Heaney’s pictures from boyhood and adolescence the 1940s and 50s era are the richer for his minute and often sensuous concentration on detail. Here he ponders on the properties of a household fuel, the way his family adapted to shortage and austerity and the emotional leftovers of this temps retrouvé.
Look too for one of the collection’s themes – weight felt, weight lifted.
i Heaney’s post-WWII boyhood featured a coal product unknown to current consumers (slack). He sets out to describe its consistency – more than black powder (not coal dust), something with a little more bulk (weighty grounds of coal).
It arrived at the farm conventionally enough (by lorryman … in open bags) and was tipped into the coal shed (vent into a corner).
It looked to him as glum as the post-war period (sullen pile) but, as the sibling responsible for the chore of fetching and carrying, he developed a relationship: with something responsive (soft to the shovel) and obliging (accommodating) compared with its noisy, lumpy neighbour (clattering coal).
Dead to the world (slumped and waiting) at a time of shortage and making savings (days when life prepared for rainy days) slack was doubly important both to inhibit fast burn in the grate (dampen down) and, by depriving the fire of its oxygen, to economise on coal (lengthen out).
For the poet at seventy it possesses a deeper symbolism – putting a brake on consumerism (check on mammon) yet providing a warmth and comfort in a promethean sense (in its own way keeper of the flame), now kept alive once more and in a dfferent sense in his poem.
- slack/ grounds: the post-WWII period of the 40s and 50s was one of great austerity in Britain: not only did ration-books regulate limited amounts of basic foods and ‘treats’, but essential fuels were hard to come by; people had recourse to ‘slack’, the grindings of coal that had fallen through all the meshes and were its cheapest available form;
- lug: carry or drag with great effort;
- vent: empty down through a hole;
- sullen: surly, joyless;
- shovel: spade-like tool with upturned sides;
- accommodating: cooperative, amenable;
- clatter: sound of hard objects colliding;
- set aside for rainy days: a mid 20th century cliché referring to setting things aside for future need;
- slumped: heavy and limp;
- dampen down: reduce flow of air to a fire;
- mammon: worldly wealth conspicuously absent in the post-WWII period:
- keeper of the flames: making a fire was an arduous process of friction hard against soft; much better to deploy someone to make sure it did not go out; in classical mythology Prometheus was heavily punished by the classical gods for giving fire to mankind; the latter had no means of making fire themselves and their priority was to keep it alight;
- the theme of heavy carrying is a recurrent theme in Human Chain;
- 4 triplets; free verse; varied line length, the shortest recalling an effect on the emotions: a sullen pile;
- 2 sentences with flow regulated by a combination of mid-line commas and enjambed lines;
- alliteration:velar [l] sounds in coal/ lorryman/ lug; use of sibilants [s] and [sh] soft to the shovelmimicking the ease of shovelling through slack compared with the demands of moving chunks of clattering coal;
- the use of adverbs down/ outlengthens a process that contributes to frugality;
- the principle sense-data are of sight and touch.
ii Heaney shuts out his other senses – the sound it made are stronger in memory than any significance the slack may have obscured (more to me than any allegory). Three separate sentences harness onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance to bring back the sounds of shovel at work (slack schlock), receptacle that bore fuel to grate (scuttle scuffle) and scuttle porter’s sound rhythm (shak-shak).
Memory, too of forceful (solid) parental instruction to deposit a layer of slack (’Bank the fire’), recollection of the hard crust formed (cindery skull) and visual association somehow reflecting its warmth (when its tarry coral cooled).
- allegory: mental picture interpreted to reveal a hidden emotional, moral or political dimension;
- bank: over lay the burning centre with slack to reduce oxygen and slow the burn;
- cinder: half-burnt remnant with some combustible energy left in it;
- tar: thick, flammable form distilled from coal;
- coral: hard cinder-like deposits forming reefs in warm seas;
- 4 triplets; free verse after an initial rhyme: me allegory; short lines of between 2 and 5 syllables, many enjambed;
- the italicised sound stanza includes newly coined items; the use of full-stops at this point creates pauses between shovel strokes;
- alliteration: sibilant solid/ cindery skullthen velar [k] of Coral cooled;
- analogy of the shape and the indestructibility of the human skull;
iii This was my life, says Heaney – whatever the weather (out in the rain) this was my chore (sent out for it), forever on call (again).
How does he feel about it at seventy? It was dark (unlit coalhouse), the slack looked and smelt a touch rancid (violet blet), it was soaked and heavy like another farmyard material (wet sand weight).
But, more than swirls of memory of slack delivered and stored (tipped and slushed), composing his poem has triggered emotional release (catharsis) for which, at its last gasp (from the bag), Heaney feels all the better.
- take in: absorb
- blet: associated with fermentation;
- slushed: with a damp squelching sound;
- catharsis: referring originally to Aristotelian tragedy and indicating the therapeutic effect on the spectator of the sense of emotional release following the storm and climax of the action;
- 12 lines of poetry, a single sentence in 4 stanzas; 1 formal rhyme (rain/ again);
- combined repetition of outwith again expresses the internal grumblings of the less-than-willing youngster (unlike at Primary school, the youngster at home can be more reluctant to do as he is told);
- one half rhyme (blet/ weight);
- alternating alliterations, [s], [w] and [t] itswet sand weight; use of sibilants: slushed/ Catharsis;
- Heaney’s strike on the anvil of memory is so true, so mediated by apt vocabulary, that the reading of his work is a sensuous joy. Thomas McCarthy in the Irish Examiner of September 4th 2010
- What gives Human Chain much of its energy is the sustained intensity of Heaney’s fixing on the resource of his own memories. Some poems are relatively familiar Heaney performances, though none the worse for that: “Slack” addresses the kind of everyday substance that is no longer all that everyday with the verbal exactness and playfulness that have always characterized the poet’s returns to the physical minutiae of remembered environments. One of the motifs in this collection is the felt weight in heavy lifting, so a bag of slack being “Tipped and slushed” has a certain thematic role to play; yet it can also take dramatic verbal turns, to both “Catharsis” and “a violet blet”, where two different vocabularies are brought to bear, one with a classical literary pedigree, the other from the obscurer regions of English (“blet”, from bletting, seems to be the first mark of inward decomposition on fruit). Both words work in the context of Heaney’s poem (where onomatopoeia is also in play), with their not quite matching promises of emptying and of decay. Sunday Times of Oct 13, 2010; Peter MacDonald
- 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: twelve 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;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;