The enticing sounds of this Irishman's verse

Seamus Heaney is one of the world's best poets. What makes him so lies in "Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996."

Simply put, Heaney is a master of immersion. He bathes readers in sound. Even his earliest poems roll over the reader wave after wave.

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening -

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encroaching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

- From 'Bogland'

But Heaney doesn't use sound just for the ear's sake. In his hands, sound and rhythm are a net with which to capture readers' hearts. Heaney entices the part of us that is moved by the sound of rain on a roof: We understand it instinctively before we can voice any sort of explanation.

Heaney engages the senses better than almost any other living poet. He enchants the mind with a landscape that is utterly real in both its beauty and its sorrow. Whether he writes about peeling potatoes with his mother, walking through a bog, or being stopped by soldiers while driving, he captures the moment perfectly.

I was all hers as we peeled

potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall

one by one

Like solder weeping off the

soldering iron:

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.

- Part III of 'Clearances'

There are times in "Opened Ground" when Heaney is not on terra firma. Some of the early poems are uneven. And later, some of the more proselike work slides into the realm of the prosaic.

But his missteps are relatively few, and even in his weaker moments, he continues to weave layers of sound around the reader. He renders both the natural world and the violence of human beings honestly, and he can embody ancient myths as easily as he can his childhood living room.

What really distinguishes Heaney's work is its quiet authority. Even in the first of his 12 books, there is an unmistakable confidence, an unforced presence and wisdom behind the words. Heaney knows how to write about his most intimate experiences without becoming too personal. He renders the truth about both the external and internal worlds, balancing the bitter with the beautiful.

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