- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

By Seamus Heaney
Farrar Straus & Giroux, $30, 452 pages

This ample gathering of what Seamus Heaney considers the best of his prose pieces has two signal omissions: an essay on Robert Frost, "Above the Brim" (published as part of a book along with essays by Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott), and his speech accepting the Nobel Prize. Almost all the pieces deal with modern poets, the one exception being a short one on Italo Calvino's last novel, "Mr. Palomar," which has all the qualities of a poem except the lineation.
There are also, in the first of the three sections, essays on growing up in Northern Ireland, early reading and its delights, and memories of Belfast in 1971. In its vividly metaphorical, unrepentantly "poetic" texture, Mr. Heaney's writing throughout shows a combination of strength and ease that makes it never less than a pleasure to read. If style is ingratiation, Mr. Heaney is a master of the game.
In glossing the collection's title, he notes that "the first encounter with work that excites and connects will induce in the reader a similar urge to celebrate and take possession of it." No better words could describe the overall impulse in "Finders Keepers": to take possession of certain precious first experiences of a poet or a poem, but mainly for purposes of celebrating them. I can't think of a critic less likely than Mr. Heaney to be interested in derogating another writers work; indeed the few moments in these essays when he hazards a slight demur occur almost apologetically. If, as a critic, he can't find something nice to say about a writer, he'll evidently say nothing at all.
In the engaging essay "Learning from Eliot," he effects an attractive combination of autobiography with critical principle, by recalling his experience at a Catholic boarding-school in Derry in 1955 where, in the pages of "a bilious green compendium entitled The Pageant of English Verse," he first encountered T.S. Eliot, in lines from "The Hollow Men":

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

He found the lines affecting, still finds it impossible to say exactly what their effect on him was, but knows that he now loves them "because of the pitch of their music, their nerve-end tremulousness, their treble in the helix of the ear." He recalls also that such "rare music" was of course never mentioned in the school and that instead students were instructed how the poem expressed "Loss of Faith in Modern World and Consequences for Modern Man." Such instruction provided a "huge extraneous spike" driven into the poem; you could hang on to the spike while being absolutely tone-deaf to the music in which "The Hollow Men" really lived.
Mr. Heaney is doubtful that Eliot helped him to write, but certain he helped him "learn what it means to read," and that learning to read poetry means learning how to listen to it. Compared to Frost or Yeats or Hardy all poets whom Mr. Heaney admires and has written about Eliot's work presented itself in a particularly "pure" form, unlike those other poets whose words "open the blinds of language on to subjects and places before or behind the words," Eliot's did not do so. For rather than open on a landscape they remained themselves, "words alone," and a good reader of them found himself internalizing a "soundscape," hearing rather than seeing something.
Although Mr. Heaney's own poetry resembles Eliot's less than it does Frost's or Yeats' or Hardy's, his poems from "Death of a Naturalist" through "Electric Light" are notable for the range of soundscapes they invite us to enter and register.
The writing in these essays is similarly directed toward bringing out what Mr. Heaney hears in the poetry of his contemporaries. Ted Hughes' language, for example, is distinguished by "its sensuous fetch, its redolence of blood and gland and grass and water"; his poems "beat the bounds of a hidden England in streams and trees, on moors and in byres." The adventurous, strong-paced rhythms and diction of the critic's language help bring out the distinctiveness of the poet in question.
In describing the "verbal architecture" of Geoffrey Hill, Mr. Heaney evokes "the native undergrowth, both vegetative and verbal, that barbaric scrollwork of fern and ivy" set against "the weighty elegance of imperial Latin." Philip Larkin's voice is by contrast "a stripped standard English voice," with "a unique break and remorseful tone." Mr. Heaney keeps the pressure on his own sentences in order to speak back to the poet he's listening to: the result is an answerable style often as fresh as that of the writer under scrutiny.
In a book filled with good things, it's perhaps unnecessary to single out the best, and here individual taste may be allowed some play. So although Mr. Heaney writes sympathetically and authoritatively about recent poetry from Northern Ireland, and takes the measure of talents as diverse as Patrick Kavanagh, Hugh McDiarmid and Zbigniew Herbert, I most admired his appreciations of Larkin, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and a poet in danger of dropping off the screen Edwin Muir.
On the few occasions when he takes on earlier poets he is just as acute: "John Clare's Prog" speaks originally about this strange poet; even better is a tribute to Marlowe's "Hero and Leander," obviously one of the poems Mr. Heaney discovered for keeps. He notes that in recent decades academic professors in the "Early Modern" period ("Renaissance" is no longer allowed too eulogistic) have invited us to cast "a suspicious eye" on the ways its poets were involved to one degree or another in "brutally oppressive escapades … enough to make us presumably cast a skeptical eye and put quotation marks on their 'civilizing' enterprise."
But, says Mr. Heaney in return, "it still seems an abdication of literary responsibility to be swayed by these desperately overdue correctives to a point where imaginative literature is read simply and solely as a function of an oppressive discourse., or as a reprehensible masking." As his own corrective to those correctives, he quotes Wordsworth's invocation, in his Preface to "Lyrical Ballads," of the "grand elementary principle of pleasure" that is the source and end of all poetry.
Will Seamus Heaney take his place as a major poet-critic, the contemporary successor to Matthew Arnold, Eliot, and Randall Jarrell? Probably not: His equable pose, his refusal to champion one kind of verse as against another, his lack of satiric and polemical thrust suggest he's not out to change our minds to correct our bad habits of reading or inadequate standards of taste. But it would be difficult to find a contemporary critic who has been able to enter more convincingly, through strenuously creative description, the sensibilities and practices of his fellow poets. I can't imagine a better introduction to those poets than the essays in "Finders Keepers."

William H. Pritchard is the author most recently of "Updike: A merica's Man of Letters."

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