An Irish poet's conscience. Heaney's images express values too deep for politics

The Haw Lantern, by Seamus Heaney. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 51 pp. $12.95. Poets have been known to mutter in self-defense: ``My only responsibility is to the language.''

Seamus Heaney's new collection, ``The Haw Lantern,'' suggests this is not just a cop-out. This book constitutes a veritable summa of the ethics of poetry.

Heaney is Irish, so the first thing the proposition - responsibility to the language - could mean is cultivating the old tongue, as some new Irish poets have done.

Not Heaney. Still, his English, full of local consonants (once he called it ``the guttural muse''), fights off assimilation. But Heaney has been widely accepted as an English poet. In 1982, he was included in ``The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry.'' That was too much: He wrote an open letter in intricate stanzas objecting to being categorized as ``British.''

Born in County Derry in 1939, he left Northern Ireland in 1972. Now he lives in Dublin and spends part of the year in the United States, where he teaches at Harvard University. Although not exactly a patriot, Heaney continues to dwell on the Irish troubles.

In ``The Haw Lantern,'' the presence of border patrols between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic gives him imagery for his meditations on the conscience of the poet. Repeatedly stopped for inspection, he finds himself ``a little emptier, a little spent/ as always by that quiver in the self,/ subjugated, yes, and obedient....''

Finding in the irreducibly political situation a motive for metaphor, Heaney risks trivializing the historical moment. ``The Haw Lantern'' is obstinately personal. It opens with autobiographical poems, has as its centerpiece a suite of poems in memory of his mother, and closes with a riddle poem that casts light back over the whole book.

On this grid are laid out a wide variety of kinds of poems and voices - symbolic, narrative, epistolary, personal, futurist. Heaney's plain, conversational style moves from reportage, to dream, to vision, interlacing kinds of imagery with the deftness of the anonymous artists who produced the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century Britain (which included Ireland, of course).

In the opening poem, called ``Alphabets,'' the poet recalls learning to write. Heaney's meditation on language begins with a memory of his father casting the image of a rabbit on the wall. Writing is first drawing. Heaney has written before about writing as a physical act, and his poems do seem inscribed rather than flashed on a screen.

Hieroglyphics? He remembers that ``y'' looked like a forked stick, and the number 2 was ``a swan's neck and swan's back.'' Then there's the struggle to pronounce English - and the struggle to hold the pen correctly. Then there's Latin. The process continues.

Calligraphy is the great, foundational act. Heaney imagines himself back in Carolingian days with the first European king, who always wanted to learn to write. He learns a little Greek: The shapes of Greek letters remind him of ``stooked sheaves'' and potato pits.

``Alphabets'' reveals the roots of Heaney's sense of responsibility in layers of history and culture and language, and his awareness of the enduring strangeness of the letters themselves.

After the autobiographical poems, Heaney turns to his experience as an adult writing in a politically charged world. Anything - from border patrols, to the wintry haw (``crab of the thorn, a small light for small people'') of the title poem, to the life of the stone grinder, to a contemplation of his own style - can awaken the conscience of this poet.

At times, Heaney almost seems conscience-stricken, and yet he is curiously free of the obsessive ideologies of the present. In ``A Daylight Art'' he tells the story (in tercets) of Socrates putting Aesop's fables into verse while he awaits the hemlock. That poem turns on the old trope, ``happy the man'' who devotes himself to his ``natural gift'' for poetry or fishing, and concludes on a wonderful image in which we see ``daylight through the rod's eye or the nib's eye.''

Toward the center of the book, things darken. Speaking becomes difficult, symbols luminous. Elegy prevails. There's a wonderfully solid unrhymed sonnet in memory of poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald.

And Heaney addresses the memory of his mother. ``When all the others were away at Mass,'' he peeled potatoes with her. The only sound was the one made by the potatoes as they fell from their hands and splashed into the bucket. ``Cold comforts set between us, things to share/ Gleaming in a bucket of clean water./ And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes/ From each other's work would bring us to our senses.''

Every word counts here, yet every word is the common word. Playing on old phrases - cold comfort, bring to senses - the poem is a northern interior, an Irish, working-class Vermeer. It's at the center, physical and otherwise, of the book. It's followed by poems about Ireland. ``What might have been origin/ We dissipated in news,'' he writes in ``The Mud Vision.'' Finally, it's all background for a figure who ``stood his ground in the indicative.''

Throughout Heaney's language manages to become transparent to values that cannot be brokered politically; they are too deep for that. His poetry reminds one of close-grained wood. Planed, sanded, rubbed to a high luster, it reveals a record of life.

There are more brilliant poets in Ireland today (Paul Muldoon); more sophisticated (Derek Mahon), more exciting (Eaven Boland). But none uses more of the language more effectively than Seamus Heaney.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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