WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS once claimed that when we argue with someone else, it's rhetoric, but when we argue with ourselves, it's poetry. Irish poet Seamus Heaney conforms to his precursor's observation. In Field Work, Heaney often challenges his decision to write, yet at the same time believes in his own artistic commitment.
Heaney fuses this dichotomy so convincingly it's difficult to detect it. His indissoluable phrases and sounds don't reflect the labor he has given his verse-making. Each poem artfully avoids the simplistic on the one hand and the obstentatiously convoluted on the other--two qualities that dominate contemporary poetry.
These crafted poems are a roadmap of Seamus Heaney's soul. In them he has left Belfast and the political images of past volumes and retreated to the fields. He's headed to the coast, "through flowers and limestone" to eat the day "deliberately, that its tang/Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb." And an active, transitive verb at that. Heaney always places himself in each animated poem: in a record of his four sequestered years in the country, he wanders from the water's edge to open shed, from a stone pier to a deeply tilled lea.
This poetic travelogue tries to reconcile two voices. In "An Afterwards," one voice, in the persona of his wife, asks:
Why could you not have, oftener, in our years
Unclenched, and come down laughing from your room
And walked the twilight with me and your children...
The other wonders, in "The Badgers": "how perilous is it to choose/Not to love the life we're shown?" The artistic poet never resolves this artistic dilemna, but that doesn't matter. Heaney carefully considers the issues at stake, and finds contentment in language, though he's not wholly satisfied with the life of an artist. But in essence, the very existence of his poems is a resolution of his inner crisis. The poet deserves a great deal of credit for posing his difficult questions with such dexterity. All too often, contemporary poets feel compelled to interrupt fluent verse with awkward interrogation.
SOMETIMES SPARSE, always evocative, Heaney's imagery and use of metaphor facilitates his transferral of personal circumstance into poetic experience. In "The Guttural Muse," for example, the poet describes the noise and the young people leaving a discotheque:
A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
I felt voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sore
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.
Heaney attends to the sensual in these lines; but more significantly he yearns for the easier life. He pleads for the days gone by, hoping to stand again at the crossroads of his decision to be an artist.
Heaney doesn't wallow in self-doubt, however. Many of the poems in this collection are elegies (some memory of Irish soldiers and artists), along with one particularly striking lament for Robert Lowell, whom he calls "our night ferry Thudding in the sea." He admires Lowell as one who "drank America/Like the heart's/Iron vodka...," and these lines of veneration acquaint us with Heaney's intrinsic poetic spirit. Like Lowell, he wants to glean all that he can from his environment.
Heaney always digs roots in his ongoing field work, and the pinnacle of his efforts comes in his Glanmore sonnet sequence. (Glanmore was the author's home for four years after he left Belfast.) These poems must be considered the centerpiece of Field Work, and are wonderfully successful in their fusion of reach and reticence. In them, Heaney also demonstrates that versification is not extinct. He chisels rhymes out of unlikely word combinations, and simultaneously knows when to interrupt his alliteration with parenthetical asides.
To take lines out of context in this series of poems would ruin them, because each work relies on the momentum of one line following another. Heaney strings words together like notes in a finely-tuned melody, and to untangle them would not do his work justice. Even in the little poem, we witness a poet who connects ambiguities through a poetic magnetism, when he utters "You are stained, stained/To perfection."
HEANEY HAS MATURED considerably in Field Work. His voice is confident, his versification operative, and his substance highly provocative. Though Heaney tends toward the pastoral, he bestows his work with so much energy that every poem seems to perpetuate itself, with each line flowing into the next. His book contains only a few flaws. For one, Heaney's line breaks seem a bit contrived. Sometimes, too, the poet couples abstractions, such as "sibilant penumbra" or "mellowed clarities" which ask too much of the reader, even the active one. Finally, his detached version of the Ugolino episode in Cantos 32 and 33 of Dante's Inferno, which concludes Field Work, does not measure up to the profundity of his personal lyrics.
For most part, however, these uncluttered poems collectively represent a meaningful achievement. Heaney never hesitates to face up to the dilema of being an artist. His is not an easy life; some of the violent incidents from life in Belfast still linger in his head, coiling around that field where he cultivates his poetry. But in Field Work, Seamus Heaney advances beyond the political bog. His acres breathe, and his road steam.