Sunday, December 5, 2010

Critically assess the distinguishing features of Heaney’s poetic craft.

Seamus Heaney, as a poet, commands a range of techniques in his writing. He is a very versatile writer, working in diverse mediums ranging from poetry, prose and even translations.

Language and Diction
Heaney’s emotions and feelings express themselves vividly through his choice of language and vocabulary. In his early work, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, the easy manner in which he uses farming lexicon displays the ease with which he associates himself with the rural community. He describes farming techniques, and draws on words like “headrig”, showing off his knowledge and heritage proudly.
His ability to create sounds with words is truly remarkable. In phrases like “big dark blobs burned”, you can almost hear each berry falling into the container. In Churning Day, the reader can undertake almost first-hand the churning experience—”the past and slap of small spades on wet lumps”—recreating through the use of ingenious phrases the smells and sounds of farm life.

Poet as Observer
Heaney puts himself in the position of observer in many of his poems, recording without emotions events in his or others’ lives. In Mid-Term Break he takes this almost to the extreme, where he clinically describes the funereal atmosphere at his home, on the death of his four-year old brother. The only emotion he admits to is embarrassment, as relations offer their condolences. In Follower too, a poem about the relationship between father and son, he coldly gives an account of his father’s ebbing strength: The formal verse patterns and measured line lengths echo this stance. The closest the poet comes to joining the activities in his poems is merely to carry out some mundane household chore or reluctantly shake hands with visitors at his brother’s funeral.
Emotion in His Poems
For a poet, Heaney can be labelled as fairly unemotional. At least in the conventional sense. None of his poems can be said to be outright renditions of emotion, but even topics that normally warrant a measure of feeling, such as the poem written about his wedding day, of the same name, is surprisingly lacking. Instead he writes of fear, and other negative feelings—”I am afraid”.
However, to say that his poems are entirely devoid of emotion would be incorrect. In Punishment he sympathises with the plight of the drowned girl, “I almost love you”; whilst in Casualty he mourns the death of his friend, needlessly killed in a curfew by the IRA. “How culpable was he?”, asks the poet, unable to reconcile himself with the unnecessary deaths in the region. In The Haw Lantern, a series of poems dedicated to his late mother, he writes with considerable emotion of a void in his life, a “nilness”, which he finds himself unable to fill.
Attention to Detail
Part of the reason why Heaney’s poetry touches a chord with so many people is his close attention to detail. In his descriptive poems, or those describing a particular event, he paints a convincing portrait, depicting in minute detail the daily lives and surroundings of his subjects.

Like a photographer he zooms in on his subject, capturing the myriad details of their work and surroundings. In A Constable Calls, he describes in detail the policeman’s bicycle, his cap, even the sweat stain on his forehead; whilst in The Ulster Twilight he similarly examines every facet of the man’s workshop. In this manner, the reader feels as if he is watching a visual, rather than reading a poem, and the impact of his work is therefore that much stronger.
Q. 5.    “The rural landscape of Heaney’s childhood forms the background to many of his poems and is frequently the central subject of the best”. Discuss.
Seamus Heaney was brought up on a farm in his childhood home in County Derry. His first volume of poems, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ appearing in 1966, dealt primarily with scenes and events from his childhood and his experiences of growing up. Since most of his experiences of childhood were on a farm, it is natural that the rural landscape plays a prominent role in much of his poetry.
Rural Images of his Past
Poems like Digging and Follower draw from the rural images of his past; his farm life providing the perfect setting for his introspection and self-examination. In Digging, Heaney justifies his choice of career, describing and assuring the reader, and himself, that there was a reason he chose the pen as opposed to the spade as his preferred tool. In explaining himself, he explains the farming tradition he grew up in, the dedication and hard work of his father, the expertise of his grandfather. The background provides a powerful context to the poem and contrasts the image of Heaney at the window writing, whilst his father worked below in the garden. He explains why it was a difficult decision to make, given the dedication of the family to farming:
By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.
In Follower, Heaney reminisces about his childhood, where he followed his father about the farm, watching him as he expertly did his work. The poem isn’t actually a description of farm life; rather it defines Heaney’s relationship with his father and sheds light on parent-child relations in general. Despite this, Heaney conjures up a realistic and vivid image of the rural scene he describes to his readers, enabling the reader to transport back to that time:
Between the shafts and the furrow
The horses strained at his clicking tongue...
The sod rolled over without breaking...
At a Potato Digging
The poem At a Potato Digging brings out a different side of rural life. Aside from the beauty and simplicity of it, it also has a dark side. When crops fail, it can spell instant death for the residents of the village community and much of farm life revolves around the weather and the seasons.
This poem is one of his better ones, poignantly and starkly demonstrating the plight of the Irish people in the 1840s, who were mostly poor potato farmers. Using the backdrop of the Irish famine, Heaney demonstrates the day-to-day struggles of the farming community, who live in constant fear of shortage of food. Vivid images and dramatic word-pictures bring the scene to life for the reader, making this one of Heaney’s most enduring poems.
Later Poems
In several other early and later poems Heaney makes references to people and situations from farm life. In Mossbawn Heaney describes a warm and loving woman, a central village figure, whilst in The Wife’s Tale he depicts a simple farmer’s wife. Churning Day describes graphically the act of making butter and other products in the family dairy, and “the house would stink long after churning day”.
In this way Heaney sets his rural upbringing as a backdrop in much of his work, using various aspects to illustrate and put together a detailed picture of his life. He also often makes use of metaphors and images of farm life to describe certain emotions, feelings and reasoning.

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