by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 107 pp., $19.00
The Rough Field
by John Montague
Wake Forest University Press, 95 pp., $7.95 (paper)
by John Montague
Wake Forest University Press, 75 pp., $6.95 (paper)
by Michael Longley
Wake Forest University Press, 51 pp., $6.95 (paper)
Irish poets, learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made.
Yeats’s words have been well heeded. English poetry written by Irish poets has a higher standard of perceived craftsmanship—usually indeed a very much higher standard—than the general run of poems produced today in England itself, or in America. Vernacular English, like old Latin, seems likely at some date to hive off into separate tongues and idioms, as spoken throughout the world, but unlike the Romance languages it will possibly keep most of its present forms. The “best” English, that is to say its choicest and most precise speech, may in the future be spoken or written in Dublin or Edinburgh or Calcutta or New York. Or so people may say who take an interest in the language, read, or write poetry in it. Who knows?
A language widely circulated can have of course no absolute advantage as a poetic vehicle, but it has a practical one. Imitating Horace, Pushkin wrote a poem in which he hoped his poems would be read wherever Russian was spoken, “in the proud speech of the Slavs, and among the Finns and the Tungus and the still savage Kalmucks.” An Estonian poet, say, knowing his own language and Russian equally well, might decide for this kind of reason to write poetry in the latter. Mandelstam, the most cosmopolitan of poets in Russian poetry’s cosmopolitan Silver Age, and the one most indifferent to native nationalism, nonetheless worshiped the language in which he wrote, as any poet must do: for, as Auden says, time too “worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.” Irish poets too are cosmopolitan, and becoming more so, but in the background of their English verse a potent ghost of Gaelic lingers, in cadence and syntax but still more in a rich acoustic selectivity. It lingers above all in the subject matter.
And that is obvious enough; but its importance lies in the natural way Irish poetry now handles its traditional materials: less nationalistic than native ones, as used from way back not only by bards and harpists but by all who gathered to compose poems and invent among themselves new devices of poetic speech; to record legend but, more important, to celebrate the happenings and properties of daily life. In this Irish tradition there seems to be none of the self-consciousness with which native English poets today often try to be “natural” in their poetic speech, as if striving for a “non-poetic” mode of utterance. A purely English poetry today has no quotidian ease of fluency, such as it can possess in an Irish poet’s speech, or in a plain American like that of William Carlos Williams, “which even dogs and cats can understand.” English poetry as such has too long and grand an “upper-class” tradition, Renaissance or Romantic, to sound wholly natural in the everyday uses of poetic eloquence.
This curious fact strikes one when reading a little masterpiece like “Markings,” from Seamus Heaney’s …