Making Strange

A further symptom of the poet in transition: when the New world meets the Old things collide. When professional development brings change the voice of poetry must move on.

The speaker is at the interface of old and new as if separating irreconcilables: I stood between them.

The living symbol of Heaney’s new world possesses a sophisticated travelled intelligence, combining tawny leather-accessorised prosperity and self-assured containment. He is articulate and precise: his speech like the twang of a bowstring.

The emblem of the old Irish world is not ‘the’ other, but another, one of many, perhaps, self-neglecting and a touch backward: unshorn and bewildered. This one stands in rubber boots that sag with age: the tubs of his wellingtons. The man is friendly but tongue-tied: smiling at me for help/ faced with this stranger I’d brought him.

How then should Heaney reconcile these opposites? The poet counsels himself, inventing a cunning middle voice/ … out of the field across the road.

Far from encouraging him to choose, it recommend convergence of new experiences and the rich inheritance of the old:‘Be adept and be dialect’.

It urges him to continue expressing the lyrical beauty of things worth singing about in his delightful Irish vernacular, but equally to accept new styles: love the cut of this travelled one and accept the rich dividends that will accrue from unfamiliar, foreign fields: call me also the cornfield of Boaz.

The voice encourages transition, a move beyond what’s reliable whether it be the silent gaze of an unshorn man that keeps pleading and pleading or a landscape of eyes and puddles and stones.

The poet has not shirked bold decisions in the past (resigning his teaching post, becoming a full-time poet, moving his family to the Irish Republic, working in American universities); these are now set in stone: departures you cannot go back on.

Nature proves decisive: A chaffinch flicked from an ash. From that moment there is no contradiction in driving the visitor round my own country, adept/ at dialect, reciting my pride/ in all that I knew yet conceding that his situation is no longer quite the same, that it began to make strange (even as he spoke) at that same recitation.

  • tawny: tan-coloured, as of leather;
  • the cornfield of Boaz: where Ruth gleaned ears of corn (Ruth 2-4); she is the model of loyalty and devotion remaining with her mother-in-law amidst a foreign race after the death of her husband; Boaz was a powerful man of wealth who ultimately married Ruth;
  • adept: skilled especially in the secrets of things;
  • dialect: regional speech, here Ulster dialect words amidst more standard English;
  • The poem “Making Strange” describes an incident in which Heaney picked up the Jamaican-born ‘American’ poet Louis Simpson from the airport. “And we stopped at a public house about 150 yards from where I grew up. We were standing on the street at the pub and my father came up – ‘unshorn and bewildered / in the tubs of his wellingtons’ – and in a sense I was almost introducing him as subject matter.” The memory provokes the amused self-awareness that underlies many of his jokes and asides. “Or I could see that Simpson would see him as that.”James Campbell writing in the Guardian newspaper in May 2006;
  • Michael Parker’s take: Heaney ran into ‘someone from childhood’ and was suddenly placed in the rôle of mediator between the two men; one ‘smart and self-assured, the other a shy countryman(p189);
  • the title itself alludes to the different languages and worlds in which he and they have their being. In (Heaney’s) first dialect, Hiberno-English ‘to make strange’ means ‘to be unfriendly’, ‘to draw back in fear’, ‘to react defensively” (ibid.);
  • Heaney sets out the different languages and worlds in which he and they have their being ( ) the task of modulating between two tongues reminds Heaney as to where his poetic roots and future lie, in preserving native speech, private and parochial experience yet in being prepared to extend his range and pitch … able to recover his country, rediscover its familiar features and figures (MP p189);
  • the sudden flick of the chaffinch acts like the flick of a switch;
  • seven quatrains composed as five sentences; variable line length from 5 to 10 syllables;
  • a balance of enjambed and punctuated lines; no rhyme scheme;
  • direct speech attributed to an imagined voice;
  • the title makes use of the Ulster dialect as one half of the educated Ulster poet’s approach to a cultural collision; it encourages him to pursue his new lifestyle without compromising the past;
  • the contrast between sleek American academic and rural countryman is reflected in the choice of adjectives that introduce both colour and sound; the two characters are effectively symbols of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’;
  • the third counselling voice uses lyrical language; a biblical reference;
  • the counsel that encourages the poet to pursue his new direction without compromising the past is expressed by a series of positive imperatives;
  • the music of the poem: thirteen 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 or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:V1 uses bi-labial nasal [m] and alveolar nasal [n] with voiceless alveolar plosive [t] and voiced velar plosive [g]; V2 persists with nasal sounds adding [s] [ʃ] variants; V3 combines voiceless velar plosive [k] and alveolar plosives [t] [d]; V4 persists with [t] [k] adding alveolar trill [r]; V5 reverts to plosive sounds especially voiced alveolar plosive [d]; V6 voiced and voiceless labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] with fricative variants [s] [ʃ]; V7 is a mixture dominated by voiceless alveolar fricative [s];

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