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Seamus Heaney: A Partial Indulgence : THE HAW LANTERN by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $12.95; 51 pp.)

October 25, 1987|Robert Mezey | Mezey's most recent book of verse is "Evening Wind" (Wesleyan University Press)

Seamus Heaney's admirers, who are legion, will welcome his new book warmly and will find in it much to admire. It is a characteristic book, both in its virtues and its defects. The virtues are considerable. Heaney commands a rich and various word-hoard, taking contagious delight in its multitude of shapes and sounds, and he has had from the beginning a gift for the accurate and vivid phrase. He enjoys the power of rime and meter and is capable of using them with effect. He is learned, ambitious and prolific. And the personality displayed in his work is an appealing one--sympathetic, shrewd, generous, observant and inclined to piety.

But the defects are serious and of long standing, and they seem to have gone largely unnoticed. One is reluctant, in the face of extravagant and nearly universal praise, to register a dissent, however mild. Yet opposition, in the form of honest criticism, would be true friendship. I think that Heaney's publisher and reviewers do him no service by speaking of him as "great" and "flawless" and comparing him to W. B. Yeats. This is sheer puffery, and grotesquely inflated. He is not yet in Philip Larkin's class. He is a gifted, serious, hard-working writer, clearly capable of growth, and nothing stunts a writer's growth like indiscriminate adulation.

Let me address a few of his faults and give examples. Heaney has always had a weakness for the odd and fancy word where a plain one would do as well or better, as in "The Mud Vision," where "a light fuzz/Accrued in the hair and eyebrows"--the connotations of accrued seem out of place; I can see no good reason for avoiding a simple verb like grew or thickened . Happily, this habit is not so prevalent here as in the earlier books.

He seems also to have moderated an old indulgence in the merely musical and decorative (what Thomas Hardy called "the jewelled line" and dismissed as effeminate) that has sometimes made his poems appear less interested in their subjects than in their own manners and mannerisms. In "The Haw Lantern," his packed Lowellian line, dense with consonants and quantities, has thinned out considerably. But there are still passages that strike me as underfelt and overwritten. For example:

These things that corroborated us when we dwelt

under the aegis of our stealthy patron,

the guardian angel of passivity,

now sink a fang of meance in my shoulder.

The chief defect of this work, as of his previous books, is what I can only call a failure of technique (or craft, as Heaney would have it), an amateurish awkwardness truly surprising in a poet so fluent, inventive and self-assured. Much of the art of poetry lies in setting the sentences aright, in laying them, as it were, among the lines, and it is here that one may find Heaney wanting, especially when he tries to sustain a strict form, as in the opening of "Song of the Bullets," in common measure:

I watched a long time in the yard

The usual stars, the still

And seemly planets, lantern-bright

Above our darkened hill.

And then a star that moved, I thought,

For something moved indeed

Up from behind the massed skyline

At ardent silent speed . . .

The thing turns out to be a tracer bullet, which sings, among other things,

Our guilt was accidental. Blame,

Blame because you must.

Then blame young men for semen or

Blame the moon for moondust.

One scarcely knows where to begin, whether with the rhetoric and padding (seemly, ardent, etc) or with the uncertain, strained--for rimes, or worse yet, the off-rime of must with the unstressed syllable of moondust --for me, the effect is bathetic and comical.

But the most disturbing aspect of his prosody is the alternation between metrical and non-metrical verse, as if they were interchangeable musics. This happens in many poems, old and new. If he begins in meter, he is bound to interrupt, unpredictably and at will, with a line or a passage that once could not fairly call vers libre , just broken meter. If he begins "free," he will feel free to introduce a string of pentameters. Likewise with the rime scheme, if any: in the same poem there may be, in no particular order, full rime, no rime, slant rime, off rime, assonance and so on. In some poems it is hard to tell if he means to rime or not. I have come across this sort of thing a good deal lately among the younger Americans, this dropping in and out of meter as casually as if it were a neighborhood bar. This may be imitation of Robert Lowell's dubious practice, but I suspect they do it by accident, not hearing either the meter or the breaking of it.

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