Field Work: Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Seamus Heaney has been widely praised since his first book of poems appeared in 1966. He is now fifty years of age, and serious critics are calling him the finest Irish poet since Yeats. It is Heaney’s good fortune to have combined a reverence for the earth—its farms, bogs, and men—with an extraordinarily subtle command of poetic technique. In other words, much of what he has to say gives the impression that it would be worth saying badly; yet he has the skill to say it uniquely and durably.

Field Work ranges over the earth with love, humor, anger, and regret, in á wide variety of forms. The book tends to fall into three parts, two sets of some dozen poems, each separated by a ten-sonnet sequence. Several of the poems in the first section confront the Irish “trouble.” In “Sibyl,” the second part of a poem called “Triptych,” someone answers the speaker’s “What will become of us?” by saying that “unless forgiveness finds its nerve and voice,” the very form of the people is bound to change, in “Saurian relapses”:

“My people think moneyAnd talk weather. Oil-rigs lull their futureOn single acquisitive stems. SilenceHas shoaled into the trawlers’ echo-sounders.The ground we kept our ear to for so longIs flayed or calloused, and its entrailsTented by an impious augury.Our island is full of comfortless noises.”

The best of the poems arising from this tragic subject is “Casualty,” an astonishingly deft portrait of a fisherman and drinking companion blown to bits one night when he was out during a curfew. The surprising technical fact is that the poem is cast in something over a hundred lines of iambic trimeter—not a measure that comes readily to mind when one is casting about for something elegiac. The flexibility of this meter, in Heaney’s hands, is considerable; it is achieved partly by skillful variation of the meter itself, and partly by a subtle variation in the rhyme scheme, which begins by being regular and audible, and then shifts in the direction of slant rhyme and unpredictable placement. The regularity is most obvious at the beginning of the poem:

He would drink by himselfAnd raise a weathered thumbTowards the high shelf,Calling another rumAnd blackcurrant, withoutHaving to raise his voice,Or order a quick stoutBy a lifting of the eyesAnd a discreet dumb-showOf pulling off the top;At closing time would goIn waders and peaked capInto the showery dark,A dole-kept breadwinnerBut a natural for work.

The friendship between this fisherman and the speaker of the poem is somewhat tenuous; the speaker, “always politic/ And shy of condescension,” is reluctant to let their conversations in pubs hover too long over poetry, even when the fisherman has introduced the subject. He prefers to let the talk drift to what the fisherman knows; as this point is made, the predictability of rhyme diminishes, and the fisherman meets his end, just three days after “they shot dead/ The thirteen men in Derry.”

The poem continues with a leisurely and moving description of the funeral of the Derry thirteen, and then goes again over the death of the fisherman. The poem ends, not with the fisherman’s funeral, but with a recollection of a day spent in his boat:

To get out early, haulSteadily off the bottom,Dispraise the catch, and smileAs you find a rhythmWorking you, slow mile by mile,Into your proper...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)