THE GOVERNMENT OF THE TONGUE
By Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
270 pages, $17.95
By Joseph Brodsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
160 pages, $14.85
By CHARLES A. BRADY
News Book Reviewer
PERHAPS THE MOST striking insight in Seamus Heaney's splendid new volume of criticism is its eloquent reiteration of what has become a truism in poetry. There has been an enormous displacement in the center of poetic gravity. Apollo and his Muses have reversed the sun's old course and now move east, not west.
By the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, two world poets loomed on the horizon: Yeats the Irishman and Rilke the German, with the American Eliot well advanced in his ascent of the Himalayan heights. Now the names to invoke are predominantly Slavic. Heaney calls the roll of poetry's heroes in characterizing epithet.
The Russians: Mandelstam, "singing in the Stalinist night"; Akhmatova, Esenin, Mayakovsky, Pasternak. The Czech Miroslav Holub, with "his wire-sculpture economy of line." Heaney reprints in full Holub's marvelously sardonic fly's-eye view of the medieval battle of Crecy that is even more universal in its macabre impact than Hardy's worm's-eye view of the field of Waterloo.
Then there are the Poles. That wonderful Lithuanian-born champion of freedom, Czeslaw Milosz, who records the clangor of the heraldic alliance between poetry and philosophy "brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo"; and whose credo for poetry's survival in our age of tyranny is the simple affirmation:
" . . . Though the good is weak, beauty is very strong."
Of all the great Poles, Heaney admires most Zbigniew Herbert with "his skeptical historical sense of the world's unreliability" and with the personal irony he shares with Joseph Conrad. He concludes:
"Zbigniew Herbert is a poet with all the strength of an Antaeus, yet he finally emerges more like the figure of an Atlas. Refreshed time and again by being thrown back upon his native earth, standing his ground determinedly in the local plight, he nevertheless shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility."
Heaney feels strongly that, whereas the new Slavic poets dwell in the bracing air of "the indicative mood," poets in England and, even more, in America, are now mired in "the conditional, the indeterminate mood." Nevertheless, he continues to admire their recent predecessors; and his characterizing images for them flash out like sparks struck from flint as if a slan -- the peat-cutting spade of his native Ireland -- were ringing on the granite of his critical faculty.
For example, the final stanza of Philip Larkin's "Water" is "held like a natural monstrance" above the rest of the poem. Auden has a "civilized and ultimately humble mind." Eliot's "The Waste Land," like Charon's funereal barque, "proceeds upon the eerie flood of its own inventiveness." Elizabeth Bishop's poetic voice is "self-possessed" but not "self-centered." Robert Lowell's "Ulysses and Circe" touches "a muted Homeric note of landfall." Sylvia Plath's final poems "present themselves with all the pounce and irrefutability of a tiger lashing its tail."
The latest of the great Russian poets, Joseph Brodsky, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, lives in exile in New York and South Hadley. In his newest book, "To Urania," the heavenly Muse of Astronomy shakes hands, in colloquial conversation, with the Muse of History. As has been true of his Slavic predecessors, in Brodsky's work Peter the Great's bronze horse ramps again, Krakow's trumpeter shrills even as the Tartar arrow flies, and in Prague Wenceslas forever draws his sword.
Even so, Brodsky has ingested a goodly measure of Western atmospherics. In "Twenty Sonnets," Mary of Scotland steps down from her pedestal to walk in the Luxembourg Gardens. Brodsky's Berlin Wall is rebuilt of nursery rhyme echoes. He ironically rewrites Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." He even swings an Ogden Nashism when into a Paris restaurant comes "an ugly cretin in a Russian shirt," an "eine kleine nachtmuzhik."
For all its felicities, however, "To Urania" does not make an ideal entrance into the world of Brodsky. A little too ambitiously, as it turns out, this time he has seen fit to dispense with the services of such eminent early translators as Wilbur, Wolcott and Moss, and has taken on the delicate job of translation into English himself. All too often, as a British critic has recently suggested, the result sounds as if the New Yorker's Hyman Kaplan, fired up by all nine Muses, were playing non-idiomatic hob with the page. However, this is a stricture which in no way applies to such a poem as "The Hawk's Cry in Autumn" wherein the glorious predator screams in a "sound that lingers in wavelets, a spider skein."