Near the end of this volume of Seamus Heaney's selected prose, in an essay entitled "Secular and millennial Milosz", he quotes from the Polish poet's questing Ars Poetica? :
" The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will ."
The book has no epigraph, but this would serve. Finders Keepers - its title a fine example of the kind of seemingly casual precision of which Heaney has long been a master - is many things, but most significantly it holds together as an extended meditation on the different and sometimes warring personae that are contained in the voice of every true poet. The book looks at the way in which conflicting claims - of language, of nationality, of politics - are made upon the poet, and how he must find his way through those claims, set himself apart from them, and still bring them all together in his proper identity of Poet.
The conflicts that confront the poet are exemplified, of course, by Heaney's own case: a case he addresses directly in the recent essay "Through-other places, through-other times: the Irish poet and Britain". Its title comes from Armagh, by the Northern Irish poet W. R. Rodgers:
" There is a through-otherness about Armagh
Of tower and steeple,
Up on the hill are the arguing graves of the kings
And below are the people ."
Rodgers was of Irish and of Scottish planter ancestry, and "through-other", as Heaney explains, "is a compound in common use in Ulster, meaning physically untidy or mentally confused, and appropriately enough it echoes the Irish-language expression, tri na cheile , meaning things mixed up among themselves". Heaney, as he admits, has often been through-other himself: the moving example he gives here is of when he was asked if he was an "Irish poet" by a girl working in a fish-and-chip shop in a Loyalist area of Belfast in 1970. The woman who owned the shop exclaimed on Heaney's behalf that this was nonsense: "He's like the rest of us, a British subject living in Ulster." As Heaney writes regretfully:
"Irish and all as I was, I'm afraid I hesitated to contradict her."
It has been said that this hesitation has afflicted his poetry; he has been accused of skedaddling out of his native Ulster for the safer ground of Wicklow and indeed the United States; how can a poet of Roman Catholic ancestry - a Seamus - raised in Northern Ireland not directly address the problems that continue to afflict that troubled territory, not bring out, as it were, the heavy artillery in his poetic arsenal? As this essay notes, he did, of course, in 1983 distance himself from the adjective "British" when Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison included him in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry , published the previous year. In An Open Letter, Heaney famously remarked:
"... don't be surprised
If I demur, for, be advised,
My passport's green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen."
But Heaney has always proved in his verse and proves again - if more proof were needed - here that the answer to the problem of "through-otherness" cannot be simple. Poetry, as is revealed by the stately, sprightly progress of this collection, speaks for itself. If the lyric form can defy death, can it not defy politics too? Certainly, it can do the former, as Heaney shows in a wonderful essay comparing the late work of Yeats to the late work of Auden, "Joy or night: last things in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin". He argues that the mere existence of a poem such as Larkin's "Aubade" acts as a counter-balance to its bleakly resigned "Death is no different whined at than withstood". He calls in his defence - and it's not too strong to put it that way - poets such as Brodsky and Milosz, poets who have seen the worst that humankind can offer up and who yet retain a belief in humanity. A book such as Heaney's own North , first published in 1975, uses myth and history to make connections rather than separations. These connections, says Heaney over and again in Finders Keepers , are what will see us through.
That is what makes reading his criticism - which is every bit as lovely, as beautifully paced as his verse - such an especial joy, particularly at the beginning of a century that seems to have got off to rather a bleak start. These essays are inspired by a fundamental generosity of spirit that, when it actively criticises, does so in an exhorting manner: the inspiring teacher whose "could do better" moves the student not to sullenness but to greater heights. A good example of this is his essay on Plath, "The indefatigable hoof-taps", which addresses what he sees as the weakness of that poet's work (her inability to look outside herself) without denying its intrinsic power and lost potential.
Plath, as Heaney sees it, was never able to move beyond her circumstance: and that is what the poet must strive for. In "Place and displacement: recent poetry from Northern Ireland" (originally a lecture given in 1984) he writes of the liberation offered by true art: "To locate the roots of one's identity in the ethnic and liturgical habits of one's group might be all very well, but for the group to confine the range of one's growth, to have one's sympathies determined and one's responses programmed by it was patently another form of entrapment. The only reliable release for the poet was the appeasement of the achieved poem."
Heaney never uses words lightly, and the choice here of "appeasement" is an interesting one. Its meanings are various, ranging from relief to assuagement, from pacification to satisfaction. Its political connotations are largely negative: "Peace in our time". Heaney argues that appeasement is all there is. The problem is that there is no solution to the problem. This is not to say that peace may not come, that wars may not end, but that the human condition is a divided one that can only seek appeasement; anything else would be only falsehood.
This idea is more joyously examined when he turns to the work of poets such as John Clare, Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmaid, writers whose work experiments with the boundaries and meanings of language and dialect. Heaney is always alert to the pure, sensuous pull of language in all its forms, but his heart beats hardest when he hears the echo of his native tongue - surely this was what gave his translation of Beowulf such spirit and strength. He says it simply in "Burns's art speech": "The way Burns sounded made me feel close to him", and he writes of first encountering "To a Mouse" at Anahorish Elementary School. "Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie": this "benevolent tread of Burns" was entirely different from what Heaney had expected of "poetry". Here were words "slipped in under the guard" of poetry, a concrete representation of the "subcultural life" that ran like a vibrating thread, a connection between the young Heaney and the long-dead poet's words on the printed page. Yet, as Heaney argues (and his essay's title emphasises), Burns's work was not mere simplicity, but a complex, conscious demonstration of the variety of expression that language allows. The same poem can speak to its readers on many levels; when Heaney himself begins his Beowulf with the shrugging, Irish "So" he demonstrates the many layers of that seeming simplicity himself. "How difficult it is to remain just one person": why would anyone want to?
Many of these essays have appeared before, as Heaney notes, in Preoccupations (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1988), The Redress of Poetry (1995) and The Place of Writing (1989). Yet there is enough new writing to make it worth the purchase price; and it is fine, too, to have the other material collected in this handsome, sedate-looking volume. But don't be fooled by its sober, blue-grey hard covers into thinking you will be overwhelmed by weighty prose: however serious his arguments, he never loses sight of the playground joy of the collection's title. The reader delights in Heaney for Heaney delights in his work; he is serious but never ponderous, encyclopedic but never intimidating. One must return again to the word generous; there is little enough generosity in this world. Heaney's generosity deserves celebration.
Erica Wagner is literary editor, The Times , and the author of Ariel's Gift : Ted Hughes , Sylvia Plath , and the Story of Birthday Letters .
Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001
Author - Seamus Heaney
ISBN - 0 571 21080 5
Publisher - Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 416