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

Stylistic devices

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;
  • 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 who produce 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/ anger.
  • 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

Stylistic devices

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 ‘tradecraft’ 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 incoherency;

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;

A 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. Personification is a form 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;

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’.





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