• 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 including phonetic information
  • Summary versions of the contents
  • Stylistic devices

an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes

Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals, such as you and I, their consciousness is constantly tuned into things that give off a poetic charge and their vocation compels them to pounce on such sudden, often 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 can arrive unexpectedly; some lines are ready made (vers donnés) others have to be worked on (vers calculés);
  • 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 top cooks select only 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 is available to Heaney – he leaves it to his words, phrasing and punctuation to suggest timbre, modulation, volume and so on, so that everyone can enjoy reading a poem and the skilled performer can turn each piece 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 of 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 in yet another medium;

Heaney is a meticulous craftsman

  • Heaney’s intention was simply to use the musicality of language to generate beautifully turned passages;
  • 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
  • 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


Summary versions of the contents

The Golden Bough

Aeneas’ quest to meet his father’s shadow in Virgil’s latin epic … the Aenied bookend is significant … Heaney’s love for his deceased father Patrick introduces the collection’s  sense of annihilation …  the post mortem destination of the dead comes under scrutiny.

The Crossing

The other bookend from Dante’s Inferno follows Dante’s descent into Hell  with fellow poet Virgil and a queue of dead souls; both bookends confirm the sense of annihilation that pervades the collection.

The Journey Back

Heaney sets the journey of poet Philip Larkin’s dead soul on a bus in a pre-Christmas rush hour. It’s as if he’s going home from work one more time and being allowed his own epiphany .


Seeing things anew’, revisiting and redefining boyhood experiences through the eyes of a fifty year old poet corresponds to imagined grids and lines that promise a new visibility. Heaney’s boyhood experiences are at the source:  I a kick-about soccer game set in one of our own fields at Mossbawn  II improvised, amateur touch-lines marked by boys contrast strongly with his father’s and grandfather’s orderly approach III things lodged in poetic memory are the seed-corn of poetry legacy.

Three Drawings

He  Point the collection’s  revelatory ‘work in progress’ The Point an image of football at school suddenly posted on

Heaney’s mind-screen that has a link with the poet-to-be – without his kick the football could have had no

momentum, read, no poetic aspirations generated; without the ball there would have been no game, read no poetry


The Pulse  a moment of completeness – Heaney’s heart and soul in perfect step with environment and activity. the barely perceptible sensations on a fishing line akin to the tiny vibrations of creative impulses within the poet … a ‘marvel’ to be credited … inside my sixty-eight-year-old- arm there’s a totally enlivened twelve-year-old one, feeling the bite.

A Haul an incident of fishing mayhem from Norse mythology … a shared link with the poet: a Norse god, gob-smacked by the nothingness he reels in and a vulnerable poet taken aback by his sense of emptiness and vulnerability following the loss of his remaining parent.

Casting and Gathering

A different  demarcation – a river that separates two fly fishermen in action – very different styles and very different attitudes – a touch of  elegy … people don’t alter with age, nor in the memory.

Man and Boy  a retuning of the father/ son radio …

I Re-enter Patrick Heaney with his history of unfunny jokes amongst the children

II a poignant piece linking three paternal generations on the same farmstead … the poet’s father as an obedient urchin, the lone mower turned Grim Reaper, a gut-wrenching aftermath …  annihilation dawns.

Seeing Things variations on the theme of ‘visibility’  I the visibility of primary experience raised to high-definition status on a Sunday morning outing en famille   II revelatory process … hieroglyphic representation of objects as we see can, by association, unlock  marvels they hid at first sight; Heaney recalls the ‘man-made’ stylization of a stone-carver on a cathedral representing water and the distorting shape of sunlight on the human consciousness  III set as a traditional fairy-tale with a happy ending: a fictitious face-to-face with the poet’s father during his lifetime, and Heaney, boy then, now a man. A near disaster that transformed the filial image of his father reduced from superman to sorry figure in need of support; enough to sweep away the awkwardnesses of father/ son affection.

The Ash Plant

an elegy to a frail old man in decline who still bears the unmistakable characteristics of the man he was … with a rueful smile on his face, Heaney reports on his father’s respected reputation not least his brusque dismissal of those who did not meet his high expectations.

1.1.87 deepest emotional feelings expressed  less than three months after Patrick Heaney’s death – the poet facing midwinter still burning with the pain of bereavement.

August Night a post mortem tribute focusing on the movements of his father’s hands.

Field of Vision when Heaney still lived at home the increasingly limited outlook of old aunt Mary  in her last years reinforced Heaney’s own need to move on –  a ‘foreign’ land with recognizably different landmarks; what will become an increasing necessity will require him to leave his early life behind  – much more problematic.
The Pitchfork

debt to a father … sight of an emblematic farming tool reveals how far Heaney has come … the pitchfork figured as a ‘tuning-fork’ for the self … humble beginnings, expectations surpassed ,  acknowledgement along the way that his search for perfection was inherited from the father who lovingly guided him.

A Basket of Chestnuts

how portrait of himself exhibited in an Irish National Gallery of Ireland  came about … a prop that does not actually appear in the finished product … creative spirits, artists and poets sustained by what survives them, in gallery and poem.
The Biretta

The hat worn by a compassionate priest in an Irish Victorian painting is preferred to the birettas Heaney has seen or handled as an altar boy in his local church. His bored imagination interwove a snippet from Caesar’s history of Gaul, a stealth bomber, an inspirational artefact boat and an abiding memory of Catholic zealotry.

The Settle Bed

a solid symbol of Irishness , a massive inherited piece of furniture; Heaney imagines its power to reconcile sectarian differences, a gift from above urging escape from the tit-for-tat of Ulster violence …

The Schoolbag

sonnet commemorating the generous gift of loving parents dedicated in memoriam to both to them and a cultured Irish friend … a cherished thing of quality linked to an educational process of poet-producing scholarship.

Glanmore Revisited   Scrabble

symbolic of Heaney’s escape from his Ulster past and scene of huge poetic output …  Intimate evenings of fun amongst folk fascinated by words … Tom Delaney, a deceased former scrabbler … period moments, open fire de rigueur… no carpets, running water or central heating.
Glanmore Revisited  The Cot

a neglected garden with basic implements, echoes of the presence of children, hearth tools to tend the open fire, a child’s bed that witnessed their daughter’s first oral responses …  a step up from Heaney’s first home at Mossbawn  when the farm, its noises and its hand-to-mouth existence were the sum total of his own experience.

Glanmore Revisited   Scene Shifts

a moment when he lost his rag with his children: they watched him and two friends carve initials into a garden tree, they copied the act and were branded as vandals; Heaney’s remorse is retrospective and  the scene he made shifted to a silent-film parody.
Glanmore Revisited  1973

1973: the year in which his daughter was born; also the Heaneys’ first late winter/ early spring experience in Glanmore: with a growing family to feed, without a regular University Lecturer salary coming in and with bills to pay, Heaney’s only option was to get on with the job … March spent tied to his work-desk, surrounded by the screwed up litter of drafts.

Glanmore Revisited   Lustral Sonnet

returning to Glanmore after absence is linked to a classical Roman ‘lustrum’ ritual of spiritual cleansing …  he has become a ‘word-burglar’, an accumulator of intellectual possessions … it feels like criminal trespass.  Only suitable  behaviour will create a deserved memorial to Glanmore .

Glanmore Revisited   Bedside Reading

Summertime in Glanmore –  from his early morning marital  bed poet is refreshed by a new optimism … signs of summer ivy around the window. The Odysseus and Penelope bed with one bedpost a living growth … a fitting symbol of the enduring freshness, thrill and permanence of his relationship with Marie.
Glanmore Revisited   The Skylight

the contested zone of Glanmore Cottage; a battle with Marie that he lost …a fait accompli behind his back that he has to stomach; comparison of cripple passed through a biblical skylight reflecting Heaney’s retrospective confessional remorse and need for absolution.

A Pillowed Head

a family completed … the unforgettable day on which Heaney’s daughter Catherine Ann was born in April 1973 … special day dawns to celebrate the dawning of a new child  … her first moments of earthly existence … dangers of childbirth suvived … a peaceful child  … nature’s celebratory dawn chorus anything but peaceful.
A Royal Prospect  photo snaps record an excursion he and his wife took to Hampton Court …  a long-distance lens at courtship and the early days of marriage … allegory is never far away … their joint success has elicited varied opinions … his feeling:  only doers and achievers are judged in life’s court … no-one can criticize those who do nothing!

A Retrospect

the unpredictability and change­ability of water and sky excite the poet and prompt new and unusual angles of vision…A watercolour in words of an Irish lough-scape dominated by liquidity – allegory is never far away … from terra firma he and Marie must be on the qui-vive for things that might threaten fortress-Heaney  II A couple on the  Glenshane Pass, a reminder of Heaney’s weekly exile from his family… his predictable commentaries on local history … reminders of courtship days, inanimate silent witnesses once protective against prying eyes.

The Rescue

two decades after the Wordsworthian  Somnambulist in Wintering Out, similar in form and style,  the piece exposes the inner recesses of the poet’s consciousness in a fairy-tale dream sequence where  the courtly-lover Heaney comes to his beloved’s rescue

Wheels within Wheels

fun moments on the farm that taught lessons and provided the poet with an entrance into his developing self …  the thrill of putting his bicycle to experimental use! I The poet’s first experience of working something out for himself … primary experience and the launch of developing thought; II not stopping there – observation of the ‘given’ just opening further lines of enquiry … earth and water thrown into the mix; then the whiff of annihilation: without maintenance, nothing is forever; III wheel-spinning on the farm expands in the poetic mind to things that spin … at the circus a wild west entertainment featured … he wishes it could go on forever.
The Sounds of Rain

Three panels framed within the sound of rain. I the poet awakens to rain and mourning voices II Pasternak, a fellow Nobel laureate and an academic from his days at Harvard via statements they made III, waiting for sleep he considers the overflow effect of water and the potential magnum opus rising to the surface of the artistic mind. Pasternak’s assertion that ‘there is no return’ may also be in his thoughts.

a Montague poem about a child who fetched water for domestic use prompts Heaney (who left home for university, adopted an entirely different lifestyle and never permanently came back) to  dip into Irish underlay and folklore; an uplifting tinkers’ tree-clock’ tale provides the means to escape the devil’s clutches … Fosterling is thirsty for scenes where light and life prevail and wondrous spectacles appear to lift the spirits.


following a fiftieth birthday celebration in 1989 in Rome Heaney underwent the period of unprecedented creative activity that fed the Squarings … its geometric format … 4 sections of 12 poems each, all with 12 lines in 4 triplets just happened:’ … ‘I didn’t quite know where it came from but I knew immediately it was there to stay’  I was swooping on things that stimulated memory or association … pouncing on twelve liners on all kinds of occasions, chance sentences from my reading, chance sightings of dictionary entries () chance visits to places that unlocked the word hoard.

The poems were directing him rather than the other way round, lots of lines came ready-made and redrafts were minimal.

Heaney gave clues as to what to look out for: You could think of every poem in ‘Squarings’ as the peg at the end of a tent-rope reaching up into the airy structure, but still with purchase on something earth­ier and more obscure.

Lightenings i

a roofless farmstead shelters a vagrant figure, a surrogate Heaney figure left roofless by the death of his father and facing the prospect of unignorable annihilation; what consciousness has to offer is present in the world above and around, airy scope within which to glean full value from the life that remains.

Lightenings ii

a hymn to Glanmore… refurbishing the silent retreat that started a recovery process … a ‘bastion of sensation’ to be defended … in which to write poems as sound as the building structure: what the exercise counsels: gather and  compose, trust in the word-hoard

Lightenings iii

what it takes to be a successful marble-shooter in the playground is what it takes a poet to perfect his craft or,  indeed, a man to navigate his life. The marble-run, like the Squarings poems themselves, has a geometric design, a stylized hieroglyph opening a porthole of perception into the what-will-be.

Lightenings iv a study in the production, transmission, reception and effects of sound entering Heaney’s  consciousness via a dramatic performance in a roofless earth-bound Roman theatre … an electric surge linking the earth-bound to the infinite  … sound has infinite reach;

Lightenings v

nothing is forever …  the marble pitch might still be traceable but thirty years on but the school-friend who played with him is half the world away … the pitch turns ocarina which produces its own 3-noted  music  … a counseling voice bids him compose as freely as  farmland chaff in the wind, act as watchman on duty or witness … above all listen.

Lightenings vi

Thomas Hardy portrayed as a precocious boy feigning death amongst a herd of sheep; the commotion he causes represents his initial impact on the living world … his small mass hitting water will create a mini tsunami .

Lightenings vii

the ‘flaring of spirit ‘of a famed old man in his dotage … Hardy as a very elderly man introduces himself to people as already dead  and causes mild embarrassment amongst those present at social gatherings.

Lightenings viii

people can only survive for a short time in alien atmospheres …the legend of Clonmacnoise unfolds in a space between the earth-bound world of a 6th century chapel and an airy, transcendent reality above; the water-on-water staging provides a kind of ‘skylight’ through which a person may pass from one to the other … the monks can only gawp at an unbelievable event … the extraterrestrial seafarer’s brief experience of life below is an eye-opener … Orpheus-like the sailor has entered an underworld before being helped to return to the oxygen of his own world.

Lightenings ix

recalls moments when child Heaney felt basically secure now marred by sense of mortality –  ominous early boat movements prepare the ground for  two aunts and a mother taken from Heaney one by one … one day he will disappear in his turn

Lightenings x

Wordsworthian observer astride a crag top, between the solid earth below and the airy structure above … poetic desire to search out and express superlatives hidden in first order memories … what the bird’s-eye-view from the crag top counsels: go for the ‘unroofed scope’ option but do not forget the unignorable reality of annihilation  you cannot escape.

Lightenings xi

a ‘would-you-believe it’ moment…  an extraordinary ‘new lamp for old’ when a disused bowling alley is refurbished for a needy fellow artist by Barry Cooke, an artist/ colossus who, similar to Heaney  takes painterly squarings as part of his composition.

Lightenings xii

dictionary definition of ‘lightening’ as a ‘flairing of the spirit just before death … Heaney finds it difficult coming to terms with the link between imminent death with a soaring of the spirit … against the bleak landscape of Calvary the good thief suffers death-agony, as he scans ’empty space’ where heaven should be … the intolerable knowledge of the physical pain of dying with nothing assured.

Settings xiii

first decorative mounting into which priceless gemstones/rich memories survive both as invaluable personal recollections and poems of beauty … a setting of sun-drenched languor … man in his early fifties, taking a second peek – an inward-looking isolate creeping furtively back … once a visitor to this place …  but failing on that first occasion to appreciate just how extraordinary it was.

Settings xiv

the railway cutting was a melting-pot in which Heaney’s future was being formed … an innocent in data-rich surroundings … forty years on, a realization that things that were to shape his future were already in play that day … proleptic promise marked by positives but on hold.

Settings xv

an outstanding word-picture  commemorates a unique personal memory bringing him close to his father in memoriam … Patrick Heaney’s search for a home-produced pork joints preserved in salt …Heaney’s deep sense of gratitude and love … he feels  heir to a hard-earned treasure carefully and jealously guarded by his dad.

Settings xvi

rat poison, a weapon of mass rodent destruction … more interesting to the youngster for the mystical change in its colouring .

Settings xvii

Eels , not least the supposed  curative property of eelskin  bringing renewed energy to the fingers  is precisely what a poet requires to sustain output … Aristotle’s zoological theories might have proved spurious but Heaney has spotted a neat correspondence with his own world.

Settings xviii

a precocious youngster and his over-fifty-self who credits his early shrewdness … he took against the smutty routine of an individual who thought highly of himself but was reduced to the sad individual he was once the fair ended.

Settings xix

the personal diorama of memory Heaney peeks into it as if from behind glass or through a peep-hole … he sees something built and added to, building or city, designed for maximum visibility, impact … he has currently chosen some  re-ordering of his poetic universe … so the message is: when something with poetic charge hits you , your job is to work on it as a means to releasing its hidden marvels.

Settings xx

a picture post-card site in Central Moscow and knowledge of Russia’s  historical turbulence … allusion to Irish king Sweeney linked to Pasternak who faced up to the tyrant Stalin and got away with his life … footage of improvised ’dirty’ devices of World War II … metaphor, perhaps, for non-conformist Pasternak taking shelter from tyrannical threat but unflinching in his creative intentions.

Settings xxi

firing an air-rifle as a kid  has led to an agnostic re-appraisal of soul, death and eternity in the mind of a poet in his fifties … Heaney is no longer comfortable with the Catholic ‘deal’ … his shot now seen as a damaging act prompting the alternative metaphysic that was gathering strength in his mind.

Settings xxii

Heaney soul-searches on a higher abstract and metaphysical plane …  seven probing questions about the ‘spirit’ set as examination questions for WBYeats … … If Heaney doesn’t know the answers, he knows a man who might, -Yeats a kindred spirit, celebrated for his powers of intellect and poetic creation

Settings xxiii

A visit to Iceland … Heaney wallows with an emblematic Icelandic poet and mythologist, Snorri Sturluson, enjoying hydrothermal bliss at the end of his working day permitting him time and space to pursue the majestic thoughts of a man who was both poet and leading statesman.

Settings xxiv

A deserted harbour … a hymn to natural sufficiency records the ever-present potential of the senses for a fuller happiness an anthem to ‘perfected form’ … an elated consciousness … a perfect moment recorded as air and ocean play off each other in age-old interaction; whiff of annihilation ever present.

Crossings xxv

a dramatic, unexpected encounter with a fox … an  equally dramatic reason for being on the road: a wife in labour

Crossings xxvi

Catholic minority poet … the Ulster’s Troubles and the presence of British forces in the province … exasperation at the wheel of his car  … he elects to accelerate past without drawing attention to himself and write them off as souls rising from Dante’s hell confined to his rear-view mirror!

Crossings xxvii

the living father’s advice to a sister reveals his father’s dry, reticent personality, his occasional shaft of wit and his get-on-with-it attitude in summary, a man fit for the world and whatever came next. Patrick Heaney, feet-on-the-ground, professionally strong … a Hermes figure …  Heaney is on his own existential journey, his life still influenced by a shrewd Ulster cattle-wheeler-dealer no longer of this world.

Crossings xxviii

winter weather permits schoolchildren to produce something extraordinary … a strip of ice on a frozen pond …  sliding a self-repeating process of dazzling, addictive pleasure, a recognition of fear overcome, a furthering of the self .

Crossings xxix

A familiar door acts as frontier post, the crossing point between ‘within’ and ‘without’, between present and future, between ‘portent’ and ’reality’ that will open to the scraping sound of the latch . Heaney longs for his father to come through it and step back into his life for a moment

Crossings xxx

St Brigid’s Day … Heaney reviews ‘old certainties’ … the girdle, both Christian and Celtic is a crossing point adopted by superstitious folk … Heaney wonders what they get from participation … hopes renewed, new horizons, sharpened sensual perception … the girdle set alight promised the end of winter, its enriching straw  blowing free as an unhindered goIdfinch over plough land.

Crossings xxxi

increasing thrust reaches take-off speed … the poet morphs from a man behind the steering wheel into a Heaney/ Sweeney birdman figure  of Sweeney Redevivus at the point of lift-off … a Sweeney/ Heaney overflying his native Irish landscape, aerodynamic and emotionally supercharged.

Crossings xxxii

Running water and bridges in the poet’s rural Ulster landscape …  a crossing point to pastures new,  a chronicle of early rites of passage ; the sound of familiar dialect words takes him home, calms him … father’s shade and son come face to face ; a deeper correspondence –reveals the labourers themselves, long dead, poised to cross from the earthly shore towards whatever lay on the other side.

Crossings xxxiii

a moment of severance … walking away from a father’s home stripped of its personal effects… a hieroglyph of origin that keeps paternal associations alive both as a house and in a poem to the eye of a poet and son who saw through them both the house is a dead ringer for the person who built it.

Crossings xxxiv

a haunting  Californian experience … a conscript about to be pitch-forked into the hell of the Vietnam War figured as a revenant returning to the land of the living …a youngster who has experienced the full hell of it, dejected at the prospect of picking up the threads of his previous humdrum rural existence … the marks of hell he has experienced in Vietnam etched into his face.

Crossings xxxv

hormonal weekend boarders excluded from the freedoms and pleasures of the rest of the world, Imprisoned young adults with the first signs of facial hair and unhealthy proclivities plot revenge: ingenious minds use a shaving mirror to peek into the pleasure of others and get their own back.

Crossings xxxvi

Two upstanding poets, Heaney and Michael Longley (Dante and Virgil!) amongst a group of marchers who imagined they were following ‘the paths of righteousness’ but have become part a stranded group of protesters in danger; their eagerness to cross the road to safety is offset by their sense of foreboding … the shifting buoyancy of the escape car’s suspension recalls  Dante and Virgil clambering aboard Charon’s boat across the Styx.
Squarings xxxvii

Chinese poetry from the first millennium … the subtleties of the Chinese language whose intonation patterns place different meanings on the same word or, indeed, vary their meaning – in a place that bears his name, Shan discovered there is no easy way of getting to the ‘subtle principle of things’ not least the self … he has created a poetry Heaney approves of not dissimilar to Patrick Heaney’s  unfussy, believable line in house design.

Squarings xxxviii

In self-deprecating mood Heaney recounts a treasured moment spent amidst the fullness of classical Roman culture in the company of intimate friends … his rather pompous soliloquy about aesthetic form and civilisation is cut short by an impatient wife who wants a drink.

Squarings xxxix

at a site on Ulster’s north Antrim coast, iconic for its folkloric connections and extraordinary geology Heaney focuses on his wife’s reactions as she sits squashed into the ‘Wishing Chair’ … association with American First Nations culture has her drinking it all in … a vulnerable human being underneath perhaps but intellectually sharp  … alert to anything that extends her mind.

Squarings xl

an Irish dwelling first met in the 1940s , ancient as Irish time immemorial … clay floor, lack of hygiene and above all  life-foundation wedding his whole self to intrinsic Irishness … its door a crossing point to infinite scope

Squarings xli

‘The places I go back to have not failed / But will not last’ … the Moyulla once graced by its natural deposits deployed as a pictographic metaphor for things seen through fresh eyes; the subconscious whiff of annihilation confirms the need for fleeting pleasure,  teasing  contact and immersion –  the weeping willow branches complete an ‘electric’ circuit up into the ‘airy structure’ above.

Squarings xlii

events, emotions and thoughts that have graced Heaney’s existential presence ‘have not failed’: Ulster landscapes and dialect; traditional turf cutting; Ulster mind-sets … ‘but will not last’ – the appropriation of land for development confirms change; memory and poetry  provide after-life for the overworked, underfed peat-cutters … Heaney floods this former generation with light and warmth in a final image of rare beauty.

Squarings xliii

presence and disappearance revealed by a lesson in tracking hare via  prints in the snow … likening him to the hare who wanted out and covered her tracks  Heaney recalls a companion  no longer in these parts but out there somewhere, a manwho could be counted on to turn up and pay his way in the local pub.

Squarings xliv

a snippet from a Henry Vaughan poem … Heaney sets Vaughan’s promise of a radiant afterlife for departed souls against his own lapsed-Catholic view that everything that lives comes to nothing –  a  night-fishing analogy: Heaney has lost the fish and the swirling  river offers only an image of transience  that, as with life, seems to travel faster than the normal laws of nature might suggest.

Squarings xlv

a chasm separating a ‘them’ and an ‘us’… a privileged group who dwell post mortem in a land of milk and honey and the poet’s Irish ilk, returned post mortem to the arid best they knew. What Heaney perceives: the charred remnants of poverty and a dominating figure that held them back, ostensibly  holding things together and beaming but to the poet’s mind without substance.

Squarings xlvi

a lived experience: the sound of Irish fiddle music produces a very special moment –  a manifestation of God’s presence in the world and thereby a proof of His existence, if that is what people choose to believe, but for Heaney a sublime moment so leaves no room for debating the issue . The transcendental properties of the fiddle’s tune, its variations on a theme, its unstoppable forward momentum produce the thrilling outcome for both senses and mind that only a perfect moment can produce.

Squarings xlvii

the poet as an obsessive – his eagerness to pounce on something with a poetic charge generates the fear that if he blinks he might miss it … happenings of import may be lurking just beyond his mental reach … the more there is nothing there the greater the creative need to keep looking … Heaney’s  mind in constant scanning mode.

Squarings xlviii

the way his mind works strikes Heaney’s as odd  …  how the scan data entering his consciousness from afar turn to déjà-vu … the experiences he has met on the road have already produced a moment of revelation on the north Antrim coast … when revelation strikes  again and only then will he be able to say that he has delivered true credit to the wonders of life he failed to recognize first time round, ‘a glittering epiphany’

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’.