The Pitchfork

Heaney revealed to DOD (336): I loved handling the fork and the rake, their light­ness and rightness in the hand, their perfect suitedness to the jobs they had to do. It meant that the work of turning a swathe, for example, was its own reward; angling the shaft and the tines so that the hay turned over like a woven fabric – that was an intrinsi­cally artistic challenge. Tasty work, as they say. Using the pitchfork was like playing an instrument. So much so that when you clipped and trimmed the head of a ruck, the strike of the fork on the hay made it a kind of tuning fork.

The poem is a tribute both to the king of farming implements and the father figure who taught Heaney how to use it.

Heaney places the pitchfork at the top of the league (near to an imagined perfection. He observed the proper technique: grip (he tightened his raised hand) and targeted launch (aimed with it). It resembles a weapon of classical design (javelin, accurate and light). Its exponent is at once superman  warrior … athlete and humble farmer dedicated (earnest) to the winnowing task in hand (chaff and sweat).

Heaney’s fondness for the tool derives from its visual make-up: its wood grain; its tapering shaft; its coloration (dark-flecked ash); its half-shine developed over time  (grown satiny from its own natural polish); the meeting point of natural wood and man-fashioned metal (riveted steel).

Further properties of perfection: the shaft’s formation on a lathe (turned timber); its natural patina (burnish … sheen); its healthy grain and finish (smoothness); its perfect line (straightness), aerodynamic roundness and proportionate length.

He knows about pre-production – the maturing process of  sweat-cured wood and the finishing (sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted). Optimum performance: the springiness, the clip and dart of it.

To the poetic mind the pitchfork/ javelin has infinite potential, travelling ‘ beyond …higher and higher’ like the football of Three Drawings ; he can see it it overtaking the space probes that reached the farthest …the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past, propelled effortlessly  beyond this world evenly, imperturbably … absolutely soundless, space- light glinting from its tines (prongs starlit).

Heaney’s pitchfork is a ‘tuning-fork’ for the self: from humble beginnings (simple lead) he too has surpassed his own aim, crossed a barrier to an other side. Along the way: perfection – or nearness to it – is imagined coming not from an anonymous he that gripped and thrust a pitchfork but thanks to the generous love of the father who wielded it – the opening hand.

  • Poet to Blacksmith from District and Circle of 2006 draws attention to Seamus Heaney’s concept of the perfect farmyard tool (spade); The Shiver from the same collection highlights his interest in the dynamics and physicality involved in its use (sledgehammer).
  • pitchfork: hay-lifting farm tool with long handle and two metal prongs;
  • implement: tool;
  • javelin: light spear
  • in earnest: with commitment, determination;
  • chaff: chopped hay and straw
  • grain: visible pattern, texture of the wood;
  • tapering: becoming thinner towards one end;
  • dark-flecked: with dark streaks, patches;
  • satin: smooth, silky fabric;
  • riveted: pinned together;
  • turned: shaped with a lathe;
  • burnish: highly polished surface shine;
  • sheen: soft shine, lustre;
  • sweat-cured: air-drying lumber typically takes one year per inch ofwood  The first step in curing green lumber in an appropriate location for the process; lumber is kept dry, otherwise it may reabsorb the moisture it is trying to release;
  • springy: whippy, tensile; returning to its original form;
  • clip: its tempo of short, rapid movements
  • dart: sudden stabbing movement (the fork’s prongs make it a stabbing missile)
  • probe: unmanned spacecraft;
  • imperturbable: calm, self-controlled, serene;
  • prong: pointed tip, tine;
  • lead: behave as programmed;
  • five quartets in an 8-sentence structure Including colons;
  • multiple commas (one 3 line enumeration); final 5 lines enjambed; lines mainly in excess of ten syllables; unrhymed; might conjure up the effort of consecutive strikes and accompanying perspiration;
  • contrast between earth-bound visual description and space-flight in v. 4;
  • revelatory process resolves in v..5;
  • concrete abstract split;
  • 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:

  • 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;
  • for example, the first lines interweave labio-dental fricatives [f][v] and interlabial [w] with alveolar plosive [t] and sibilant variants [s] [z] [vision];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;