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Seamus Heaney Essay

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You have been asked to read a collection of Seamus Heaney’s poems to a 5th year class. Select 4 poems you would read and explain why.

Seamus Heaney is widely recognised as one of the major poets of the twentieth century. Heaney’s Poems are based on real life experiences, which can be related to in only so many ways, because of the differences in the likes of lifestyle and culture. Heaney’s poetry appeals to students as much of it deals with issues of childhood in a manner that is mature and accessible. The poems I have chosen to read to a fifth year class are ‘The Forge’, ‘The Underground’, “Mossbawn: Sunlight” and ‘A Call’. The three themes that seem to be recurring throughout Heaney’s work are, Love, Time and Isolation and I feel these are the very themes associated with the modern world of students and they would be appropriate to read to a fifth year group.

The first poem I would read is one from Seamus Heaney’s second collection titled “The Forge”. This poem was published in 1969 and was the first of many poems written by Heaney; Therefore I feel it is appropriate to read this one to the class first. “The Forge” would allow the class to stick to a literal interpretation about a blacksmith whose job is disappearing as the world changes around him, while also allowing the students to grasp the deeper images with another path into the poem. This poem is in the form of a sonnet with a clear division into an octave and a sestet. The sonnet’s opening line is the five-foot, iambic pentameter and eight of the words in this line are monosyllabic which gives the line the quality of statement. “All I know is a door into the dark”. This line would invite the class into the poem, even though they will go there hesitantly because nobody knows what the darkness holds. I would imagine it will remain a mystery to many of the students. Heaney begins the second line of this poem with “Outside” and the third line with “inside”. I would stress the contrast here even though it is clearly established. When describing the “old” axles and the iron hoops “rusting” outside the forge I would keep the tone in my voice quite low as many things outside the forge are falling apart. As I read line three I would put power and strength in my voice as there is great energy and action associated with the inside of the forge, The anvil is being “hammered” and the sound heard is a ringing “short-pitched” one. The mystery of this sonnet is continued in line 4 with “the unpredictable fantail of sparks.” This is a very relatable line for the students and it gives them a sense of the irregular sparks in the forge. I would concentrate on the nuances of the word “unpredictable” in this line. Line 5 is an image of sound and sight, “Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water”. I would read “hiss” quite abruptly as it is quite a short-lived sound. I could evoke “toughens” by clinching my fists to strengthen the power of the word as it conjures up strong solid metal contrasting with the airy, light sparks of the forge. The final two lines of this poem when the blacksmith “Grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick

To beat real iron out, to work the bellows”,
Are noticeable for their strong sounds: grunts, goes, small, flick, beat, work. Therefore I would put emphasis on the verbs when reading the end of this poem as they give the line strength and power. I would stress that there is defiance and fighting spirit in his dismissive grunt and this leaves the class with a final image of the blacksmith at the height of his powers, strong, determined, and hard at work.

I would chose to read Heaney’s poem “The Underground” next as the place in which it is set is somewhere we can all relate to, a typical urban landscape. This poem is about Heaney and his wife, who are late for a concert on their honeymoon and they are rushing down a tunnel, the underground. The moment is brought alive with the opening words “there we were”, I would read these words quite slowly as when the poem progresses everything becomes frantic. It would be interesting to hear what comes to mind to the 5th years when I mention “The Underground” to them as the interpretations of this poem are multi-layered. We live in a world that moves very quickly and where nothing is permanent and in this poem I would put emphasis on how quickly their relationship changes when it goes from “we” in the opening line-showing they are together to “you” and “me” in line three, showing how fast Heaney’s wife is growing away from him. I would also stress that in the final two stanzas it is “I” that occurs three times, I would make sure the listeners are aware that the “I” is “all attention”-an “I” that is nervous and expectant. I should speak in an exciting tone with energy in my voice at the beginning of this poem as the movement in stanzas one and two is full of frantic, frenetic. For stanza three, I would change my tone to one of darkness as the panic is gone and Heaney is “mooning around”, in no hurry to go home. When reading this poem, I would put emphasis on the present participles throughout. These intensify the poem and they give the experience more immediacy. I would stress the dynamic verbs, “running”, “speeding” and “gaining” when reading the first stanza. The tense from the second to third stanza changes to the present, “…and now I come…”.At this part of the poem, it is slowly becoming evident that Heaney is reminiscing and that remembering these experiences are painful to him so I would read the line quite slowly with some emotion. The describing words used in stanza four add to the depressed mood of the poem; like “draughty” and “wet track” along with “Bared” and “Tensed”. I would bring the listeners attention to the 3 mythological references in this poem as they may not realise how important they are. In line four, the story of Pan and Syrinx is one of lust and passion. In stanza three the tale of Hansel and Gretel is a cautionary one and returning home was not really an option for Heaney and his wife. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is another cautionary tale. By looking back at his wife, Orpheus lost her forever. Will Heaney be “Damned” if he looks back? These mythological references should be stressed as they occur three times throughout this poem.

This is a very atmospheric and sensuous poem; it may come as a surprise to the class as I would imagine not many people could imagine a honeymoon like this in the Underground today. This poem may leave the listeners wondering on how Heaney’s marriage continued and it may provoque them to do some research into Heaney.

The third poem I have chosen to read is “Mossbawn:Sunlight”, A poem Heaney dedicated to his aunt, whom has also been described as his second mother. Mossbawn is a place where Heaney enjoyed an idyllic childhood and it is a place full of warmth, kindness and love. Sunlight is a modernist poem that presents an image of a woman in a bakery, illustrating a pitiful working condition that is familiar to us. The poem is notoriously silent about what Heaney wants to say. But as listeners, the class can infer deeper meanings themselves form the situation and images that occur throughout the poem. The poem is deceptively simple in its language and is very easy to refer to for the listeners. The poem opens with the line “There was a sunlit absence”, I would leave a pause after reading this as the first line introduces the motif and emotions of what follows and this needs to be registered with. I would bring the listeners attention to “the helmeted pump in the yard” in the second line of this poem as the pump is a very definite and important presence in Mossbawn. It is a source of purity and goodness but it is the source of water and thereby the source of life.

The class may begin to question would Mossbawn survive without the pump and their different opinions could be interesting. I would read this poem quite slowly as the pump heating its iron and the water warming in the bucket, are slow, silent, natural processes. I would put emphasis on the word “So” in line 10 as it introduces Heaney’s aunt, Mary and it defines the moment. At the beginning of line 17, “Now” brings the poem from past to present, I would stress “Now” as Heaney goes on to repeat “Now” at line 19, giving the moment immediacy. For a moment, Mary stood as if motionless, then the verb-tense changes from past recollection to an animated present: what were “still-life” compositions, first a sizzling farmyard, then Aunt Mary, posed and side-lit by the window as in a Vermeer Canvas, are suddenly injected with life. I would bring in the Vermeer Image with me when reading this poem as the power of the visual here is an example of something crafted in understatement. The colour evoked in this image is a beautiful buttery yellow, a homely, warm, domestic colour.

The whole world of the poem is now brought closer and warmer: “Now she dusts the board with a goose’s wing, now sits, broad-lapped, with whitened nails”, I would put emphasis on Heaney’s Aunts whitened nails as that is a real homely image and her “measling shins” as these are the only words Heaney uses to help us get a picture of his aunts description. This should get the listeners thinking about the old traditional way of baking as we are in the heart of a kitchen at this stage in the poem. I would read line 25 “And here is love” in a soft tone as like the sunlight, love is everywhere in this poem but does not happen to be physically mentioned until the last stanza. It is Heaney’s love of place, his love for his aunt, the love she radiates in her everyday life that evokes love so much in this poem. Love is precious, hidden, found in the most ordinary of places, a farmyard, a kitchen in this poem. I would make sure when reading this poem that love is painted in a very painterly and visual way here so the listeners would almost be able to feel the warmth radiating from the words.

The final poem I would read to the 5th year class is “A Call” by Seamus Heaney. I chose to read this poem last as the call turns into one of death and this is a heart touching poem, so beautifully written that it would leave the listeners with an abundance of thoughts after the reading of all the poems. To begin with, I would ask the class what comes to their mind when I say “A Call”. I would imagine there should be multiple interpretations of the one, simple word. In this poem ‘call’ contains both casual and serious meanings. The call here is the phone call home but the speaker also meditates on the idea of a person being called home to God as in the medieval play ‘Everyman’. I would read this poem with a sorrowful tone as it is emotional in every way, both physically and mentally. I feel that the opening to this poem is not poetry, but it is ordinary, everyday speech. “Hold on” she said, I’ll just go out and get him”.

The weather here’s so good he took the chance
To do abit of weeding.”
And yet I would read these lines as if they had a musical flow, with line two forming a perfect iambic pentameter to help the overall rhythm of this poem. As the poem progresses, Heaney deviates from the everyday language to move into a more visual tone, so much that in stanza two, one can almost feel Heaney’s father “Touching, inspecting, separating one stalk from the other, gently pulling up everything not tapered, frail and leafless, pleased to feel each little weed-root break, but rueful also.” I would emphasise the use of the present participles “Touching, inspecting, separating and pulling” from this stanza because they show that even though he may be getting the call to heaven, Heaney’s father is still contributing to life and knowing this will give the listeners a sense of hope in the midst of a dull poem. I would bring the listeners attention to the way Heaney links everything he sees and how everything has a logical flow in this poem. He shows us this as he begins the second stanza with “So”, the third stanza with “Then” and the final two stanzas with “And” and “Next”. I would read the third stanza in this poem very calmly as the atmosphere created is beautiful. Everything is quiet except the “ticking of hall clocks” which may be indicating that time is ticking away for Heaney’s father and this is while the sun is catching the mirror and the swinging pendulums.

This stanza, along with stanza two, both end with an ellipsis and this would make me slow down to help the listeners contemplate the weight of the previous lines. I would pause for a long time between the verses when reading this poem as there is an abundance of happenings to take in and it can become a heap for the listeners to get their head around. I would bring the listeners attention to the use of monosyllabic words in both line four and the final line of this poem. The unspoken words of the final line in this poem, “Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him” shows the connection between Heaney and his father and it is very touching. There are 11 words in the final line and 10 of these are monosyllabic, “Nearly” is the only double syllable word. I feel the final line is very emotive and I would read it in a very weak tone and I have no doubt but it should make the listeners heart sink.

To conclude, overall I found my study of Seamus Heaney’s poetry very interesting. I hope that when reading the poems I can get the point across to the listeners and they will have the ability to interpret the poems in the same way as many knowledgeable people do. I believe I chose 4 poems that any fifth year class could relate to so hopefully they can all hear each other’s opinions on Heaney’s poetry and therefore have a better knowledge of him after I have read the poems to them.

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