5 Fosterage

For Michael McLaverty

In Ancient Ireland young aspirants were fostered to other members of the clan for their education. Heaney recounts his earliest encounter with the Headmaster, coincidentally one of Ireland’s finest short-story writers, who took him on as a trainee teacher. Michael McLaverty fitted the ‘fosterage’ bill perfectly via the experience he offered a modest ‘rookie’ searching for both poetic voice and career.

A quotation from Wallace Stevens extolling the use of description in creative writing (Heaney will follow his tip in this very piece), a timing (Heaney was 23 and recently graduated with a First Class degree in English from Queen’s University Belfast – newly cubbed in language), a meeting place in the smart administrative centre of the city (Royal Avenue) outside the working week (Saturday afternoon) … every detail etched on Heaney’s photographic memory.

A staccato enumeration ensues: McLaverty’s intensity (he gripped my elbow) his straight-from-the-shoulder advice as down to earth as the Viking counsellor in North: (Go your own way. Do your own work)

Knowledgeable about world literature (Katherine Mansfield) McLaverty schools Heaney in the careful manipulation of detail in order to weave in emotive subtext (that note of exile).

But … wagging his finger and employing the metaphor of the ball point pen that writers use … do not get so involved as to give yourself blood-pressure (to hell with overstating it: Don’t have the veins bulging in your biro’).

McLaverty’s empathetic interest in a poet who was not able to keep the lid on his inner turmoil (poor Hopkins) was evident from the copy of Hopkins’ Journals that Heaney received as a gift from him and continued to annotate (underlined).

The glosses are revealing of a poet whose physical frame (buckled self) was somehow in tune with his massive pangs of conscience (obeisant to their pain).

He salutes McLaverty’s perceptiveness (he discerned) predicated on tolerance, persistence and staying-power (the lineaments of patience everywhere) and acknowledges him as the very embodiment of the ancient Irish tradition: took him in (fostered me ), moved him on (sent me out), taught him means of expression (words) that would not be readily dislodged (imposing on my tongue like obols).

  • Fosterage: Ancient Irish custom of placing children during their minority in the charge of other members of the clan – foster parents were committed to teaching fosterlings in the branches of knowledge, business or trades appropriate to rank;
  • ‘Description is revelation’: Wallace Stevens (1879-1955); from “Description Without Place; it continues It is not/ The thing described, nor false facsimile./ It is an artificial thing that exists,/ In its own seeming, plainly visible,/ Yet not too closely the double of our lives…
  • McLaverty (1904-1992): regarded as one of Ireland’s finest short story writers, drawing his material from amongst people and places he knew; a painter of human emotions and ethical dilemmas; possessing a strong moral sense and a unique Irish Catholic perspective; he was a headmaster, hence perhaps his free use of imperatives as he offers advice to an aspiring poet; Headmaster of St Thomas’s Intermediate School, Belfast, when Heaney practised there in 1962-63; one of the ‘masters’ encountered in Station Island;
  • cub: young of certain mammals; used figuratively for ‘beginner
  • Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923): prominent New Zealand writer of short fiction; the source of the line ‘I will tell | How the laundry basket squeaked’ has been traced to an entry in Katherine Mansfield’s journal, 22 January 1916.
  • biro: a brand of ballpoint- pen invented by Hungarian Laszlo Biro; the word ‘biro’ was often used as a generic term for any ballpoint pen; McLaverty personnifies it as an extension of the poet’s being;
  • Hopkins’s precedes McLaverty’s advice ”The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise.” Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889, British poet, Jesuit priest) in a letter of Sept. 25, 1888, to Robert Bridges;
  • Poet and Hopkins’ specialist Michael Woods points out the Hopkinsian tension between aesthete (1881, from Gk. aisthetes “one who perceives,”) and aesthetic (from Gk. aisthetikos “sensitive, perceptive,”);
  • the Journals themselves contained GMH’s ecstatic responses to nature providing the raw materials for poetry; he associates both Hopkins and Heaney as possessing a Catholic scrupulosity, that is, moral misgivings, pangs of conscience felt when faced with their own responses that did not quite fit with the former’s Jesuit and the latter’s Catholic ‘training’;
  • buckled: GMH was not of robust health and would die of typhoid fever in 1889
  • lineament: early 15c., ‘distinctive feature of the body’, ‘outline’; literally “’a line’, ‘stroke’, ‘mark’ (from lineare ‘to reduce to a straight line’; figurative sense of “a characteristic” is attested from 1630s;
  • obeisant: ‘obeying’ rather than ‘obedient’; from French obéir; Heaney selects the present participle form rather than the adjectival (obéissant);
  • foster: from O.E.word ‘to supply with food, nourish, support’; meet the Ancient Irish commitment to train, educate the fosterling;
  • impose:
  • obol: ancient small though weighty Greek coin placed on the eyelids of the deceased;
  • 16 lines of poetry in a single stanza; broadly 10 syllable lines;
  • the sentence structure, use of punctuation and enjambed lines set the pace of the initial acquaintance, mimic the staccato quasi instructions of the poet-Headteacher, followed by calmer reflection and tribute on behalf of the speaker;
  • use of direct and free indirect speech;
  • reworking of press jargon: ‘cub reporter’;
  • vocabulary switches from the up-to-date (cubbed; biro) to the more archaic (lineaments; obols);
  • McLaverty’s strong, forthright character: gripped; used to instructing people; buckled; imposing;
  • alliterative effects: initial alveolar nasal [n]; cluster of velar plosive [g]; bilabial [b] of buckled self/ Obeisant;
  • 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: fifteen 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;

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