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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 25, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE REDRESS OF POETRY: by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: $20; 196 pp.). In the front page of the galleys for this book someone has added the subhead: "A New Defense of Poetry by One of Our Foremost Poets." Now there is absolutely no need to call these 10 lectures (delivered at Oxford between 1989 and 1994) a "defense of poetry." Poetry doesn't need defending, by Heaney or anyone else. Heaney has called them a "redress of poetry," and has chosen the following definition of the word redress: "To set (a person or a thing) upright again; to raise again to an erect position." Really, they read more as a celebration of poetry and an exploration of what seems to last of a poet's work. What Heaney appears to prize above all else is the vitality of the poet's language, the authenticity of the observation or emotion that drove the poem, the closeness of the poem to the body. "Thomas' poems," he says of Dylan Thomas, "retained a turning, humming resonance that seemed to be generated less by the movement of iambic pentameter than by the circulation of the blood itself." In praising Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," Heaney writes: that it "fulfils its promise precisely because its craft has not lost touch with a suffered world." Yet another poetic virtue: The instructive thing about John Clare, Heaney writes, is that he "shows the necessity for being forever at the ready, always in good linguistic shape, limber and fit to go intelligently with the impulse." George Herbert is praised for his "sanity and vigor, his via media between preciousness and vulgarity." "The nobility of poetry," Heaney quotes Wallace Stevens, "is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without." "It is the imagination," Heaney adds, "pressing back against the pressure of reality." Sounds as if poetry is defending us.

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