The Play Way

As a young teacher Heaney was required to plan and assess lessons and teaching methods; his poem reports on a lesson he devised to encourage creative writing.

Some things have not changed: classic sunlight entering in shafts through the window-panes (glass) seeks confirmation (probes each desk) of the sights smells and textures (milk-tops, drinking straws and old dry crusts) of a standard British classroom.

In contrast, responding to a progressive Educational initiative of the period, the trainee goes for innovation: using a classical recording (music strides to challenge it) he eschews the ‘chalk-and-talk’ of his own school-days (mixing memory and desire with chalk-dust) and seeks the creative and emotional responses of the pupils themselves. His lesson-plan introduces Beethoven.

Initial impertinence (‘Can we jive?’) (reflecting the culture of ordinary 1960s’ kids who saw little further than the ‘popular’ dance music of the time) is silenced by the big sound of a full orchestra.

Heaney follows the dynamics and aspirations of the concerto (Higher and firmer each authoritative note) and picks up pupil vibes (Pumps the classroom up tight as a tyre). He perceives a mesmerizing effect (private spell) and pupil engagement (eyes that stare wide). The recipe appears to be working: he even has time to feel a poetic charge coming on (They have forgotten me/ For once). The pupils are ‘on task’ (The pens are busy).

He acknowledges the signs of pupils of modest ability formulating ideas (their tongues mime) and exposed to their language limitations (blundering embrace of the free word). But the singular classroom atmosphere (silence charged with sweetness), even if short-lived (Breaks short) has brought positive expressions to lost faces, thanks to his novel musical experiment (where I see new looks).

Limited attention-span places a cap on concentration (notes stretch taut as snares) and the task proves too testing for this class. Short of linguistic and musical aptitude they (and with it the lesson) stumble and implode: They trip/ To fall into themselves unknowingly.

  • play way: theory of learning through active participation rather than strictly traditional use of blackboard and teacher presentation;

  • pillar : light represented as a solid shaft;

  • probe: explore, inspect;

  • desk: old-fashioned school furniture with hinged lid and storage compartment for books;

  • milk-tops after 1945 pupils in post WWII State education were given free half-pint bottles of milk on a daily basis for health reasons; these would traditionally be brought and consumed at the end of a lesson or during a break. The tops were circular and fitted the mouth of the bottle; an indent at the centre could be pressed out to facilitate the use of a drinking-straw;

  • crusts: remains of bread sandwiches;

  • challenge: compete with, provide an alternative;

  • chalk dust: fine powder left by white blackboard writing-stick;

  • lesson notes: prepared list of teacher-objectives;

  • teacher: Heaney opted initially for teaching and became influenced by Michael McClaverty, Head of the Ballymurphy school where he was sent to practise; 1962-3 marked a turning point: Heaney seems not to have come terms with Secondary teaching accepting a university lecturer post;

  • express themselves freely: offer unconstrained, personal feelings;

  • jive: The jive became the universal UK rock-‘n-roll dance style in the late 1950’s;

  • record : circle of vinyl/ Bakelite; sounds were produced from the grooves of the revolving record passing via a sharp needle or diamond head along a moving arm into the amplification system of the record-player;

  • authoritative: strong commanding;

  • note: single pitched tone contributing to a piece of music;

  • pumps up: inflates

  • private spell: magic affecting each individual differently;

  • wide: with no specific focus-point;

  • busy: the writer is engaged, engrossed;

  • mime: spell out silently;

  • blundering: clumsy, unpolished since they are short of vocabulary (free word);

  • charged: loaded;

  • breaks short: threatens to be short-live;

  • lost: adrift, all at sea; vague;

  • stretch taut: grip suddenly

  • snares: traps using loops of wire;

  • trip: lose balance;

  • fall into themselves: collapse inwards, become inward looking, end up in their own thoughts;

  • unknowingly: without realizing it;

  • five quatrains variously 8 or 10 syllables; combination of punctuation (some mid-line) and enjambment provides for the ebb and flow of oral delivery. The rhyme scheme affects the even lines of each quatrain; odd lines are free;

  • assonant effects: [æ] Play Way; [ɪ] pillars/ milk/ drinking; [ai] Sunlight/ strides/ desire/ behind eyes/ wide; [ʌ] pumps/ up/ blundering;

  • alliteration: [s] silence/ sweetness/ lost faces/ see/ looks; [m] mixing memory;

  • personification: sunlight that probes;

  • Interwoven chain effects: [ð] [s] [t] Then notes stretch taut as snares / trip

  • poetic licence uses pillar as a verb to suggest a slender shaft of light that probes as a torch might

  • the un-poetic lesson-plan is set out in italics but fitted to the rhyme scheme;

  • final suggestions of implosion possess a kind of animated surrealism;

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;

  • the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;

  • the first lines, for example, weave together sibilant [s] [z], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside nasal [m] [n];

  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:

  • consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur

  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]

  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet

  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

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