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Other cultures – poetry of Seamus Heaney

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We are studying the work of Seamus Heaney, a well known poet. Heaney’s earlier poems were largely focused on his childhood and his upbringing on his family’s farm in Northern Ireland. Both his father and grandfather were farmers, but Heaney did not share their ambitions, he followed his dreams to become a successful poet. I am studying two poems by Heaney, the first is called ‘Digging’ and the second ‘Follower,’ both of which are about his childhood and how he viewed his father and grandfather. The first poem, ‘Digging’, refers to the fact that Heaney did not follow in his family’s tradition.

The poem begins with Heaney describing how his pen fits snugly into his hand. It is suggested that the pen is a comfort to him but something that he has complete control over and which can be used as a powerful weapon. We are made to believe this by the line, ‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests snug as a gun. ‘ This makes Heaney sound slightly threatening as if with this weapon he could do anything. In the poem Heaney uses words such as ‘rasping, nicking and slicing,’ these words are all examples of onomatopoeia. They are effective as they convey the tone and sounds of the poem.

The sounds are sharp and precise. This makes Heaney’s father and grandfather sound as if they know what they are doing. He remembers the sounds clearly in his head and he seems to be reminiscing about his childhood. This is effective as it makes the reader start to wonder about his childhood which keeps them interested. The language used throughout the poem works really well. The adjectives used are generally used to describe the admiration Heaney feels for his father’s and grandfather’s skill and precision, and their professional attitude.

We get this impression from the line, ‘nicking and slicing neatly. ‘ Onomatopoeia personalises the poem and makes us feel like we’re almost with Heaney. Throughout the poem we are under the impression that we know Heaney, this is because of the informal casual language he uses, we feel as if he is almost having a conversation with us. The poem is set to quite a loose structure and rarely rhymes which also adds to the informal feel of the poem. The reader receives this impression from the line, ‘By God, the man could handle a spade. ‘ Here he is talking about his father.

This is successful as you start to understand Heaney, you can begin to relate to him more and become more interested in the poem. Heaney uses multiple alliterations writing ‘tall tops’ and ‘curt cuts. ‘ The sound of the curt cuts is conveyed to the reader. This is effective as the reader gets a real feel for the poem, it also creates good imagery in the readers head which is useful as it means they can understand the poem more easily. In this poem Heaney views his father and grandfather as professionals, he seems to look up to them and is proud of them, yet does not envy or aspire to be like them.

This is an unusual situation, but Heaney explains that he has his pen and they have their spade and each tool is just another approach to life and to how both their skills can be expressed through their work. We start to understand Heaney and receive the impression he feels the need to be accepted by his family and make them proud of him. The line, ‘Through living roots awaken in my head’ is effective and uses a slight pun as the word ‘roots’ could be perceived as the roots of the potatoes or the roots of the family tradition, and how in the past the family have conformed to them and been satisfied in doing so.

The poem finishes nearly the same way as it starts with ‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it. ‘ From this line we receive the impression Heaney knows he is going to be just as successful as his father and grandfather and he appears to be quite confident. It seems to me that he is also saying he is going to do what he wants and even if people don’t like him for it doesn’t really make any difference to him. Through writing this poem Heaney seems to gain confidence and reassurance within himself. We know this by the change in the first and second line.

The second poem I am discussing is called ‘Follower. ‘ This poem presents us with Heaney’s admiration and idolisation for his father. This poem is also informal, as Heaney uses casual chatty language, to make us feel as if we know him. The structure of the poem is quite rigid as there are four lines used in each stanza, there is only some occasional rhyming in the poem but where there is rhyming it is in every other line. This may be to emphasise his father’s and grandfather’s professionalism and to also emphasise Heaney’s own.

In the second line of the poem Heaney immediately adds a simile saying; ‘His shoulders globed like a full sail strung. ‘ This is really effective as it shows the amount of admiration Heaney has for his father. He compares him to a sail on a ship. This creates the image of something that is huge and powerful, we then relate this to his father. Heaney sees him as a strong, hard-working professional. He is proud and impressed with the way his father works with such precision, and Heaney talks about him with a positive attitude throughout the poem.

Heaney wants to be like his father, he wants to live up to his father’s reputation and make him proud. Against his father Heaney feels inadequate and insignificant; we know this as Heaney writes, ‘All I ever did was follow in his broad shadow round the farm. ‘ This line means Heaney watched his father work and followed him everywhere but was never allowed to help. The reader is given the impression that Heaney’s father was hard-working, strong and a good role model. We understand that Heaney aspires to be like his father, but we also know that Heaney feels slightly overshadowed by him.

We therefore feel sorry for him, and want him to become as successful as his father. Heaney uses the ‘magic three’ writing, ‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling, yapping always. ‘ Here Heaney is trying to convey that, looking back, he can see how annoying he must have been and how he was actually a nuisance to his father. I think the poem makes Heaney’s feelings easy to understand, and the audience are made to empathise with him. The poem finishes with a change in roles, as his father has become older he has become a nuisance just as Heaney used to be.

We feel glad that Heaney has now been given his chance to shine and has ‘stepped out of his father’s shadow. ‘ Both poems are extremely similar, focusing on the same theme. They both discuss Heaney’s feelings for his family and they both talk about his family’s job and how he admires them. There is one main difference in both poems; in ‘Digging’ Heaney does not want to follow in his family’s footsteps, he wants to find his own way, doing what he enjoys, whereas, in ‘Follower,’ we receive the impression Heaney wants to be like his father, he wants to be able to work and create that same perfection.

Follower’ seems to be Heaney’s feelings as a young boy who is confused about what he wants to do with his life. Whereas, ‘Digging,’ seems to be an older Heaney whom is now sure of what he wants to do and is confident he will achieve it. I think in ‘Follower’ Heaney is unsure about continuing in his family’s tradition but does not actually express this emotion until ‘Digging. ‘ The reader witnesses Heaney grow and learn, and understands that Heaney didn’t let anyone get in the way of his ambition to be a poet.

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