A Coast of Trees: Poems
Only the most gifted poets can start from their peculiar origin in a language, a landscape, a nation, and from these enclosures rise to impersonal authority. Seamus Heaney has this kind of power, and it appears constantly in his Poems 1965-1975. One may enter his poetry by a number of paths, but each joins up with the others. Nationality becomes landscape; landscape becomes language; language becomes genius.
For a poet, language is first; and in considering this, I may clarify my meaning. Speech is never simple, in Heaney’s conception. He grew up as an Irish Catholic boy in a land governed by Protestants whose tradition is British. He grew up on a farm in his country’s northern, industrial region. As a person, therefore, he springs from the old divisions of his nation.
At the same time, the theme that dominates Heaney’s work is self-definition, the most natural subject of the modern lyric; and language, from which it starts, shares the old polarities. For Heaney, it is the Irish speech of his family and district, overlaid by the British and urban culture which he acquired as a student.
The outcome is not merely a matter of vocabularies and accents. Even the smallest constituents bifurcate. In the poet’s ear, vowels are soft and Irish; consonants are hard and English. Heaney once said he associated his personal pieties with vowels and his literary awareness with consonants. So also the vocabularies and etymologies (sometimes fanciful) have their ground. For softness and hardness belong to the landscape of the poet’s childhood, to its bogs and farms, its rivers and mountains. Consequently, we hear lines from poems translating sound into terrain and nationality:
The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consort,
bedding the locale
in the utterance,
reed music, an old chanter
breathing its mists
through vowels and history….
(“Gifts of Rain”)
Instead of being hemmed in by the old divisions, Heaney lets them enrich his expression. Fundamental to his process of self-definition is a refusal to abandon any part of his heritage. The name of the family farm, Mossbawn, divides itself between the soft Irish bog of “moss” and a word meaning the fortified farm, or “bawn,” of a British settler. The Heaneys’ farm actually lay between a “bog” of yielding peat and the cultivated “demesne” of Moyola Park—belonging to a peer who had served as head of the British establishment. It was bordered as well by townlands with malleable Gaelic names, Anahorish and Broagh. But it looked out on Grove Hill and Back Park, firm with the definitive consonants of a ruler’s voice. What the poet means to accomplish is a union of the two traditions:
But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.
(“A New Song”)
Heaney incorporates these subtle attitudes into a coherent literary self. He feels eager, as he says of some English poets, to defend a linguistic integrity, to preserve the connection of his own speech with “the descending storeys of the literary and historical past.” Historically, therefore, he can identify himself with the English tradition and oppose it in turn to the Latin of the conquerors of Britain.
In “Freedman,” for example, he begins with Latinate diction and ends with short English words as he traces his evolution from a shy Northern Irish student of the master culture (“subjugated yearly under arches”) into a poet acknowledged by readers in New York and Melbourne (“poetry wiped my brow and sped me”).
The same poem illustrates the characteristic, pervasive gravity of the poet’s wit. He describes himself going through the streets of Belfast on Ash Wednesday with a touch of ashes on his forehead, and links the mark to the humble, earthbound status of the native Roman Catholic Irish before their Protestant governors:
One of the earth-starred denizens, indelibly,
I sought the mark in vain on the groomed optimi:
Their estimating, census-taking eyes
Fastened on my mouldy brow like lampreys.
The Latinate words go with the Protestant masters. The boy himself has a plain “mouldy brow,” implying his ties with the soil. “Groomed” suggests “groom,” which once meant an officer of the royal household. The Protestants are “estimating” because of their commercial pursuits. They are “censustaking” because they anxiously reckon the growing proportion of Catholics in the Six Counties. But the census is also a function of the overlords, and the word has the same root as “censor,” which evokes the moral rigor of Presbyterianism. Lampreys are parasitic as well as clinging, and suck the blood of the fish to which they attach themselves. I am only hinting at the weightiness of Heaney’s language.
The habit of digging into the history of the words he uses comes from the same impulse as a wish to tie the images of the poems to a racial past. In his writing as in his character, the poet tries to root the present age in the oldest, elemental patterns of his people, and then to relate the people to the countryside that fostered them, ultimately reminding us of the situation of all humanity in nature. Love for a woman must be like love for a region; and the features of the homeland call up the countryside the poet knows best. In “Polder” (from the recent book Field Work) Heaney speaks of embracing after a quarrel as a reclaiming of territory from the sea.
Quite deliberately, the poet tries to describe elements of landscape in human terms and people he loves as reminding him of animals. The humor and wit convey affection, but they also suggest a wish to be at home in the world, to surmount the barriers between man and beast. If a stream turns into a woman (“Undine”) and a woman into an otter (“Otter”), Heaney implies that his own devotion to the countryside links up with his attachment to people. This is how he carries off a tribute to his wife, in a poem recalling a skunk he had seen in California:
It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line night- dress.
(“The Skunk,” from Field Work)
The yearning toward a racial past takes powerful forms. It is characteristic of Heaney that when he wished to find symbols adequate to the ordeal of his countrymen, he should have turned to an ancient mystery which reaches toward the hidden aspects of human nature. This is the problem of the socalled “bog people,” or bodies found in Danish bogs, where they were placed from the time of the early Iron Age. Heaney accepts the view that at least some are the remains of a fertility ritual. But he uses them in his poems to suggest that modern terrorism, rather than meaning a breaking with the past, belongs to an archetypal pattern. In a forceful passage, he indicates the strain on his character as he contemplates the national agony; for he too feels the yearning to be not a recorder or singer but a heroic actor in the terrible drama. Here, contemplating the body of a woman apparently hanged for a crime (perhaps adultery), he says,
My poor scapegoat,
I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur
of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:
I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
The poet’s triumph is to bring the ingredients of history and biography under the control of his music. Technique, says Heaney, “entails the watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines.”
Here again he accepts traditions that join England to Ireland; for his verse reminds us of the short lines (often octosyllabic), the couplets and quatrains of Swift, who liked to mix coarseness with idealism, humor with anger, observation with fantasy, and honesty with love. Heaney’s expressive rhythms support his pleasure in re-echoing syllables and modulating vowels through a series of lines to evoke continuities and resolutions. He has learned from Yeats without being suffocated by him.
Our guttural muse
was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows
like the coccyx
or a Brigid’s Cross
yellowing in some outhouse
while custom, that ‘most
beds us down into
the British isles.
Like Heaney, A.R. Ammons grew up on his father’s farm; and like Heaney, he can remember the early death of a younger brother (another was stillborn). Fear and death are common themes of both men’s poetry and keep appearing in Ammons’s new book—one of his most impressive collections—A Coast of Trees.
But Ammons had a lonely, impoverished boyhood, and attached himself less to people than to the things around him. Landscape is what enthralls him; he seldom attends to personalities and hardly notices history. Often, Heaney writes in conventional forms. Ammons does not.
I think the difference between the two men exposes a difference between the literary culture of Irish or British writers and that of Americans. Poets in our country feel remote from their audience (such as it is); and outside a few great centers they are remote from one another. The American tends to confront the universe directly. As an artist, he gets little support from liturgical forms or from the songs and hymns that often provide patterns for Irish and British verse.
Robert Lowell, who influenced Heaney, was exceptional in his ties with the large community of the nation. He was exceptional for placing his family and friends in a historical frame even while he constantly employed landscape and animals to set humanity against the rest of nature. It may be significant that Lowell was at one time drawn to the Roman Catholic Church, for which mediation is far more important than it is for Protestantism.
Ammons deals with his world immediately. The macrocosm and microcosm of nature occupy his imagination, and he defines himself by his way of facing these ultimate challenges. In his engaging new collection he has some exquisite love poems and a couple of tender descriptions of old men trying to look after their frail wives. He also has an elegy on his own boyhood.
But as usual, nine-tenths of the poems invite us to stand with the speaker isolated in a landscape, sharply observing some particulars of the scene while responding with quasi-didactic reflections. The most densely populated of the poems is centered on a graveyard.
As if to make up for the lack of human agents, Ammons regularly personifies the features of landscape that hold his attention. Sometimes this habit can give sharpness to an image, as when a thawing brook “steps” down a ledge; and the effect is improved here because the lines themselves run over until the ledge, in a row of three slow beats, impedes the movement:
the brook, the sky bright
for days, steps lightly
down ledge steps….
But when the poet exchanges opinions with a mountain (as in “Continuing”), I balk.
Selfhood, for Ammons, means the establishment of healing continuities in the face of unpredictable, often withering disruptions. So it is restorative for him to notice how the elements of landscape survive and establish a new balance after destructive assaults. On such images of change, loss, and restoration he concentrates an attention sharpened by scientific training.
Ammons’s handling of free verse evokes the process he celebrates. One characteristic of the normally short lines is what might be called radical enjambment, or the ending of lines after words that demand an object or complement—adjectives, prepositions, transitive verbs, conjunctions. Another peculiarity is the repetition of a few key words, often three times or more. In spite of the apparent freedom of form of the whole poem, Ammons generally returns at the end to an image prominent at the start, to which he then gives new depth; and the poem often turns formally on the movement from observation to reflection. The effect of the enjambments, the repetitions, and the circular form is to suggest the disruptions, continuities, and resolutions of the flow of our emotions. The short poems of Ammons have more power than the long, because he tends to neglect shape and point when he becomes discursive.
An invitation to misread the poetry is the surface of calm in Ammons’s work. Strangers may suspect him of complacency. But like Stevens and Bishop—two other poets obsessed with landscape—Ammons has only a slight hold on his hard-won moments of tranquillity. The bleakness of human life breaks out in phrases like “the many thoughts and / sights unmanageable, the deaths of so many, hungry or mad” (“Swells”). The same bleakness is elaborated in “Sunday at McDonald’s,” which opens with an outcry against the American addiction to living in a detached present:
In the bleak land of foreverness no
one lives but only, crushed and buf- feted,
now: now, now, now every star glints
perishing while now slides under and
away, slippery as light, time- vapor….
The underlying sadness rises to anguish in “Easter Morning,” the longest poem of the book. Here the lonely poet expresses his bitterness over the deformations produced in a child like himself by the imperviousness of adults who die before they can recognize and redeem their errors. Mourning for the person he might have been, the poet faces the graveyard in which are buried those people—teachers, relations, parents—who could have saved him from becoming a man more at ease with brooks and hills than with human society. The power of the poem springs from the central conceit of the isolated individual standing before the sociable dead.
But he does not see his crucifixion as unique:
we all buy the bitter
incompletions, pick up the knots of
horror, silently raving, and go on
crashing into empty ends not
completions, not rondures….
In the last third of the poem, the theme of resurrection emerges, in the shape of two large birds seen flying together. When one veers from the straight way, the other notices and joins him. Then both return to the original route. The watcher admires their possession of free patterns which they may companionably leave and return to, unlike the rigidity of his own development; and he admires the beauty of the “picture-book, letter-perfect” morning.
The theme of Mark Strand’s seductive poetry—amply represented in his Selected Poems—is the elusiveness of the self. We all assume by instinct that there exists in each of us a quintessential person separate from the physical appearance, separate from the clothes and actions, the thoughts and feelings, separate from one’s history and expectations.
But how can we represent or even know this self when language can only render the visible, the tangible, the conceivable? Either we can try to strip away the externals or bring them into consciousness and so get beyond them. But the effort is defeated because the self we are defining changes during the process, and a new person displaces the old even while the old persists:
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.
What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
* * *
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.
Besides, the forces that change the self are not in one’s control. They act mysteriously and capriciously. Especially is this true of other people. We are one person when alone but somebody else in the company of a friend. The force extends to the conception a friend or wife has of oneself. We change according to what others think we are, and our knowledge of them as quintessential persons is qualified by their view of us. We resent the process of decomposition, yearn for the old person, are deluded by the conviction that the inner self has not altered, will not change.
These wrinkles are nothing.
These gray hairs are nothing.
This stomach which sags
with old food, these bruised
and swollen ankles,
my darkening brain,
they are nothing.
I am the same boy
my mother used to kiss.
The poet is the man who does not merely submit to these operations. He studies them, and his imagination deliberately employs them to produce aesthetic forms of relationship, symmetrical analogues to the evolution of self from self, choreographies that will endure when the elusive performers are gone. In Strand’s work what seem to be people are sometimes characters waiting for a poet to invent them. Or his people may create themselves by writing the story in which they will appear.
A self is the creation of one’s memories. But since these cannot be verified, a poet may imagine a past and challenge recollection to oppose it. Indeed, since all memory is partly invention, we are constantly remaking ourselves. Let speculation move a step further, and we may say that to make up a story is to create a memory. Such paradoxes excite Strand’s imagination in poems like “The Story of Our Lives” and “The Untelling” (both too long). He seems drawn to write parables of the act of literary composition.
In Strand’s somewhat Proustian view of the human condition we are doomed to cling to evanescence. The world which the self loves decays as the self changes. The person yearns for an intimacy which is unattainable because each lover alters in the presence of the other. To understand and describe another human being, we must not render him as an independent figure but as conceived by a friend or son or wife, and preferably as himself facing the process of decay. In a fine poem about his mother, Strand places her in a carefully imagined landscape at sunset and attributes to her the thoughts that make one human:
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour’s spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.
The shape of a poem by him is almost always pleasing, with his favorite images and epithets (light, shadow, dark, moon, sun, water, rain, mirror, etc.) slipping easily into place, and with subtle rhyme schemes or patterns of assonance supporting the quiet repetitions and variations that lead to a sudden opening as the focus changes from something seen, remembered, or felt, to something still being written—the poem itself.
It is in fact this turning on itself, the movement toward solipsism, that weakens Strand’s work. Many of the poems seem written to exemplify designs, to show how felicitously a dream or panic could be given satisfactory form but not to illuminate an experience so that readers might match it with their own. If I recommend the short lyric of self-definition as the proper modern poem, it is not because the character of a poet is the most important focus of a literary work. It is because through this frame the poet can describe human nature and the world.
Heaney’s intimacy with landscape tells us not about the poet’s aesthetic taste but about the world of parks and swamps. Heaney’s relation to his friends tells us not about his peculiar adolescence but about loyalty and religious faith. The meaning of art and the character of the artist are noble subjects of poetry. They have been nobly treated by Dante, Baudelaire, and Yeats. But the lyric of self-definition has no special duty to concentrate its energies on these preoccupations. A poet who does so might well set himself in a community of artists and (as in the late poems of Wallace Stevens) might indeed conceive of creative imagination as an essential trait marking the whole human species.
For all his mastery of rhythm and music, Strand does not open the lyric to the world but makes it a self-sustaining enterprise. His forms tend toward the infinite regress of a mirror watching a mirror. In his realm you can realize your own self only by imagining another self which in turn is imagining you. That other may be a lover, a wife, a child. It may be your own old self which the new one has destroyed and replaced—after, of course, being imagined in advance. But the movement of all the profound self-awareness is toward decoration rather than abundance. Caught up in the subject-object relation, Strand sees the world as what the perceiver is not, and the perceiver as what the world is not:
In a field
I am the absence
(“Keeping Things Whole”)