Weighing In

Something has got right up Heaney’s nose and he ends up venting his anger against the forces seeking to perpetuate disregard for his minority Catholic community.

He uses an everyday weight of defined mass to expose the political and sectarian imbalance in Northern Ireland and the need for very elusive compromise.

The sequence is to do with weights and balances, dead weights and spaces for reason to intervene; ‘weighing’ has to do with balancing forces against one another or adding force to an argument so as to tip the balance; contestants ‘weigh in’ before a contest; ‘weighing in’ suggests ‘actively taking sides’.

The unyielding, inflexible block (56 lb. weightsolid iron) is not an object that affirms much (unit of negation) … rather a metaphor for entrenched opinion and bigotry.

Its properties: weight imprinted (stamped); cast from molten metal (moulded); an inverted arch let into the top (inset); a stout (rung-thick) stubby tube (short crossbar) for lifting it (handle).

A sharp-edged (squared-off) and ostensibly innocuous object (harmless-looking) perhaps but efforts to shift it demand  more than individual human strength can achieve (socket-rippinglife-belittling force). This indestructible flight recorder (gravity’s black box) is beyond a weight lifter’s ability (immovable stamp and squat) or a mathematician’s brain to calculate its real meaning (square-root of dead weight).

Science offers a way ahead (balance it) via a countervailing force (another one) placed on a weighbridge calibrated to be accurate (well-adjusted, freshly greased). When things were in balance sensitive gauging became possible (everything trembled) and with it opportunity for negotiation (give and take).

  • lb: abbreviated Latin word ‘libra’; a pound in pre-metrical, British avoirdupois weight (56 pounds about 25 kilos);
  • stamped: Impressed with a pattern or mark;
  • rung: a horizontal support on a ladder for a person’s foot;
  • socket: an anatomical hollow into which something ball-shaped fits and in which it revolves e.g. shoulder joint; eye-socket;
  • black box: the flight recorder on an aircraft is a device that faithfully records air-flight performance, recoverable after an air accident;
  • squat: crouch or sit with bent knees; a weight-lifting exercise;
  • square-root: a number which produces a specified quantity when multiplied by itself;
  • dead weight: the weight of an inert object;

*

Christmastide only compounds the sickening gap between its spiritual messages and human behaviour (all the good tidings amount to): the quality of life for the downtrodden reduced to ‘grin and bear it’ (principle of bearing, bearing up ) with no other option (bearing out, just having to), pincered (having to abide) between two unacceptables (the intolerable in others against our own) – a minority Catholic set accustomed to second best (whatever we settled for) and conditioned to it (settled into) however much they might object (against our better judgement).

Heaney has grown tired of euphemistic cliché about turning the other cheek (passive suffering makes the world go round). The Christmas message (Peace on earth, men of good will) only holds good when both sides are ‘up for it’ (the balance holds the scales ride steady). The words sung by the heavenly host are sounding a touch fraught to Heaney just at this moment (the angels’ strain at an unearthly pitch).

  • good tidings: good news, good information; Luke2:10 contextualizes the phrase in relation to the birth of Christ; the phrase appears in the Christmas carol ‘God rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’: ‘Good tidings we bring to you and your kin’; Heaney is wondering who his ‘kin’ is!
  • bearing up: remaining cheerful in the face of adversity;
  • bearing out: having no alternative but to support or confirm something:
  • abide: accept or act in accordance with (a rule, decision, or recommendation);
  • makes the world go round: (something extremely important without which many ordinary events might not happen); 
  • Peace on earth: a second phrase appearing in Christmas carols seeking to announce the birth of Christ as a positive message to the world; Heaney finds little cheer where he is at this moment;
  • strain: pun on stress and a musical melody;
  • pitch: the highness or lowness of musical notes

*

The watchman in Mycenae Lookout suffered from another dead weight, weighed down by the ‘ox’ on his tongue that prevented him from telling his truth.

Not so Heaney! His dander is up! His Catholic training has discouraged him from saying what he feels but at this moment he is poised to turn injunction on its head. Why turn the other cheek? Why hold off casting the first stone as a matter of course?

To leave himself with no prospect of confronting his compliant upbringing (obedient one you hurt yourself into) is to let himself down ( fail the hurt, the self); not taking issue because ‘good’ Catholics do not do this kind of thing (the ingrown rule) is akin to allowing the pain of an ingrowing toenail to go unchallenged.

He recalls Jesus mocked by his executioners (Prophesy who struck thee) and questions Christ’s non hostile response (he didn’t strike back). If He was hoping to teach the soldiers a lesson in goodness it was lost on them (neither shamed nor edified). What was actually demonstrated (made manifest) was pacifism (power of power not exercised) without furtherance (hope inferred) and with it the fate of the disregarded Catholic minority (powerless) in perpetuity (forever).

His dander well and truly up Heaney urges his fellow minority to direct action: ‘without taking His name in vain (still, for Jesus’ sake), prove me wrong (do me a favour) – even if it is the first and last time you dare (just this oncepoint your finger at those who get in the way (prophesy), make a stink (give scandal), be critical (cast the stone)’.

  • refuse the other cheek: reversal of the biblical exhortation in Matthew 5:39: But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,turn to them the other cheek … i.e. respond to the aggressor without violence;
  • cast the stone: A woman, caught in the act of adultery and sentenced to be stoned to death, was brought before Jesus Christ by the scribes and Pharisees ; they were seeking to test his knowledge of the Law of God; ‘So when they continued asking (Jesus )he lifted himself up, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her (John 8:7);
  • Prophesy who struck thee: Luke 22:64: he soldiers holding Jesus in custody prior to his crucifixion mocked Him and struck Him; though blindfolded they expected the Son of God to ‘see’ what was happening;
  • manifest: obvious to the eye or the mind
 

*

Heaney comes back to a recent exchange (he does not tell us with whom) in which he rejected the placatory retort he was in no mood for (two sides to every question, yes, yes, yes) stressing the moments (every now and then) when one is justly driven to get forceful (weighing in Is what it must come down to) without feeling guilt (self-exculpation) or shame (self-pity).

He is cross with himself (alas) for having relaxed his grip (when follow-through was called for) and failed to land the killer blow (quick hit would have fairly rankled) in the wrestling ring of debate.

Initial failure (first submission) to deal with the charge that his forthright views were parochial (my narrowness kept me keen) cost him the contest (I held back when I should have drawn blood). The blame he attaches to losing the upper hand (mea culpa  lost an edge) is down, he claims, to his sense of fair-play (deep mistaken chivalry) nor can we know the tone attached to his fellow debater (old friend).

The lesson he has learnt? In current Northern Irish society (at this stage) playing dirty is the only way to get your own back (only foul play cleans the slate).

  • self-exculpation, root from Latin ‘culpa’ meaning ‘blame’: exonerating oneself, declaring oneself innocent;
  • follow-through: the continuing of an action or task to its conclusion; he ‘quit’ on it;
  • rankled: caused annoyance been painful;
  • countered: hit back, responded with a counter view;
  • first submission: (in wrestling) surrendering to a hold by one’s opponent (but not yet losing the whole contest)
  • lost an edge: an advantage that offered superiority over a rival;
  • cleans the slate: writes offall past problems or mistakes in order to make a clean start;

 

  • During the twenty five years preceding the Good Friday Agreement (still no more than a glimmer of hope in 1996) Heaney was constantly taxed by the hugely complex vortex of political and sectarian turmoil, the eternal cycle of murder and revenge, the fate of the minority Catholic population, pessimism about settlement and so on. It was ever on his mind wherever in the world he was and the pleasure of returning home to Ulster was often marred by events. He was the poet caught in-between: between the nationalists’ wish for him to enter the propaganda war and his own unwillingness to paint himself into a corner; between the Bible’s injunctions to ‘turn the other cheek’ and his own instincts.
  • Quoting W.B. Yeats’s hope for the lyric ‘To hold in a single thought reality and justice’ HV sets out the gap between them (p10), defining reality as ‘how things are’ and justice as ‘how things should be’. As she rightly implies Heaney’s integrity constantly pitches him into a whirlpool of emotions, ethics and personal nature from which he emerges with honour and integrity intact.
  • In many poems over the years, Heaney has subjected his actions and motives to severe self-questioning. A decade ago in “The Haw Lantern,” his imagination saw in the homely haw berry “the roaming shape of Diogenes with his lantern, seeking one just man.” In this new book, surprisingly, while claiming for the refusal by Jesus to strike back at those who mocked Him “the power of power not exercised,” he comes out in favour not of turning the other cheek but of “every now and then, just weighing in.” The idea of the impulsive, even violent action seems to contradict the sense of judicious balance he praises earlier in the poem. This is a less tolerant, more aggressive Seamus Heaney, capable of claiming, in relation to some undefined personal feud, “At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.” Poems Into Ploughshares, Richard Tillinghast

 

  • (1) four triplets; a 4 sentence construct; line length between 4 and 11 syllables; 2 incidental rhymes but no scheme; judicious balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
  • need to use the word ‘pound’ rather than the Latin abbreviation;
  • concrete vocabulary in the description of the weight (difficult for Heaney to find alternative names for the object when he also wishes to play on the word ‘weight’);
  • several example of compounds used adjectively; the final ‘well-adjusted’ is effectively a pun: if a ‘well-adjusted’ is required then the people weighbridge to people involved are not judged to be mentally and emotionally stable;
  • vocabulary of wrestling ‘squat’; aviation: black box;
  • unusual use of adverb/tome phrase introduced by ‘until’;
  • (2) four triplets; a three sentence construct; irregular line length;
  • use of prepositions (small words useful for varying meaning especially when juxtaposed with the same verb): ‘for’ ‘into’ ‘against’
  • Christmas messages with deliberate puns added: ‘strain’, ‘pitch‘;
  • (3) four triplets; a 7 sentence construct; this structures accompanies number of short sharp references and a quotation; faced with potential staccato Heaney uses enjambed lines to smooth the flow;
  • Irregular line length; unrhymed;
  • direct question addressed to the reader;
  • use of verbs in the infinitive form in positive and negative pairings
  • In a sentence focusing on ‘hurt’, Heaney selects ‘ingrown’ that might remind of a painful toe;
  • unusual: conjunction clause: ‘although’; use of adverb ‘still’;
  • colloquial idiom expressing disbelief: ‘do me a favour!’;
  • (4) four triplets in 6 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed
  • vocabulary of competition: wrestling, boxing, fencing;
  • repetition in response to a tired cliché: ‘ yes, yes, yes’
  • Latin mea culpa helps Heaney in need of 4 syllables;

 

  • 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 or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first lines of ‘Two Lorries’ for example, bring together alveolar plosives [k] and [g]alongside bilabial continuant [w] and sibilants [s] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • 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

 

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment