The Mouth, the Meal and the Book
- Field Work by Seamus Heaney
Faber, 64 pp, £3.00, June 1979, ISBN 0 571 11433 4
Those of us who have never swallowed an oyster have presumably never lived life to the full. The Augustan poet was not merely mocking the heroic when he said that the man must have had a palate coated o’er with brass who first risked the living morsel down his throat. Seamus Heaney offers ‘Oysters’ (‘Alive and violated’) as his opening. Opened at once are the oyster, the mouth, the meal and the book. It is at the start a delicious poem, not least in its play of the obdurate against the liquid:
Vol. 1 No. 3 · 22 November 1979
SIR: ‘Art,’ Christopher Ricks tells us in your Irish issue, ‘practises what it preaches’ – in Seamus Heaney’s case, apparently a creed of unexclamatory, ‘sturdy’ trust (LRB, 8 November). Should criticism not aspire to do the same: to have, for example, some faith in the praising verbs and nouns that it delivers? Professor Ricks is enjoyably persuasive, or persuasively enjoyable, about the subject-matter of Heaney’s new volume of poetry, but I wonder whether his argument is not undermined, rather than advanced, by his faith in the analytic adverb. ‘As confidently trusting in its own arc …’: there would surely be little to exalt in a faltering trust fluttering home to the nest? The poems were ‘truly enlightened’: what, quite, is the alternative to ‘truly’ here? Another sense is ‘tacitly summoned in order to be gently found preposterous’: it would be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut – not an activity we are encouraged to believe Seamus Heaney is liable to indulge in – to beleaguer a mute meaning with a violent rebuttal?
And certainly you ‘have to love your wife most trustingly’ (perhaps even somewhat unusually) before ‘you would trust yourself to a comparison of her to a skunk’, but wouldn’t such trust entail ‘trust in the reciprocity’, rather than require it as an additional prerequisite before writing one’s poem?
I trust Professor Ricks’s judgment; I trust he is right about Seamus Heaney’s trust. But I feel he would make his case better if he were more trustingly bare in his prose.