Heaney the extraordinary man in ordinary clothes
Heaney the cordon-bleu cook
Heaney the agent of change
Heaney the orchestrator
Heaney the word painter
Heaney the meticulous craftsman
Summary versions of the contents
an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes
Poets are a breed apart! Unlike ordinary mortals, such as you and me, their consciousness is constantly tuned into things that give off a poetic charge and their vocation compels them to pounce on such sudden, involuntary moments before they fade away. Poets are constantly on the qui-vive;
- they have a way of recording these unpredictable, involuntary instances – poets are never far away from composition mode which transforms electrical impulse into verse
- poets are alchemists
- Heaney was one of the tribe – he acknowledged that there were times poems ‘came on’ in torrents
- he said of the ‘Squarings’ sequences in ‘Seeing Things’ …’I felt free as a kid skimming stones’, the poems had something of ‘the splish-splash one-after-anotherness of stones skittering and frittering across water’;
- then, in almost the same breath, he confessed to periods of drought when he wondered where his next title might come from; he admis as much in ‘In a Loaning’
- poems are unexpected
- the catalyst might be something from a book or a photo … a gallery exhibit or a foreign place … a newspaper report or a dictionary… something televised or remembered from church… even a serious metaphysical conversation between poet and his inner self;
poets are ordinary humans capable of producing extraordinary work
- no question of Heaney living in some ivory tower … inside the skin of this extraordinary poet lived a modest, practical man coping with the things everyday life threw at him – a wife and children to support, bills to pay, publishing contracts to meet, the need to supplement his poetry royalties or go without – poetry readings, radio programmes, chances to meet his contemporaries;
- he was so successful that as he grew older it became exhausting;
- Heaney the generous spirit as a person who found it difficult to say ‘no’ Heaney was forever at a ‘beck-and-call’ of his own making.
- once his global reputation was established, his life developed an almost unstoppable momentum – increased foreign travel, a constant flood of invitations, prestigious awards in the shape of a Nobel prize for Literature in 1995 and distinguished academic positions he held at Harvard and Oxford Universities
- Heaney rose head and shoulders above the others in the tribe and, like cream in milk, rose to the top of his profession?
- comparison with top performers in three other creative roles might offer a few insights into what it took for him to weave his particular magic
Heaney is a cordon bleu ‘cook’
- in common with the best chefs he strives to find the right blend;
- he and they recognise the finest products – they are endowed with a talent that adds the individual flavours of spices, herbs and myriad ingredients in just the right amounts at just the right moment;
- they produce unique, signature dishes capable of delighting and inspiring those who savour the result;.
- their ‘knowledge’ is gleaned from experience, experimentation and hard graft … their ‘talent’ is a gift granted only to very few.
- Heaney is both wordsmith and ‘master-chef’ – inspiration is just a start – spontaneous ideas can only gain from being worked upon.
Heaney is an agent of change
- he wants to transform poetic charge into mouth-watering dishes – each will involve a deliberate process of composition and revision that will determine the ultimate structure, vocabulary, verse-form and imagery of each poem.
- Heaney’s copious ‘word hoard’ grants him access to a rich list of poetic devices available to all who write – he takes from it just what he needs – to add an underlay… or ring a change … or carry an image through … or provide an echo;
- he wants no more than to turn ordinary language into a culinary feast for the senses and his blend of ingredients, roughly translated as ‘style’, is the ‘mix’ he favours in each poem to carry his message forward
Heaney is an orchestrator
- in seeking to write poetry that is pleasing to the ear or reflects his mood and preoccupations – jubilant, sad or harsh, calm or furious, light or sweet or slowly dying away Heaney has much in common with an orchestral composer;
- he starts at a slight disadvantage because scored music brings with it a code of expression marks that indicate the way in which a piece is to be performed in terms of volume, cadence, emphasis and so on
- without expression marks the music risks being monotonous and boring.
- No such notation for Heaney – he leaves it to his words, phrasing and punctuation to suggest timbre, modulation so that the skilled reader can turn each poem into a linguistic ‘event;
Heaney paints using words
- Heaney was excited by artists and by Art Galleries around the world – ‘anything can happen in a gallery: that’s the joy of it’, he once enthused;
- across his poetry he refers to countless named examples appropriate to his poetic moment, from Renaissance Giorgione to 20th century Dutch abstract Piet Mondrian; from Breughel’s Flemish landscapes to Goya’s nightmare canvasses in Madrid’s Prado;
- as a friend with Irish surrealist painter, Colin Middleton, he was able to observe the techniques, overlays and textures of a creative act exercised within another medium; this awakened the notion that he could ‘outstrip the given’ and reflect visual scenes in word;
- his magic paintbrush works – Heaney’s word-canvasses generate individual textures and compositional balance – he sets emotional sensations, shapes and colours within the picture’s frame, even mimicking cinematic techniques of zoom and pan to add movement and focus
Heaney is a meticulous craftsman
- Heaney’s intention was simply to use the musicality of language to generate beautifully turned passages;
- he wove strands of assonant vowel sounds into the text, sometimes as many as 14 separate ones within the same poem, either grouping them within specific areas to create internal echoes or reprising them at intervals;
- these are reflected in the coloured-hearing section of each poem using standard phonetic icons – ‘same colour’ means ‘same sound’ so that regional differences in vowel pronunciation will still be accommodated; Heaney rarely leaves a vowel sound in isolation;
- he had another trick up his sleeve- he used the alliterative effects of consonants to modify his assonant melodies with pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions;
- 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]; bilabial 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/ ang
- Heaney’s thought processes and instinctive use of rhythm work hand in glove, whether in phrases of bare simplicity or more complex ideas and emotions
Subjects and Settings.
The Turnip Snedder
Subject: this manually driven turnip-crushing machine, a piece of archaic agricultural machinery, comes to bear the hallmarks of a medieval war-machine and introduces more modern forms of violence implicit within the first dozen or so poems in the collection
Setting: Heaney’s rural Irish ‘territory’; an iconic momument of pre mains-water days fires off associations and images.
Subject: the physics and dynamics of wielding a hammer. The energy generated brings with it, however, an understanding of its destructiveness. What begins as a sense of physical reverberation affecting the person using a heavy tool ultimately evokes a shiver of fear when, as contemporary history demonstrates, extreme power falls into the wrong hands.
Setting: non-specific; actual use might have been in Heaney’s farm-home setting or part of his amateur building days.
Subject: the first of eight poems alluding to boyhood during World War II. The recycled use of railway sleepers transports the speaker back in time to the domain of wartime childhood. Within this context, allusion to Poland opens the way to more serious contemporaneous phenomena: wartime concentration camps.
Setting: a more recent garden; a railway line from youth now disused; autobiographical element.
Subject: the momentous preparations for D-Day brought an international force to Britain which was to launch an assault on the Normandy beaches and rid Europe of nazism. American troops arrive in rural Ulster.
Setting: outside the local abattoir in which the speaker is employed as a slaughterman. Heaney would be 4 years old at the time.
To Mick Joyce in Heaven
Subject: a sequence of 5 sonnets, set at a time when Heaney was five or six years of age, is addressed to the memory of Mick Joyce. Heaney resurrects a figure from the past, recalling him with great warmth, affection and good-humour. The man was ‘demobbed’ at the end of WW2 and, it is suggested became part of the.
Setting: an imagined post-war building site; the Heaney home; autobiographical element.
Subject: a particular wartime visit to his local airfield. The visit becomes a parable about insecurity, temptation, resistance and responsibility. The glamour of young American servicemen appealed to many young Irish women.
Setting: Toome aerodrome in service before, during and after WWII; autobiographical element.
Anything Can Happen
Subject: the ‘strike’ of 9/11; Heaney’s version of Horace’s Ode I,34 contains specific reference to the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.
Setting: The classical sky of Horace’s world becomes the sky above 9/11 New York.
Subject: a Boston fire-fighter’s headgear, symbolic of a breed of supermen who risk their lives for society, presented formally to Heaney in an informal ceremony. It is a poem celebrating human solidarity.
Setting: a shelf at home; a presentation ceremony in Boston, USA; autobiographical element.
Out of Shot
Subject: dread inflicted on peaceful communities by men out of control – a stepping-stone between two sets of events: the first remembered from Irish history; the second brought on by contemporary reports from the war-stricken Middle-East. An innocent animal is shell-shocked.
Setting: a field overlooking Wicklow Bay (autobiographical element); a middle-eastern bazaar area.
Rilke: After the Fire
Subject: Heaney version of a Rilke poem of 1908. The theme is of a man whose past has been destroyed overnight and is suddenly alienated from his environment.
District and Circle
Subject and setting: memories of early-days’ vacation work in London, tempered with anxiety following terrorist attacks on London transport and coloured by the Dantesque/ Virgilian notion of the underground/ underworld’ tunnel leading from life to death; utobiographical element.
To George Seferis in the Underworld
Subject: otherworldliness: how the poet appears to observers, his thought and preoccupations mistaken for absent-mindedness; the poet’s mental search to retrieve information; one poet reflecting upon aspects of another; spirituality; comparative connotations of words.
Setting: a Greek coastal site; the mythological pits of hell into which tyrants are pitched.
Subject: about celebrity and professional respect; legacy: signs of presence left behind; insights into the poetic process.
Setting: an exhibit once worn by a celebrated Romantic poet who lived in the Lake District; the skates sit in a display-case at the Wordsworth Trust Centre, Grasmere.
he Harrow Pin
Subject: the first of three ‘workshop’ poems paints the character-portrait of a local blacksmith, the same Barney Devlin of ‘Midnight Anvil’; a uncompromising disciplinarian with finger-wagging influence on a rural child-audience.
Setting: a blacksmith’s forge; Ulster local colour.
Poet to Blacksmith
Subject: the search for perfection: Heaney offers a version from 18th century Irish of ‘instructions’ given by an agricultural labourer to his ‘spade-maker’ in the confidence that the latter can engineer the bespoke tool he requires. Irish scene set by the original poet.
Subject: a Millennium celebration; local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, struck twelve hammer- blows on his anvil acting as ‘tuning-forks’ for poems.
Setting: Heaney was not present but responded to an invitation from Devlin to deliver a poem; Heaney pretends to see and hear the event.
Subject: an age-old process; a parallel is drawn – the composition of a poem is as complex and demanding of skills and commitment as the practice being described.
Setting: a young man in a hayfield yard or barn; autobiographical element.
Senior Infants – The Sally Rod
Subject: a Primary school class-mate met years later in the street; a shared memory of physical punishment
Setting: a town, Granard; an Irish primary school classroom; autobiographical element.
Senior Infants – A Chow
Subject: a youngster gives in to temptation and reaps the consequences.
Setting: piece generated by scratched initials on Anahorish bridge; autobiographical element.
Senior Infants – One Christmas day
Subject: old ‘Troubles’ sectarian divisions rise to the surface; a chance meeting with a schoolboy from the past whilst Heaney was having a Christmas Day drink years later evokes memories; retrospect generates evidence his gabble was unwise to ignore;
Setting: a pub at Castledawson ; memory of a school-pal’s garden; autobiographical element.
Subject: a slight inclination of the head, ostensibly one of unspoken recognition; themes of suspicion and hidden threat in 1950s sectarian society.
Setting: local shopping streets and shops; autobiographical element.
Subject: childhood routine in a rural Irish community: the hair-cut; the poet’s own sensitive, observant and imaginative nature already present in childhood, his first barber shop.
Setting: Heaney’s home community; autobiographical element.
Edward Thomas on the Lagans Road
Subject: appearance of a revenant on a road familiar to the poet where the ghosts of other ‘locals’ are also recalled.
Setting: Heaney has returned to the spot; autobiographical element.
Found Prose – The Lagans Road
Subjects: community; environment; Heaney uses the iconic road to open a rite of passage of his first day at Primary School with its introduction to a whole host of new experiences and sense data.
Setting: a road close to home; autobiographical element.
Found Prose – Tall Dames
Subject: figures from Heaney’s lost domain of childhood; traditional stereotypes of rural Ireland; specific groups who ‘walk tall’ in his memory.
Setting: a youngster circling his district; autobiographical element.
Found Prose – Boarders
Subject: a cold weekly journey from home to school and its accompanying metaphorical sense of displacement.
Setting: local colour; autobiographical element.
Subject: a poet’s warm compassion for individuals and groups; a coffin’s final movements; the community’s post mortem respect for its members.
Setting: the graveyard of an Ulster community.
Subject: the blessing of being alive in or for ’the time being’, ’the to-be-going-on-with’; the privilege of the present moment whatever questions about the ‘now’ and the ‘hereafter’ remain unanswered.
Setting: an Ulster journey by car interrupted; autobiographical element.
Subject: a poem about three poets: their different backgrounds and cultures, the mutual respect felt, the reverence generated, the tributes due.
Setting: an occasion when Heaney met Ted Hughes; autobiographical element.
Out of This World – Like Everybody Else
Subject: issues and experiences that in one sense or another are ‘not of this world’; a sequence about ‘meaning; the legacy of religious conditioning that never goes away.
Setting: attending mass recalled; autobiographical element.
Out of This World – Brancardier
Subject: a pilgrimage recounted light-heartedly; a Sixth former’s irreverence; sense of responsibility versus new-found freedom on foreign soil; temperance; the through-put of the Catholic shrine industry.
Setting: the journey from home to Lourdes and back; its risible keepsakes; autobiographical element.
Out of This World – Saw Music
Subject: forms of ‘alternative’ creative expression; the epilogue returns to Milosz and the issue of comparative ‘worth’: recognising it, expressing it, having faith in it.
Setting: Belfast’s streets; a painter’s atelier; autobiographical element.
Subject: threats posed by climate-change; acute observation and clarity of memory; local biblical sect linked to bibical references adding a spiritual dimension to implied threats to mankind.
Setting: The Mid-West of USA; autobiographical element.
Subject: omens and warnings; natural phenomena in decline; global threat.
Setting: over-flying the massive glacier behind the town of Hōfn in south-east Iceland; autobiographical element.
On the Spot
Subject: coldness contingent with death; minor changes of climatic conditions that destroy the ability to regenerate life;
Setting: a walk through a well-known Ulster landscape; autobiographical element.
The Tollund Man in Springtime
One of the collection’s major poems.
Subject: ‘green’ issues; the tensions between past purity, so-called ‘progress’ and pollution; man-made problems;
Setting: Heaney reintroduces his iron-age hero, whose sacrificially murdered body had been miraculously preserved in a Jutland peat-bog since the 4th century BC and discovered in 1950; he is plunged into modern urban technological landscapes and finds no pleasure or quality there.
Subject: ‘green’ issues and reckless earth-management; pollution, ecological decline and former glory; female symbols and sensual overtones; a political position-statement.
Setting: a familiar local river, the Moyola before and after; autobiographical element.
Planting the Alder
Subject: a song in praise of a tree dear to Heaney that flourished in the wetland landscape of his roots; a lyrical botanical handbook.
Subject: emblems of a long partnership that for all its forty years has lost none of its physical chemistry; the erotic: sexuality and abstinence.
Setting: ultimately Tate’s Avenue, an address in Belfast, via the Irish sea-side and Spain; autobiographical element.
A Hagging Match
Subject: How to say ‘I’m stuck on you’ in twenty words.
Setting: all the hallmarks of Seamus Heaney at work at Glanmore Cottage, the intellectual the physical interwoven; autobiographical element.
Subject: the ‘erotic’, not the sensual ‘wood nymph’ presence in Moyulla or the more overt sexuality of Tate’s Avenue, rather delicacies that bring pleasure-on-a-plate to the senses; prose-poem designed to bring a smile to a Japanese friend’s lips.
Setting: a food outlet somewhere, probably in the USA .
To Pablo Neruda
Subject: culinary pleasure, the erotic in the newly discovered ‘pleasure’ sense of ‘Fiddleheads’; crab-apple jelly beauty born of an ugly tree; data that tease all the senses.
Setting: a gift from a local acquaintance; a known tree; a known familiar location.
Home Help – Helping Sarah
Subject: themes associated with the memory of two of Heaney’s father’s sisters; how aunt Sarah’s character and personality was reflected in her relationship with boyhood Heaney; living-on-your-ownness; hard work; Ulster gardens and frumpy dress;
Setting: an Ulster garden in springtime; autobiographical element.
Home Help – Chairing Mary
Subject: a chair crucial to the quality of life of an old, disabled woman recalled in her declining years; affection, compassion and family solidarity;
Setting: the Heaney family home.
Rilke: The Apple Orchard
Subject: experience of nightfall in an apple orchard; the intellectual search of the inner self in search of self-definition;
Setting: Rilke’s chosen location..
Subject: a humble man on the point of packing up after a tiring day’s work; sound farming practice and what makes personal fulfilment; the long hours required by the job.
Setting: a pig- farmyard.
Home Fires – A Scuttle
Subject: A Tale of Two Dorothys in appreciation of William Wordsworth’ sister at different stages in her life
Setting: re-created Wordsworth room as seen already at Dove cottage in Grasmere.
Home Fires – A Stove Lid
Subject: what makes for mass and majesty reflections; a youngster’s decidedly dangerous chore.
Setting: locations in the childhood home; autobiographical element.
The Birch Grove
Subject: young trees planted by a mature couple; Nature in action in the privacy of domestic home and harmony.
Setting: a cottage in Ludlow, Shropshire, England.
Cavafy: “The Rest…”
Subject: philosophical assumptions; freedom of speech and action; contrasting perceptions of the afterlife;
Setting: Ancient Greece, somewhere.
Setting: Cavafy’ys set in ancient Greece.
In a Loaning
Subject: the sheer sensual enjoyment of the rural countryside; the poet’s relief that he can express his feelings poetically after a period of writer’s-block; autobiographical element.
The Blackbird of Glanmore
Subject: a creature beloved of the speaker; its characteristics and nature; its predictability; its kindred spiritness; a deceased brother recalled; premonition and superstition in play; a poem about arrival, departure and nostalgia;
Setting: unstated but bearing all the hallmarks and emotional magnetism of Glanmore Cottage; autobiographical element.
Translating ideas, notions, themes, that ‘something’ from the inner recess of the mind, into words involves first selection: words and phrases, the ‘mot juste’ and so on, then the weaving of these lexical items into the fabric of the piece. This weaving process is a means to multiple ends: flow, sound, rhythm, echo, emphasis and so on; part of the ‘fun’ is drafting and redrafting text to achieve maximum impact in the finished product.
Published poetry, though not perhaps written for the reader, is there for the enjoyment and can be an intellectual challenge as well as a pleasure. Part of that enjoyment can legitimately include analysis of the style of the piece. What follows is a list of devices open to writers as part of their technique.
Whilst there might be no intrinsic value in spotting a particular device and knowing it by name, nevertheless it is good training. It helps the reader to be inquisitive and begs the question as to why the writer chose that particular device and to what end. We cannot always tease out the poet’s real intention but it is well worth trying!
‘a figure of speech is a way of talking or writing by which you say what you don’t mean and yet mean what you say. For example, ‘He blows his own trumpet’. You don’t mean he has a trumpet but you do mean that he blows it. HUNT, Fresh Howlers (1930)
antithesis: an arrangement of contrasted words in corresponding places in contiguous phrases, to express a contrast of ideas.
chiasmus: the arrangement in parallel clauses of related terms in a reversed order, so AB BA as opposed to parallel order AB AB
cliché: A phrase whose wording has become fixed, or almost fixed, as usage has given it a fixed meaning. Cliches commonly use a recognised literary device which eventually uses its power
comparison: A statement that there is a likeness between things which can in fact be likened
dual meaning: This when a word or phrase is used so as to be understood in two different meanings, both of which fit the sentence (e.g. a literal and a symbolic meaning), and in order that the two meanings may be related with each other
enjambment: The continuation of a sentence, in verse, into the following line. Traditionally an enjambement is permissible if the break is at the normal break in the syntax or at a normal break between breath groups. This happens more routinely outside those conditions in free verse.
enumeration: The arrangement of terms in succession, e.g. nouns in apposition, adverbs or adverbial phrases; economy of words is achieved. As a literary device enumerations can be used to add implications and rhythm to the subject matter, by grouping or gradation or even intentional iincoherency.
euphemism: replacement of a distasteful by a more pleasant term, to refer to the same thing.
free indirect speech: the expression of what is spoken or thought without introductory words such as He said, ‘…’ or He said that.. In narrative fis may be signalised by use of vocabulary appropriate to the character rather than the words of the author. Continuous fis becomes ‘interior monologue.
hyperbole: the intentional use of an exaggerated term in place of the one more properly applicable, adding implications to the subject matter.
inversion: The reversal of the normal order of the members of a sentence, perhaps to avoid ambiguity or to bring certain words into stressed or key position or to modify the rhythm.
irony: The use of words containing a sufficient and apparently serious meaning in themselves, but conveying also, intentionally, to a more initiated person a further, generally opposed meaning; frequently the first meaning is laudatory or untenable
litotes: intentional understatement inviting the reader to rectify. Frequently a negative expression.
metaphor: an expression which refers to a thing or action by means of a term for a quite different thing or action, related to it, not by any likeness in fact but by an imagined analogy which the context allows.
simile uses words like ‘like’ or ‘as…as’. Metaphors and similes have 2 terms: the thing meant and the thing ‘imported’ as a means of expressing, by analogy, what is meant.
personifications are only 1 sort of metaphor.
This substitution of words has wide uses: ornament, implication, overtone. Its use may be regarded as a special means of revealing hidden truth.
Apart from enriching the thought by a device of form and enhancing the reader’s contact with the author, metaphors and similes may be significant or characteristic because of their reiterated suggestion of a writer’s preoccupations or his processes of thought.
metonymy: the use of a word in place of another with which it is associated in meaning.
objective-subjective: ‘objective’ – expressing reality as it is or attempting to do so; the reality of events or things is regarded as ‘external’. The reality may mental or emotional experience, examined rather than evoked. ‘Subjective’- expressing a version of reality in which it is modified by emotion or preconceived belief; or expressing conscious or subconscious experiences of states of mind
oxymoron: the juxtaposition of contradictory or incongruous terms, understood as a paradox
paradox: a statement or implication expressed so as to appear inconsistent with accepted belief, or absurd, or exaggerated, but intended to be realised by the reader as an acceptable or important truth, in some respect; often placed as a conclusion; in a paradox there is often a word which cries out for redefinition in order to provide the alternative meaning which the writer has prepared his reader to accept.
pathetic fallacy: ascribing human traits or feelings to inanimate nature, corresponding with those being experienced by a character or ‘voice’.
periphrasis: the expression of a meaning by more words than are strictly necessary or expected, so that additional implications are brought in.
porte-manteau word: a deliberate mixture of 2 words into one retaining both meanings: ‘’a bestpectable gentleman’, respectable guy wearing glasses!
preciosity: aiming at or affecting refinement or distinction in expression; avoiding vulgar phrases; visibly introducing greater care in expression; using this precision, formal arrangement of words, difficult combinations of ideas, allusions and puns in the hope of revealing truths not to be expressed in plain and simple terms; exaggerating this so that, for example an ‘armchair’ might become a ‘commodity for conversation’!
repetition: expressing a meaning or an attitude by implication, through the deliberate use of a word or phrase a second time
symbol: a term for an object representing, conventionally or traditionally, an abstraction.
synecdoche: the use of a word denoting a ‘part’ in place of the word for the whole, so ‘100 sails’ meaning ‘100 ships’.
synesthesia: the representation of a sensation or image belonging to one of the five senses by words proper to another (‘loud tie’; Disney’s ‘Fantasia’).
zeugma: providing syntactical economy of words by using one word with dual possibility so that two meanings are taken separately – ‘he took his hat and his leave’.