from the collection's title poem, 12 parts, 34 pages, and as fine a long poem as we've been given in 50 years. Once again, Heaney unobtrusively assumes a tradition, the great modern tradition of indebtedness to Dante. For Yeats on his deathbed had written "Cuchulain Comforted" in strict terza rima, as it were an unwritten Canto for the Inferno, and in 1943 T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding" devised an imitation (rhymeless) terza rima to narrate a wartime encounter with the ghost of Yeats. And of these high models Station Island proves more than worthy.
Eliot assimilated modernity by periphrasis: his Stuka bomber becomes "the dark dove with the flickering tongue." But Heaney's "The car door slammed" is what Dante would have written had Dante driven a car. Heaney's rhythm and syntax are easier than Eliot's too, more limber: high praise, since the Eliot ione of Eliot's finest passages.
Everywhere, in this sequence of encounters with shades, the authority of detail astounds. "Remember everything," admonishes Carleton. "We are earthworms of the earth, and all that/ has gone through us is what will be our trace." And Heaney writes of another shade:
rushed the air softly as scythes in his lost meadows.
And of another:
and he trembled like a heatwave and
That's a 20th century simile, made to sound timeless.
The climactic encounter is with a tall spirit, seemingly blind, that walks with an ashplant.
His voice eddying with the vowels of
came back to me, though he did not
a voice like a prosecutor's or a singer's,
cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib's downstroke, quick
and clean . . .
We've recognized James Joyce by now, and there's Seamus Heaney's emblematic pen too. Each, inthis wonderful poem, proves worthy of the other.
The other major living Irish poet is John Montague, 10 years Heaney's senior. In Dublin circles it's been my experience that the acceptable way of admiring either man is to disparage the other. I don't see Heaney endorsing that; one of these poems, "The King of the Ditchbacks," is dedicated to Montague. Nor would Montague, whom I've not heard speak ill of Heaney.
Their ways of evading Yeats have been wholly different, and Montague, aided by American examples (notably, William Carlos Williams), was the earlier to find a way to long sequences that embrace history and modern heartbreaks. (The Rough Field dates from 1972). So it was easy, were you so minded, to shrug off Heaney as tough, yes, gnarled, yes, a craftsman, no doubt, but limited to small dense things, netsuke-work. Or else you could laud his "Irish" density of idiom, and go on to call Montague inauthenic, prosy.
By now it ought to be clear that the Irish (who, Samuel Johnson remarked, speak only ill of one another) have more than they seem to deserve amid their bitternesses: two complementary poets at least of international stature; two, who in an island of talkers with hardly anyone willing to read, make assimilable sense of the burden of the past Joyce called a nightmare, from which gunmen in particular disdain to awake. CAPTION: Picture, Seamus Heaney. Copyright (c) by Jerry Bauer