Hand and Foot
- Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96 by Seamus Heaney
Faber, 478 pp, £20.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 571 19492 3
- The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study by Neil Corcoran
Faber, 276 pp, £9.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 571 17747 6
- Seamus Heaney by Helen Vendler
HarperCollins, 188 pp, £15.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 00 255856 4
When Seamus Heaney left Belfast in 1972, to work as a freelance writer in the relative safety of the Republic, Northern Ireland was a war zone. Internment and Bloody Sunday had recruited so many to the Provisional IRA that Civil Rights marches had given way to carbombs. While Heaney in County Wicklow wrote the poems that would go into North, common ground was eroded. Moderates still hoped for power-sharing, but the prospects for compromise were damaged in February 1973, when the Loyalist Association of Workers called a general strike – flexing the industrial muscle which would later destroy the Sunningdale Agreement.
That difficult February, Heaney published in the Listener one of his worst but most interesting poems. ‘A New Life’ riskily compares the impregnation of Mrs Heaney to British imperialism in Ireland. In bed with his wife, who was expecting a child at the time, the poet sees himself as ‘the tall kingdom’ looking over Erin’s shoulder. With the help of some fudged physiology (the womb of conflict is located in the North), Heaney is able to correlate sex with colonial penetration, but only by forcing an analogy between the guilt he feels at causing the pains of childbirth and the responsibility England shrugs off for the Tudor conquest, 1798 and the legacy of Loyalist extremism. Riven by inconsistencies, the poem struggles to yoke the personal to the political by stacking up double entendres about invaders who ‘came’ among the ‘mounds and ring-forts’ of Ireland/Mrs Heaney and produced from ‘broken ground’ the bloody issue of Ulster.
Those familiar with Heaney’s work will recognise ‘A New Life’ as a discarded version of ‘Act of Union’, the double, irregular sonnet which lies near the heart of North, and which is reprinted in Heaney’s grand new retrospective volume, Opened Ground. To compare the magazine text with its revision is to have a fascinating insight into Heaney’s way with difficult material. Halved in length, ‘Act of Union’ moves tersely and at times with probing intuitiveness into the matter of history and territory which is at the quick of the early books. Though it includes a few long picturesque lines – parturition is called ‘a bog-burst,/A gash breaking open the ferny bed’ – these are not allowed to compromise the taut verbal structure. Hence the poem’s conclusion. In 1973, it had seemed possible to allegorise out of the Heaney marriage the reconciliation of Britain and Ireland through their Ulster offspring: ‘The triangle of forces solved in love’. Loyalist agitation changed that, and a couple of years later, in North, the ‘broken ground’ of ‘A New Life’ is bleakly revised to echo the ‘breaking open’ of the landscape/wife’s ‘ferny bed’:
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again.
This is Heaney’s first use of the resonant phrase which provides the title of Opened Ground; his subsequent use of it shows how closely fractious politics and the demands of craft can run together in his work to produce a form of words which sounds final in its simplicity but has had the capacity to take on new meanings as his writing has developed. In the years since North the idea of ‘opening up’ has become a leitmotif in Heaney, associated with the freedom of the imagination and with his belief that a more inclusive definition of Irishness can ease the problems of the North. His ‘ground’ has also shifted, not just in the sense that migration from Ulster to Wicklow has been followed by transatlantic shuttling between Dublin, Harvard and Oxford, but conceptually, too: his recent work has focused less on the squelch of bogland and more on ontology and language – those bases of human experience which poetry can subvert or confirm.
A typical example is one of the ‘Squarings’ sequence, number xl, reprinted in Opened Ground, from Seeing Things (1991):
I was four but I turned four hundred maybe
Encountering the ancient dampish feel
Of a clay floor. Maybe four thousand even.
Anyhow, there it was. Milk poured for cats
In a rank puddle-place, splash-darkened mould
Around the terracotta water-crock.
Ground of being. Body’s deep obedience
To all its shifting tenses. A half-door
Opening directly into starlight.
Out of that earth house I inherited
A stack of singular, cold memory-weights
To load me, hand and foot, in the scale of things.
Where ‘Act of Union’ labours to deliver its sexual-political analogy, this douzain has a light abruptness. In ‘Squarings’ Heaney is happy to settle for approximations (‘maybe’, ‘dampish’) and gestural incompleteness (‘Anyhow, there it was’). Yet the almost makeshift syntax is more than provisional: it broadens and consolidates in the third tercet to secure the ‘Ground of being’ and hint at transcendence in ‘Opening directly into starlight’.
This opening of the ground owes something to a residual Catholicism (or at least a religion-shaped hole) in Heaney: the traditional cottage, or ‘earth house’, is like the clay of the body which lifts its eyes to the heavens, or like the grave from which we will be raised. And the sense of gravid fluency which comes with the freed-up syntax of the final tercet is linked to his suspicion that the bearing of familial and historical burdens (such as those attested by ‘Act of Union’) is a precondition for airiness. The paradox that gravity can help you rise, that weights can lift each other in a tentative balance, was advanced both in Heaney’s contribution to Homage to Robert Frost (which he published in 1997 with Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott) and in such poems as ‘Weighing In’ and ‘The Swing’ (an Ulster version of Frost’s ‘Birches’) in The Spirit Level (1996), the most recent book of his excerpted for Opened Ground. Of course, nothing in Heaney’s late poetics can change the pessimism of ‘Act of Union’, but to encounter its ‘opened ground’ between the same covers as ‘Squarings’ xl is to admire the poet for finding words adequate to the crisis of the mid-Seventies which could grow beyond their moment.
Fuller than a selected poems yet more abstemious than a collected, Opened Ground presents Heaney’s dialogue with himself almost too coherently. Though quality has guided his choice, he excludes a number of intriguing poems that point to roads not taken in his work, preferring pieces that are more characteristic than successful. ‘Act of Union’, for instance, has a richer prehistory in Opened Ground than in the New Selected Poems (1990) because it includes both ‘Undine’ – a monologue much disliked by feminists, in which a watersprite is grateful to a man for clearing out her ditches – and the almost self-parodic ‘Poem’:
Love, I shall perfect for you the child
Who diligently potters in my brain
Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled
Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.
Fortunately, the going is not often so muddy, and the scale of Opened Ground (twice the length of the New Selected Poems) means that many superb recent lyrics can be reprinted – 35 of the 48 ‘Squarings’, for a start. The general rule is that Heaney’s dozen or so books are represented in proportion to their date. Between a third and a half of the Sixties poems are reprinted. After that inclusions mount, and room is even found for previously uncollected items: a translation of the Middle English ‘Names of the Hare’ (1981), the slight Harvard celebration poem, ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’ (1986) and the formally intricate ‘A Transgression’ (1994), which reopens to touching effect the familiar Heaney subject of the remorse which afflicts those who make a break for freedom against the rules of the group – in this case through an act of truancy which is resolved when the schoolboy gets home to the understanding and love of his parents.
Opened Ground ends, or climaxes, with Heaney’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In some respects ‘Crediting Poetry’ tells a familiar tale, but the poet is surprisingly forthright about the constraints initially imposed on him by the hard-headed ethos of Ulster. The ‘costive attitudes’ of the place encouraged him to produce ‘an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are ... crediting insufficiently the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson ... and missing the visionary strangeness of Eliot’. Only with maturity did he ‘make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous’.
‘Crediting Poetry’ is most impressive when it links murders and marvels by arguing that poetry can tell hard truths while generating sweetness and trust. Associating himself more boldly than ever before with that other Nobel Laureate, Yeats, Heaney praises ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ for jolting us with images of violence (‘That dead young soldier in his blood’) even as it notices the sociable honey-bees building in the masonry of Thoor Ballylee. Yeats’s wide-angled truthfulness to the realities and potentialities of life is secured, for Heaney, by the buoyant in-placeness of a style which achieves what he calls ‘adequacy’. As the peroration mounts, it is hard to separate argument from orotundity, but Heaney evidently believes that the ‘adequacy’ of realised form gives verse ‘the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it’.
This is heady stuff, but ‘Crediting Poetry’ is cannily written as well as elevated. Heaney has always been sensitive to the demands and strictures of critics, and his address negotiates a number of frequently heard doubts about what he has achieved. By now he feels able to brush aside the counselling of those who urged him in the Seventies to be more Republican or more dispassionately liberal. But he is wary of the charge (reiterated by Peter Porter in his sharp Sunday Telegraph review of Opened Ground) of ‘fetishising ... the local’, and cautious about the indigenous traditions of Irish nationalism, given the evidence that ‘pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic.’
Is there also a flicker of anxiety about the technologies of modernity? Heaney returns several times to the jabber of tongues and Morse code which he heard in childhood on a wireless, as though keen to reassure us that language was always for him more than the guttural of rural speech. It is a standard put-down to say that his poetry appeals to many because its horse-drawn ploughs and cottages create a landscape which is nostalgic, or simply escapist; and, even though close readers will spot a satellite dish near the end of Opened Ground, there is little to satisfy those who require contemporary verse to be full of today’s high tech. If you want robots, Astroturf and IT you should turn to the younger Ulster poets Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson.
The difference, however, lies less in their subject-matter than in the sensibility associated with it. Next to their channel-hopping transitions, macaronic language games and subversions of cultural piety, Heaney often seems like a creature from another age – brimming with responsible verities and fond of Keatsian diction. He is of course an almost conscientiously varied poet: each book strikes the ear in new ways. But despite the large shift in outlook which he stresses in ‘Crediting Poetry’, he has retained the Romantic predilections which make his verse attractive to readers still uneasy (eighty years on) with the disruptions licensed by Modernism. His breakthrough to imaginative freedom may have exacerbated this by ‘opening up’ the possibility of an absolute reversion to Romanticism. For all its lovely accomplishment a text such as ‘Squarings’ xl is a shorthand Wordsworthian sonnet about ‘being’ and starlight.
Heaney nonchalantly overrides some of these objections by recalling that childhood wireless:
Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realises that it is the site of variously contending discourses. The child in the bedroom listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible.
It’s a good quip to say that a child could give you the gist of newfangled literary theory, and when the child in question is Seamus Heaney it might even be true; but the passage moves too quickly when it says that the adult poet must (but can’t) judge between promptings which are altogether excessive. To represent the ‘simply impossible’ might not be a bad aim for a poet to have, though it would require more tolerance for the unprocessed and the fragmentary than Heaney allows himself. Because he adjudicates so carefully among ‘ethical, aesthetical’ and other promptings in advance of the reader, his poetry often leaves too little in suspense: he prefers to resolve and assuage, or to bind up the contradictory in those paradoxical closures which are such a hallmark of his work.
It is an unfairness of literary history that these doubts come to mind partly because of changes in Irish poetry that Heaney himself helped foster by encouraging younger writers. In 1966, when his first book appeared, other values were in play, and his reception was astonishingly positive. Poems like ‘Trout’ (‘Hangs, a fat gun-barrel,/deep under arched bridges’) and ‘The Early Purges’ (‘I was six when I first saw kittens drown’) appealed to a readership which had lost its taste for the civilities of the Movement, and was sinking its fangs into a red-blooded diet of Ted Hughes. The vogue for immediacy bound up with that Sixties idiom encouraged onomatopoeic excesses which haven’t weathered well.
The well-made, articulate manner of the early verse is often associated with the tutelage of Philip Hobsbaum, who ran a writers’ workshop in Belfast during the Sixties. Though the Group was less decisive in creating an Ulster Renaissance than some text-books claim, Heaney felt its effects for longer than is generally realised. Hobsbaum has even said that he helped revise ‘A New Life’ into ‘Act of Union’ in the mid-Seventies, and came up with its punning title. This squares with Heaney’s remark that all his work through North is really one book. Yet that collection, and especially the so-called ‘bog poems’, which compare the victims of sectarian violence to Iron Age sacrificial corpses dug up in Jutland, was bound to be controversial – at least in Ireland. While British critics read the book as ‘testimony to the patience, persistence and power of the imagination under duress’ (the Guardian), those closer to the Troubles were struck by its narrowing concentration on the tribulations of the Catholic community and by the risk which it ran of exculpating atrocity by providing the anthropological justification of ancient rituals.
Those strictures still have force, though it’s a shock, returning to the reviews, to see how vehemently they were expressed. In The Honest Ulsterman Ciaran Carson accused Heaney of being ‘an apologist for “the situation” ’ by mystifying murder in the bog poems (‘It is as if he is saying: suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened’), and added: ‘So, when he writes “Act of Union” Ireland’s relationship with England is sentimentalised into something as natural as a good fuck.’ Something goes astray here: however provocative the bog poems may be in their challenge to the Enlightenment myth that ever atrocity can be rationally explained, ‘Act of Union’ deals with the consequences of a fuck more bad than good, yet thoughtfully neither one thing nor the other. By writing this political piece out of the same experience of life that informs his piercingly felt poems about the griefs of marriage – several of them reprinted in Opened Ground and among the best things he has done – Heaney acknowledges the love-hate intimacy of Anglo-Irish relations and avoids thinning his allegory into yet another denunciation of British assaults on the Irish other.
Still, the weaknesses of the poem are symptomatic of a schematising impulse in North: a willingness to live off received paradigms even while plumbing their dark implications. In Britain this went largely unremarked, because even after years of the Troubles commentators were almost as ignorant of the clichés of the situation as they were of possible ways of going beyond them. Irish observers were better attuned, and the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin got to the pith of the problem when she complained, in the Dublin magazine Cyphers, that ‘the inflexibility of the man and woman metaphor’ in ‘Act of Union’ has ‘something to do with the poet’s sense of his audience. The heavy equations belong to a world of shared assumptions, not one in which poetry can make a single perception unique.’ Ní Chuilleanáin’s critiques of Northern poetry – which have still not been absorbed into the huge Heaney literature – take a line distinct from the common accusation that, by writing topically about the Troubles, Heaney was feeding off others’ misery, but they have equally far-reaching implications. And her sense that Heaney was inclined to render the topical in a language too burdened by the habitual, too inattentive to the immediate, is borne out by the documentary verse in the second half of North.
It was years before Heaney felt able to reveal in verse the hurt he felt at the scolding which accompanied the popular success of North, and even then he expressed himself indirectly, in the finely honed ‘Sweeney Redivivus’ section of Station Island (1984), by using the hero of a medieval Irish epic as his mouthpiece:
I was mired in attachment
until they began to pronounce me
a feeder of battlefields
so I mastered new rungs of the air ...
But the process of seeking detachment, of claiming through the medium of verse that freedom which ‘Crediting Poetry’ makes the hinge of his career, began immediately after the publication of North, in Wicklow, as the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ of Field Work (1979) show:
Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.
The mildest February for twenty years
Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors.
This is the second appearance in the poetry of the title-phrase of Opened Ground, and its use here is even more loaded than in ‘Act of Union’. To catch the undertones it is worth turning to Neil Corcoran’s The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: a revision of his admirable Seamus Heaney (1986) which brings the reader up to date on the recent verse and adds a perceptive chapter on the strengths and oracular blind-spots of Heaney’s own literary criticism. As always, alert to the nuances, Corcoran notes how the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ take ‘opened ground’
into the realm of aesthetics: the ‘ground’ is now that of poetry itself. The phrase ‘vowels ploughed into other’ of that opening line is not easily interpreted, but it may mean, self-reflexively, ‘vowels ploughed into other vowels’, and hence suggest the almost self-entranced process of poetic composition, as the line forms itself when one vowel-sound suggests and prompts another; but it may also contain the idea of the vowels of Irish speech being worked into the otherness of the English iambic line, or even the words of the poem as they take into themselves the otherness of reality, hence opening a further linguistic and rhythmic path for the poet.
Cued by this, one can hear in Heaney’s rhymes a chiming which distances ‘other ... ground’ from the ‘mother ground’ of the bog poetry (‘Our mother ground/is sour with the blood/of her faithful’): the earth of Wicklow is ‘other’ not just because it’s not the ground of Ulster but because it’s opened by benign ploughing rather than by the bloody birth of conflict. And the same lines adumbrate not only poetic self-entrancement in the anagrammatic folding of ‘opened’ into ‘deep no’ but a sly allusiveness in their glance back to the first poem Heaney ever published, in the Belfast Telegraph (‘an anxious piece,’ he has called it, ‘about tractors “gargling sadly astride furrows” ’). In the light of these sophistications, Corcoran is right to hear in the couplet which closes the second Glanmore sonnet – ‘Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,/Each verse returning like the plough turned round’ – a reference to ‘Latin versus, which meant both a line of verse and the turn made by the ploughshare from one furrow into the next’. When the sonnets first appeared, in Hedge School (1979), they were printed on thickly-flecked unbleached paper, the furrowed lines on the page figuring the opened earth.
Interesting, if you like that kind of aesthetic: but how good a line is ‘Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors’? And is it wrong to cringe when Heaney says, in the first Glanmore sonnet, that he is ‘quickened with a redolence/Of farmland as a dark unblown rose’? The poet himself had doubts, as can be seen from his pruning back in Field Work of the even plusher ‘redolence/Of the fundamental dark unblown rose’ used in Hedge School. It is as though, by opening up a longer line after the tight measures of North, Heaney gave himself too much room to luxuriate, and rushed from the mire of attachment into the verbal self-pleasuring which, in some moods, still tempts him.
Terry Eagleton’s related complaint, in a review of Field Work, that ‘Heaney doesn’t really have much to “say”,’ that ‘he has been praised by a criticism which invests deeply in “experience” and little in “ideas”,’ proved harder to maintain during the Eighties as the poet explored – especially in The Haw Lantern (1987) – exactly the sort of post-structuralist topics that Eagleton then approved. But the problem of literary involution as a routine or mannerism goes back a long way in Heaney (to those early poems about digging and wells, which double as allegories of writing), and it does not vanish in such theoretically wised-up poems as ‘Alphabets’ in The Haw Lantern, however restrained the poet’s verbal palette had meanwhile become. As a result, the charge that he wasn’t saying much returned with savage force in Desmond Fennel’s 1991 pamphlet Whatever You Say, Say Nothing: Why Seamus Heaney Is No.1.
Although this polemic is driven by too crude a notion of what ‘saying something’ amounts to in poetry, it does have the mind-focusing audacity to ask ‘why an uneven body of lyrics, many of them well-made and beautiful but lacking a structured world-view’, should be regarded as ‘great poetry’. Ireland has lately produced almost a glut of distinguished poets, including Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Michael Longley. Yet their audience is relatively small. What’s different about Heaney? Fennell has several answers extraneous to poetry, but he ends up highlighting the academic agendas satisfied by his verse.
As in every good story, there is a villain. At first, Fennell says, Heaney was inexplicit because ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ is a wise commonplace in the dangerous North, but he advanced into the nullities of ‘pure poetry’ when his writing proved ‘congenial to the United States poetry establishment – particularly to its queen, Helen Vendler’. Noting with far too much cynicism the usefulness of her reviews in advancing the poet’s reputation, Fennell accuses Heaney of opting for Vendler’s belief that good poetry is ‘a private musing addressed, painfully, to the self, and expressed in active language’ and of rejecting the possibility that verse can add to the stock of social understanding.
Seamus Heaney is warmer about Vendler. In a recent issue of Paris Review he declares that ‘reading Helen Vendler is always a corroboration. She is like a receiving station picking up on each poem, unscrambling things out of word-waves, making sense of it and making sure of it.’ He talks about Vendler’s ‘sheer undimmed enthusiasm ... sheer exhilarating intelligence ... sense of honesty, justice and truthfulness’. The outburst stirs doubts about the wisdom of poets cuddling up to their supporters, especially those who ‘always’ corroborate their efforts; but Heaney must know that, and it makes his gesture the more nobly careless, defying those who resent Vendler’s influence on the reception of new poetry in the States. But his panegyric sets the stakes impossibly high for Vendler’s new study, which would be disappointing even without the expectations raised by her subject.
Her book does have strengths, especially its discussion of the Late Romantic poetry of Seeing Things. She is good on Heaney’s changes of style, and she rightly emphasises his self-corrective habits, appending to each of her chapters (which discuss his books chronologically) a section called ‘Second Thoughts’, to show how he returns to the matter of each period and reconsiders it. Even more appealingly, she values poetic form – a self-evident qualification in a critic, you might think, but one in danger of being lost in the cultural-studies jostling which goes on around verse these days. Yet her account of how form contributes to the making of poetry is disconcertingly mechanical, and she fails to recognise that, so far from being neutral, her ‘anti-ideological bias’ (in Corcoran’s words) enlists Heaney’s verse ‘too readily to a liberalism unaware of, or unwilling to declare, its own political assumptions’.
It’s not just that this lack of self-awareness makes her less sensitive than she might be to the complications of a poet not born into the liberal intelligentsia. It makes her too dismissive of other critics. Neil Corcoran so admires Heaney that, at times, his critical identity is coloured by the poet’s own rhetoric, but he nevertheless carefully weighs up the varied body of negative commentary because ‘it constitutes some of the most intelligent and stimulating criticism Heaney has received.’ As a result, he is kept alert to those moments when Heaney is technically not at his best (as in the dialogue passages of ‘Station Island’), and his analyses have the intellectual density of judgments which acknowledge that criticism can only be based on arguable predicates. By contrast, Vendler caricatures those who have questioned Heaney’s ‘adequacy’, and that makes it easier for her to proceed on critical autopilot.
She justifies her dismissiveness by saying that ‘the terms of reproof against Heaney have been almost entirely thematic,’ adding: ‘I myself regard thematic arguments about poetry as beside the point. Lyric poetry neither stands nor falls on its themes; it stands or falls on the accuracy of language with which it reports the author’s emotional responses to the life around him.’ By ‘thematic arguments’ she means political or feminist debate: in other words, not her themes – Vendler herself often treats Heaney’s work more thematically than seems desirable. How fully could one engage with the poetry of Dryden without assessing his politics, or with the lyrics of Adrienne Rich without considering her feminism? It is hard to be sure how seriously Vendler proposes this impoverished remit for criticism because she slips so blurringly from ‘poetry’ to ‘lyric poetry’. But she then hits another snag, because, even if her notion of language standing or falling by its ‘accuracy’ were correct, how could she or anyone (including, probably, the poet) know how accurately a poem reported the author’s ‘emotional responses’ to life. Who is to say whether William McGonagall tells us what he feels in ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’; and if the lyric truly answers to the sentiments of the man, would that make it a good poem?
The slide from ‘poetry’ to ‘lyric poetry’ is partly driven by Vendler’s unprovable belief that Heaney is a poet of private feelings who has engaged with public issues only because ‘forced’ to by the Troubles, but also by her overall privileging of lyric. Her high valuation of the genre would be more acceptable if she had a sustainable view of it. Announcing that ‘the fundamental aim’ of lyric is ‘to grasp and perpetuate, by symbolic form, the self’s volatile and transient here and now’, she adds: ‘It should be remembered that the only thing to which the genre of the lyric obliges its poet is to represent his own situation and his responses to it in adequate imaginative language.’ Here and throughout, the self is taken to be primary and language secondary, as though writing were not a process in which the chances and recalcitrances of words play a radical part in producing constructions of the self. Unhelpful as an account of even Romantic-confessional lyrics, these definitions wouldn’t help with Songs of Innocence and Experience, never mind ‘I sing of a mayden that is makeles.’
By narrowing poetry to lyric and lyric to an etiolated Keatsianism, Vendler makes it easier to shun Heaney’s literary and historical contexts. The sorts of conjunction which drew the phrase ‘opened ground’ out of ‘broken ground’ in ‘Act of Union’ do not register on her critical radar. This restricted way of proceeding would be less problematic if her ability to ‘unscramble’ the ‘word-waves’ of poems were not compromised by her loyalty to the stripped-down Symbolist notion that a poem is something ‘sketched’ on a ‘symbolic plane’ and then prolonged through time by the addition of words. Particularly naive is the idea that the ‘temporal structure itself must, in a poem of the first order, be formally expressive of the symbolic theme,’ so that, for instance, ‘a poem contrasting two states could be written in two contrasting stanzas ... or in the octave-sestet contrast of a sonnet.’ This model-building approach reduces her attentiveness to irregular elements. Too many of her analyses proceed as though Heaney were the maker of ‘symbolic planes’ not poems.
But is Desmond Fennell right to shout that Vendler wants Heaney to ‘say nothing’? Amusingly, the first lyric that she quotes in full, called ‘The Peninsula’, starts, ‘When you have nothing more to say, just drive/For a day all round the peninsula,’ but she omits the word ‘more’, as though the poet weren’t claiming to have already produced speech or writing. Freudian or not, this slip is far from unique: Vendler makes too many mistakes in quotation, layout and referencing. Nor are these all irrelevant to her exposition – as when she compares, in ‘Damson’, a flow of blood with ‘Jam ladled thick and streaming down the sunlight’, when the word on the page is ‘steaming’.
Vendler’s book has its importance as the work of an influential critic whose friendship with the poet and sympathy with many of his procedures give her special authority, but Neil Corcoran’s more discriminating and circumstantial approach makes his the best account of the subject to date. Yet the value of both studies is reduced by congestion: there are already two dozen books and hundreds of articles on Heaney. Now that his achievement has been both grounded and opened to all by the publication of this Nobel Laureate volume, perhaps the time has come, not exactly for an embargo, but for a clearer recognition that we won’t have a sharper sense of what is unique about his work until those contemporaries and successors who have transformed Irish poetry over the last three decades – from Kinsella to Ní Dhomhnaill – get the critical attention they deserve.