Finding the blend
The most successful poets share much in common with the best chefs; the latters’ knowledge of the finest products supplemented by a talent that adds the individual flavours of spices, herbs and sundry ingredients in just the right amounts at just the right moment produces the unique, mouth-watering experiences capable of delighting and inspiring those who savour the result. The ‘knowledge’ is gleaned from experience and requires hard work; the ‘talent’ is a gift granted only to very few.
In these respects Heaney is a craftsman pursuing a similar goal. In Wintering Out he is the ‘master-chef’.
Whatever the initial stages in the process, the moment a poem ‘comes on’ or ideas with a poetic charge emerge, the stages by which these are translated into poetic form involve a deliberate and sometimes lengthy process of composition and revision, selection and rejection that determines the ultimate structure, vocabulary, verse-form, imagery and potential for success of each poem.
At one stage or another the poet will settle on: the length of the poem and its internal structure; the nature of the verse (free or rhymed); the choice of individual words or phrases most fitting to carry ideas through, thanks to their meaning, implication or sound, and so on. Whilst this is a far from exhaustive list of considerations it does indicate that inspiration is not automatic and that spontaneity can only gain from being worked upon.
In addition to the depth and richness of his personal ‘word hoard’, his personal store of material, gleaned from scholarship and interest, plus a sensitivity and a discrimination born of wide reading of literature, Heaney has access to a rich vein of poetic devices accessible to and used by all poets; he will select from the list deliberately, adapting them to his own intentions, perhaps because he wants them to add something, or ring a change, or carry an image through, or provide an echo; his aim in brief: to turn ordinary language into something special, a recipe of ingredients into a culinary feast for the senses. There is an alphabetical list of such stylistic devices at the end of this volume; knowing them by name is useful but ‘spotting’ one is less valuable, perhaps, than appreciating what it brings to the poem.
The blending of these ingredients can be roughly translated as ‘style’, that is, the ‘mix’ favoured by Heaney in each poem to carry his message forward (v. footnotes that comment on this aspect).
Not least in these considerations is the question of resonance; the richness and variation of consonant and vowel sounds provide the poet with a musicality over and above the bare narrative. Heaney knows this and rings the changes within his poems. Broadly (though not uniquely) the two aspects that best resonate are assonance and alliteration. For questions of oral delivery, intonation and cadence see the relevant section below.
Composing a music pleasing to the ear
Singing scored music brings an awareness of a code of letters, abbreviations and signs that can be placed above or below the notes to indicate or modify the ways in which a piece is performed. When the human voice becomes an instrument, then in terms of volume: f tells us to sing the next phrase loudly; ff to sing it very loudly; p softly; mp a little less softly; cresc (crescendo) tells us to sing the phrase increasingly loudly, and so on. Other words interpret the tempo: rallentando says ‘gradually slow down the phrase’. Other signs tell us to emphasise a word or to pause for an instant. Others advise on the sound: sad or harsh, light or sweet or slowly dying away. Without expression marks the piece would be monotonous and boring.
The same code should be applied to a poem by its reader. After all, poems are songs that, when read aloud, cry out for individual dynamics. Heaney actually uses specific musical terms in The Rain Stick published in The Spirit Level collection of 1996 (diminuendo, scales [un]diminished) but, of course, he does not provide coded recommendations alongside the text. Musicians do this but, apart from ictus accents and some aspects of sprung-verse, poets do not.
It is the words and phrases themselves and the way they are punctuated that invite variations of timbre, modulation and cadence and by reciting them with dynamics in mind, the reader can turn each poem into a linguistic ‘event’! Heaney is a composer who uses words instead of notes.
Summary of settings, themes, pathways and moods
Dedicatory poem: autobiography; contemporary events; sectarian /political divisions; home ground; disorientation; resistance;
Fodder: autobiography; home ground; ‘languagey’ poem; ‘inward, broody’ mode;
pathway present > past; resignation; wistful memory;
Bog Oak: Old Ireland; home ground; Irish memory bank; ‘inward, broody’ mode; literary reference; pathway present > past; ‘languagey’ poem; pathway present > past;
Anahorish: autobiography; Irish memory bank; home ground/ place; Old Ireland; persistence; wistful memory;
Servant Boy: Irish memory bank ; history/ post-colonial; Irish characters; pathway past>present; resignation/ passivity; ‘inward, broody’ mode;
The Last Mummer: Irish memory bank; home ground; recent history; Irish underlay/ Irish characters; sectarian /political divisions; pathway past>present; kicking back;
Land: autobiography; Irish memory bank; home ground; ‘inward, broody’ mode; resignation/ passivity; pathway past>present; separation/ distance;
Gifts of Rain: Old Ireland; Irish memory bank; home ground; place; ‘inward, broody’ mode; Irish characters; disorientation; pathway present > past; resolution/persistence;
Toome : autobiography; Irish memory bank; home ground/ place; ‘languagey’ poem; pathway present > past; history back to Celtic era; mood of separation; wistful memory;
Broagh: Old Ireland; Irish memory bank; ‘inward, broody’ mode; ‘languagey’ poem; resistance mood; wistful memory;
Oracle: autobiography; pathway present > past; childhood; home ground; ‘languagey’ poem; identity; distance; wistful memory;
The Back ward Look: Old Ireland; home ground; history-colonial/ post-colonial; ‘inward, broody’ mode; ‘languagey’ poem; disorientation; pathway present > past; resignation/ passivity;
Traditions: Irish memory bank; history-colonial/ post-colonial; home ground; ‘languagey’ poem; disorientation; pathway future>past; resignation/ passivity;
A New Song: Irish memory bank; home ground; place; history-colonial/ post-colonial; Irish characters; ‘languagey’ poem; pathway present > past; resistance/ proactive mood; separation/ isolation;
The Other Side: autobiography; home ground; place; Irish characters; sectarian /political divisions; search for common ground; semi-resistance mood; wistful memory;
The Wool Trade: place; history-colonial/ post-colonial; ‘inward, broody’ mode; ‘languagey’ poem; disorientation; pathway past>present; resignation/ passivity;
Linen Town: place specific; history-colonial/ post-colonial; slightly disconsolate mood; hardening of initial resignation/ passivity;
A Northern Hoard
1. Roots: ‘inward, broody’ mode; sectarian /political divisions; wartime/ wasteland; disorientation; resistance mood; resolution/persistence;
2. No Man’s Land: critical self-assessment; ‘inward, broody’ mode; wartime/ wasteland; resignation/ passivity; separation/ isolation;
3. Stump: ‘inward, broody’ mode; wartime/ wasteland; disorientation; resignation/ passivity; desolation;
4. No Sanctuary: : ‘inward, broody’ mode; wasteland; sectarian /political divisions; search for common ground; disorientation; isolation; superstition;
5 Tinder: autobiography; Old Ireland; Irish memory bank; Irish underlay; pathway past>present; fear of wartime/ wasteland; isolation;
Midnight: Old Ireland; home ground; history-colonial/ post-colonial; ‘inward, broody’ mode; self-critical; anger/ resistance mood; pathway past>present; distance/ isolation;;
The Tollund Man: autobiography; PVGlob effect; Danish resemblances to Ireland: Stone Age era; place; chilling disconsolate mood; human sacrifice; language disconnect; disorientation; separation/ isolation;
Nerthus : pagan times and practices; superstition; place; chilling mood; pathway past>present; resolution/persistence;
Cairn-maker : autobiography; Irish memory bank; contemporary era; home ground; Irish character; place; pathway past>present;
Navvy: Irish memory bank; home ground; place; Irish underlay; Irish characters; won’t-be-pushed mode; resolution/ persistence;
Veteran’s Dream: autobiography; Irish memory bank; contemporary era; wartime/ wasteland; post-traumatic stress; pathway past>present; resolution/ persistence;
Augury: autobiography; Irish memory bank; contemporary era; home ground; disconsolate mood; environment; route past>present;
Wedding Day: women’s experience; autobiography; Irish memory bank; Irish underlay; Irish characters; home ground; ‘inward, broody’ mode; resistance mood; disorientation; pathway past>present; wistful memory;
Mother of the Groom: women’s experience; autobiography; Irish memory bank; Irish underlay; Irish characters; home ground; resignation/ passivity; separation; pathway past>present; wistful memory;
Summer Home: women’s experience; autobiography; self-assessment; Irish memory bank; Irish underlay; Irish characters; place; ‘inward, broody’ mode; regret, guilt, emptiness; disorientation;
Serenades: autobiography; Irish memory bank; home ground; place; harmony; wistful memory;
Somnambulist: autobiographical element; self-assessment; women’s experience; literary angle; pathway past>present; disorientation; isolation; disconsolate mood
A Winter’s Tale: autobiography; home ground; place; Irish underlay; Irish characters; disorientation; resignation/ passivity; isolation; chilling disconsolate mood;
Shore Woman: Irish memory bank; Irish characters; Irish underlay; women’s experience; chilling disconsolate mood; resignation/ passivity;
Maighdean Mara: Irish memory bank; Irish characters; Irish underlay; women’s experience; chilling disconsolate mood; resignation/ passivity; disorientation; isolation;
Limbo: Irish memory bank; Irish characters; Irish underlay; women’s experience; chilling disconsolate mood; disorientation; isolation; Christ ref;
Bye-Child: Irish memory bank; Irish characters; Irish underlay; women’s experience; chilling disconsolate mood; survival/ persistence; lunar allusions; isolation;
Good-night: autobiography; home ground; place; resolution/persistence; Irish underlay; woman’s nature; wistful memory;
First Calf: autobiography; Irish memory bank; home ground; place; Irish underlay; pathway past>present; distance; wistful memory;
May: autobiography; Irish memory bank; home ground; place; Irish underlay; pathway past>present>future; distance; environmental element; ‘inward, broody’ mode; wistful memory;
Fireside: autobiography; Irish memory bank; home ground; place; wistful memory;
Dawn: autobiography; memory bank; ‘inward, broody’ mode; isolation; resolution/persistence;
Travel: autobiography; memory bank; wistful memory;
Westering: autobiography; Irish memory bank; ‘inward, broody’ mode; disorientation; isolation; pathway present > past>present; religious ref; Christ figure;
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’.
David Fawbert, March 2016.