SELECTED POEMS 1966-1987
By Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 273 pp. $20
OLD AND NEW POEMS
By Donald Hall
Ticknor & Fields. 244 pp. $24.95
POETS may sometimes get a lot of respect, but they never get enough readers. Not until they're dead, anyhow: Recently Philip Larkin's Collected Poems made the Washington best-seller list, which does suggest that there is a hunger for verse when it's accessible, down-to-earth, funny or just plain, heart-stoppingly beautiful.
All Larkin readers know by now that they should be out buying Anthony Hecht's recently published collection, The Transparent Man, and his Collected Earlier Poems. The two poets share a gloomily witty outlook on life that suits well the Washington temperament. Of course, once any reader is hanging around the H section of the bookstore's poetry shelf, he or she will also want to pick up Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems and Donald Hall's Old and New Poems.
Where a "Collected Poems," is a monument, a "Selected" is an invitation, a sometimes needed ice-breaker for shy new readers. In other words, most of us. Unlike expository prose, which blatantly aims to ingratiate, much poetry often ignores the ordinary courtesies: It is simply there, true to itself. If you picture good prose as a smooth politician deftly working the crowd, then poetry is Clint Eastwood, serape flapping in the wind, standing alone on a dusty street.
This stark image is not inappropriate to Seamus Heaney's poems, which tend to be lean, sinewy, taut and gnarled. The famous first lines of "Digging" say, "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." Such bolt-action writing takes its business very seriously indeed.
Now in his early fifties, Seamus Heaney is the best known living Irish poet, and deserves to be. After all, how many husbands would dare write a frankly erotic love poem to an absent wife -- and actually compare her to a polecat? But Heaney brings it off with casual brilliance; here is the end of "The Skunk":
It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.
Poets live and die by their language, so one of the first things a reader notices about Heaney is his flair for picking just the right word (cf. "sootfall" in the above). A blackberry, for instance, is "a glossy purple clot," with a flavor like "thickened wine: summer's blood was in it." "Oysters" evokes the sexual carnage of eating seafood:
Alive and violated
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean.
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.
Softening the rape imagery, the deliciously prissy phrases could almost be Wallace Stevens's, whose spirit also hovers over this stanza:
There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
The "immortelles of perfect pitch" is an example of Heaney's gaudier word-music, though not more beautiful than some of his simpler phrases that, without flourish, take your breath away: "Then I thought of the tribe whose dances never fail/ For they keep dancing till they sight the deer."
Heaney once defined poems as "acts of attention," and his are so compacted that many do require a bit of effort. (No pain, no gain.) His themes are traditional, "the music of what happens": family and heritage, the bloody politics of Ireland, friendship, teachers, poetry itself. For me his least appealing work is the sequence focused on Sweeney, a bard transformed into a bird: Based on medieval Irish lyrics, these poems seem a little too sectarianly Celtic, as do -- sacrilege -- some of the well known meditations on the mummified remains of Iron-Age people found in bogs. Of course, they're supposed to be very Irish, images and figures drawn from a distant past, revealing a nation's character. No doubt I need to live with these poems a bit longer for them to release their enchantment.
As it is, there are so many other felicities that one can find something for every mood. I especially like the feather-touches of Hopkins ("I am screes/ On her escarpments") and the occasional Yeatsian rhythms: "Unless forgiveness finds its nerve and voice,/ Unless the helmeted and bleeding tree/ Can green and open buds like infants' fists/ And the fouled magma incubate/ bright nymphs. . . ." Once T.S. Eliot's Prufrock announced that he was not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be. Heaney, however, half-humorously asserts:
I am Hamlet the Dane,
smeller of rot
in the state, infused
with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
murders and pieties,
coming to consciousness
by jumping in graves,
In truth, Heaney -- currently a teacher at Harvard and Professor of Poetry at Oxford -- is probably one of the few poets who doesn't really need a Selected Poems. Anyone who cares for poetry already knows that he should be reading him. And anyone who likes his work will want to own it all. SUCH is not the case for Donald Hall. For 30 years Hall composed verse, mostly pleasant, likeable work, colloquial, touched with Frost. He also brought out family memoirs (String Too Short to be Saved), edited anthologies, taught, established himself as a critic and man of letters. And then in the mid '70s, Hall suddenly caught fire and began to write really stunning poetry. In the shadow of "Kicking the Leaves" "Wolf Knife" and "Eating the Pig," the earlier half of Old and New Poems seems merely an overture, announcing themes to be treated fully only in its second half.
The main ones are Hall's admiration for his farmer-grandfather's values and his own acute sensitivity to passing time and death. The early "Mr. and Mrs. Billings" opens with a shock: " 'Your wife,' the doctor said,/ 'Will be dead/ In approximately twelve weeks.' " The last poem in the book, a dies irae of enormous power called "Praise for Death," starts with this oxymoronic flourish: "Let us praise death that turns pink cheeks to ashes." In general, Hall's finest achievements offer interchanges between the aging man and his memories: Hall walking through fallen leaves, thinking of earlier autumns; Hall discovering a jar of maple syrup put up by his grandfather and tasting its still potent sweetness; Hall memorializing the horses that worked on his grandfather's farm. All are beautifully controlled, moving stories in verse.
But Hall can be funny too. In "Great Day in the Cow's House" he exclaims:
Sweet bellowers enormous and interchangeable,
Your dolorous ululations
swell out barnsides, fill spaces inside haymows
resound down valleys. Moos of revenant cattle
shake ancient timbers and timbers still damp with sap.
With similar exuberance, he elsewhere apostrophizes sheep as "Ruminant pillows! Gregarious soft boulders!" Who can resist such language?
Though he shares certain themes with Heaney -- both write often about rural life, memorialize parents or grandparents, elegize friends -- Hall prefers a far looser, easy-loping line. His vocabulary and syntax are plain, downhome; though sensitive to word music he generally avoids showing off. Like his masters Frost, Whitman and Dickinson, he also seems very American, no more so than in "Mr. Wakeville on Interstate 90," with its Mittyish fantasy of escape from family and job. Mr. Wakeville, driving down the highway, daydreams that he will, in his words, "abandon the route of my life":
"I will stop somewhere. I will park in a summer street
where the days tick like metal in the stillness.
I will rent the room over Bert's Modern Barbershop
where the To Let sign leans in the plateglass window;
or I will buy the brown Bungalow For Sale.
"I will work forty hours a week clerking at the paintstore.
On Fridays I will cash my paycheck at Six Rivers Bank
and stop at Harvey's Market and talk with Harvey.
Walking on Maple Street I will speak to everyone.
At basketball games I will cheer for my neighbors' sons.
I will watch my neighbors' daughters grow up, marry,
raise children . . ."
There are 40 pages here of completely new poems, several reminiscent of The One Day, Hall's dazzling previous book and winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award. No one who reads "Tubes," for instance, will ever forget its grisly humor about one of the common indignities of illness.
Some people say that we don't have real poets anymore, just academic versifiers or boring navel-gazers. Nonsense. We don't have enough real readers. Try some Heaney or Hall or Hecht. Before you know it, you'll be buying chapbooks and wondering why you ever bothered to read anything other than poetry.
Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.