Poetry News

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013  Leithauser, Brad.  "Wild Irish."  New York Book Review July 16, 2006: 12.


Leithauser begins his review of Seamus Heaney's latest collection of poems, District and Circle, with this somewhat startling statement: "I sometimes think there's no more reliable way of initially entering a poet's private domain than by examining what he or she rhymes with what."  George Herbert, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, and Marianne Moore are among the poets who reveal their identity "purely through paired rhyme-words, independent of what the poem is actually about."  Heaney, Nobel laureate of 1995, is another poet for this list with his "rough-hewn, hand-honed" rhymes.  W. H. Auden once promised readers he would never rhyme a word ending with an s-sound with a word ending with a z-sound as in dose / rose.  Elizabeth Bishop declared she would again rhyme plurals with singulars as in chests / rest.  Heaney's new collection uses both sorts of rhymes Auden and Bishop deplore.  Actually, Leithauser adds, "[I]t's through just such tiny touches, such minimal modifications of sound that a poet fabricates an individual, distinguishing music."


Heaney's new work plays " a rich variation on his old themes."  His total body of work is remarkably consistent over the forty years he has stood out among contemporary poets.   One reason for his distinction is that he has a home, literarily and geographically.  His poems spring out of the Irish countryside in an often remote vocabulary: hame, braird, snedder, milt.  The farmers who struggle in this hostile environment are rendered by Heaney equipped with their agricultural implements: spades, plows, hammers, pumps.  The modern world has changed Heaney's work very little.  Like Hardy, Hopkins, and Yeats, he looks backward--more of an elegist than prophet.  But "what a marvelous elegist Heaney makes," Leithauser states.  He makes chance encounters "poignant little anecdotes" that are believable and authentic in their plainspoken guise while they are saying something extraordinary.


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