Seamus Heaney: Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996

Seamus Heaney
Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

If you'd like a panoramic view of a Nobel laureate's oeuvre, look no further than this meaty new volume of Seamus Heaney's poetry. Weighing in at more than 400 pages, it, as Heaney says, "contains a greater number of poems than would usually appear in a Selected Poems, fewer than would make up a Collected"--it risks appearing a forbidding tome, even as it aspires to offer the definitive evidence of this Irishman's contribution to poetry over the last three decades.

In this regard, the volume largely succeeds. As an inveterate rhymer, Heaney can sometimes get wrapped up in showing off his facility with form to the detriment of the work, and this book does a good job of weeding out such lesser poems. But not always: One imagines the sentimental "Villanelle for an Anniversary," written for the occasion of Harvard University's 350th year on planet Earth, inspiring scores of yawns among the undergraduates it must have been foisted upon. But then it's followed in this volume by a selection like "Alphabets," also an occasional poem for an event at Harvard, where Heaney is a poet in residence. But this piece's sinuous and sensual investigation into its subject matter (in this case, the "risen, aqueous, singular, lucent" act of writing) is far more representative of the work presented throughout this book. At his best, Heaney can take an inquisitive, reflective idea and conjure up the bardic rhythms to express it; the process results in totemic poem-objects that are delicately wrought and yet somehow dense and hard as stone.

Lest the reader forget that all these poems are the work of a Stockholm-certified genius, Heaney's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "Crediting Poetry," is included as an afterword to Opened Ground--a shrewd move, since Heaney is a sharp essayist (a companion volume of selected prose would be welcome). Here Heaney follows his own advice from his poem "Squarings": "Be literal a moment. Recollect/Walking out on what had been emptied out/After he died, turning your back and leaving." In the lecture, Heaney connects poetry's "power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it" with specific details of his upbringing in the politically turbulent Northern Ireland. In doing so, he tells the saga of how the budding poet was able to "make space in my reckoning and imagination for the marvelous as well as for the murderous."

Heaney's tenure in poetry, in fact, is nearly synchronous with the extreme violence Northern Ireland has experienced in the latter half of this century. (The Catholic civil rights marches in the late 1960s that preceded 1972's Bloody Sunday coincided with the time when Heaney was beginning to publish in earnest.) Opened Ground deftly charts the poet's growing awareness of his historical context throughout his first few books, an awareness that reaches its fullest expression in Heaney's startling 1975 volume, North. Thus Heaney's ability to "make space"--opening ground not to bury but to exhume and examine--is indeed an imaginative act of great force.

This political dimension of Heaney's poetry is complex, as it should be. If, as Heaney writes in "Crediting Poetry," "it is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir," it is to Heaney's merit that his work since North carries out this calculated repression with increasing care. In "Mycanae Lookout," for example, an eight-page take on the sack of Troy from his 1996 volume The Spirit Level, the poet shows "the treadmill of assault/turned waterwheel"; in the context of the poem, it is hardly a celebratory image. Heaney's lyrics are filled with such hard and wearying human facts, and it is only because they sing that they are bearable.

Like his countryman Yeats (who died the year Heaney was born, suggesting some sort of cosmic balance), Heaney is a giant of English-language poetry, and he walks among us, even if it's sometimes along the staid paths of Harvard Yard. It is well worth the effort to accompany him on the retrospective tour of Opened Ground.

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