For those whose voices have been otherwise silenced,poetry can be a means of expressing what can’t be said otherwise.
Such is thecase in the writings of Tony Harrison, Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney. All threepoets had vastly different struggles; for Harrison it was his Northern workingclass background Yet not only do thesepoets use poetry for this purpose, but in by showing a self-awareness in ‘Them& uz’, ‘They shut me up in Prose’ and ‘Digging’, they also explore whythey have this relationship with poetry. ‘Them & uz’ was, for Tony Harrison, a means ofseeking ‘revenge’ (as he himself described it) against a teacher who did notbelieve people of his background belonged in poetry, for fear of ruining ‘thespeech of kings’1.Not only does Harrison prove, in purely writing a poem, that he does in factbelong in the poetic sphere but also subverts conventional poetic stylethroughout ‘Them and uz’, showcasing the classism of the British educationalsystem. More specifically, the teacher of ‘Them and uz’ lamentsa young Harrison’s distinctive Leeds dialect, calling him a ‘barbarian’ (l.
4) fornot reading a Keats poem as ‘nicely spoken’ (l.4) as the poet himself. When notquoting the teacher, the poem is written in a clear Northern dialect, makinguse of both a phonetic transcription of ‘us’, eye dialect in ‘mi ‘art aches’ (l.
3) and Northern colloquialisms such as ‘gob’ (l. 2) and ‘trap’ (l. 13). Thesespelling and word choices force the reader to read the poem in Harrison’s ownaccent and thus rejects the teacher’s idea that poetry can only be ‘the speechof kings’. Moreover, Harrison also rejects traditional poetic formto challenge the respected ideals. (?) Any attempt to maintain a regular metreis ruined by punctuation in the form of ellipses and parentheses that interruptthe natural flow of words. Stanza breaks are also made seemingly at random,often breaking up otherwise fairly regular rhyming couplets.
2Neil Roberts argues that this ‘untidy appearance on the page’ is what makes thepoem so ‘strikingly visual’ as to get a full feeling of its refusal to conformto literary norms, one can’t just listen to it being read3.This only emphasises the importance of the use of dialect within the poem;whereas typically one’s dialect is only represented in their speech, in ‘Them& uz’ Harrison gives it a place in written word as well. By writing apoem in his own language, he is able to immortalise it.
For Harrison, the fearof language being erased by those who wish to suppress it is a recurring theme;in National Trust he translates the Cornish phrase ‘the tongueless man gets hisland took’4.One might therefore deduce from this that writing poetry and ‘Them & uz’in particular is not only an act of ‘revenge’ against those who believed hecouldn’t, but a way of preserving his cultural history. Despite writing in nineteenth century America,Dickinson’s ‘They shut me up in Prose’5bears striking similarities. Both poets view ‘Prose’ as a symbol of theiroppression, whereas in writing their poems, poetry becomes their liberator.
Where they differ is in their visualisation of ‘prose’; Harrison sees it purelyliterally, a method used by his teacher to prevent him having access to the’speech of kings’ that is poetry. Meanwhile, the play on words of the title ofDickinson’s poem suggests she views prose in both its literal sense as well asfiguratively. To be specifically shut up ‘in’ prose gives it a physicalelement, and the similar syntax of the third line suggests a direct comparisonbetween prose and the ‘Closet’ she was ‘put’ in. Therefore both poets see proseas restrictive, but Dickinson takes it a step further in likening it to aprison she has been ‘shut up’ in against her will.
Furthermore, while the symbolism of ‘Prose’ is morestraightforward in ‘Them & uz’, Dickinson’s poetry is lessself-explanatory. It’s important to recognise that Dickinson did not publishmost of her poetry, and as a result the impression one gets from her writing isless of a need to cement her voice in the literary world like Harrison but moreof a way of expressing on paper what she did not wish to express in public. Perhapsthe ambiguity of ‘They shut me up in Prose’ is a result of Dickinson not feelingthe need to explain when only writing for herself. The meaning of ‘Prose’ inthe poem, therefore, (?) has been debated. Paula Bennett sees it as ‘the proselife of duty bound womanhood’6,and there is likely to be some truth in this. Dickinson was writing in a timewhere men’s poetry was more highly respected than women’s.
Like Harrison, shemay have felt her voice being silenced by her oppressors. The dictionarydefinitions provided by Wendy Barker of prose, language that is ‘plain’,’simple’ or ‘dull’ to name a few7,may help us to understand thus represent the life she is forced to live as awoman without a voice. However, physical aspect of closet, agoraphobia, beingshut in, brain still free As with Harrison, by simply engaging in the act of writingpoetry Dickinson shows she has rebelled against her imprisonment. The poem expressesthe idea that no physical ‘Captivity’ can truly keep Dickinson ‘still’ as her’Brain’ will always ‘go round’. It is this mental freedom, a freedom ofthought, that she demonstrates in the act of poetry. The comparison of herbrain to ‘a Bird’, a symbol of freedom, only enrichens this image. Dickinson also expresses this rebellion through form.
Likein most of her poetry, the capitalisation of nouns rejects set rules of theEnglish language, and the use of hyphens creates a pace and rhythm that isunique to Dickinson. Thus it gives her a distinctive voice of her own, which isperhaps the greatest/ultimate (?) rebellion against those who attempted torestrict her to a ‘plain, simple… dull’ way of life, as Wendy Barker interprets’Prose’ to represent in the poem. In Paul Crumbley’s work on the use of thehyphen in Dickinson’s poetry, he argues that (It is interesting that the hypothetical ‘Bird’ in thepoem is being punished for ‘Treason’. The image seems out of place among theother nouns, which have been forefronted (?) through capitalisation, and not tomention obviously impossible for a bird to commit. Its significance thereforeis in relation to) Seamus Heaney’s relationship with his poetry, however, ismore complicated than that of Harrison or Dickinson. ‘Digging’ follows Heaney’smental process in trying to determine the purpose of his writing, whilecomparing it to the livelihoods of his father and grandfather8.
Unlike Harrison and Dickinson, in ‘Digging’ poetry is not a clear force forgood. This is most evident in the second line, in which Heaney compares the wayhe holds his pen to that of a ‘gun’. This likening of a writer’s tool to aweapon can be interpreted as both poetry providing safety and security toHeaney, as well as his fear of the destruction words can have. The ambiguity ofthe meaning behind the gun imagery is what initially blurs the lines betweenHeaney’s true view of poetry.
Heaney’s relationship with poetry is also complicated byhis inner conflict over whether to follow in the footsteps of his father andgrandfather or to choose his own livelihood. This is perhaps where ‘Digging’most greatly differs from ‘Them & uz’. Although he remains proud of hisheritage, Harrison is trying to prove that he is the more than ‘one of thoseShakespeare gives the comic bits to’ (ll. 7-8); it is clear that poetry is whathe wants to pursue. In contrast, Heaney recounts the lives of his father andgrandfather ‘digging’ up potatoes or ‘for the good turf’ (l. 24) in a highlynostalgic tone, created by the incredible detail of his descriptions that evokealmost all the senses; the visual of ‘the coarse boot nestled on the lug’ (l. 10),the ‘cold smell of potato mould’ (l. 25), the feeling of the ‘cool hardness’ (l.
14) of the potatoes and the sound of ‘the squelch and slap of soggy peat’ (ll.25-26) but to name a few. The consistentuse of alliteration (such as in ‘gravelly ground’ (l. 4)) and the more inconsistentuse of rhyming couplets make the poem pleasant to read, adding to the feelingof nostalgia.
Moreover, when speaking of how well ‘the old man could handle aspade’ in line 15, the phrase ‘by god’ clearly shows the awe and admirationHeaney has for his father. Thus by the end of the penultimate stanza, where thetone abruptly changes – marked by an end of the enjambment in the previousthree lines – and Heaney realises sadly that he has ‘no spade to follow menlike them’9,one comes to understand the inner conflict occurring throughout the poem. HelenVendler links this to the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time,claiming there were ‘two opposing voices from his culture’ telling him toeither ‘inherit the farm’ or ‘take up arms’ to follow ‘Republican militarism’10.When viewing the poem with this context in mind, the image of the gun becomeseven more meaningful; it may represent violence, but it could also represent apolitical stance11. Whilehis family have remained apolitical in their livelihoods, Heaney recognises thatif he chooses to be a writer there is no way his work can avoid mentioning thepolitical situation. In the final stanza, the conflict of the poem isresolved. The first two lines are repeated, but instead of comparing the pen toa gun, he now decides to ‘dig with it’ (l. 31).
Therefore, while his father andgrandfather’s tools to ‘dig’ were spades, Heaney’s is now a pen. One way thiscould be interpreted is Healey’s decision to write not political, but rather personalpoetry. As Vendler says, in comparing a pen to a spade Heaney suggests thatwhat his poetry shall ‘dig’ for is ‘warmth and ‘nourishment’ like the turf andpotatoes retrieved by his father and grandfather12.
On the other hand, Heaney changing the meaning of his penfrom a gun to a spade does not necessarily imply a refusal to be political, butperhaps a change of tactic. After all, in acknowledging the Northern Irelandtroubles from the beginning of the poem, Heaney has chosen to be unavoidablypolitical. Furthermore, other poems by Heaney have featured political themes; ‘StationIsland’ in particular focuses on the violence in Northern Ireland once again. Perhapsthe significance of Heaney’s writing tool being a spade rather than a gun isthe decision to use poetry, rather than violence, to express his politicalstandpoint. The comparison to poetry being like turf or potatoes remainsimportant; in standing up for the Catholics being discriminated against at thetime, Heaney is helping give them life, just as his father and grandfather haddone for him. By the poem’s eighth stanza, the nostalgic retelling ofthe ‘digging’ is heightened through the onomatopoeic sibilance of the ‘squelch’and ‘slap’ of ‘soggy peat’ (ll. 25-26), as well as the alliteration of the’curt cuts’ (l.
26). Differences in personal situations show how universalpoetry can be 1Tony Harrison, ‘Them & uz’, in TheNorton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edn, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter,Jon Stallworthy (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 1873-1874. Allfurther references are to this edition.2 TheCambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry p. 218.
3 Ibid.p. 218.4TonyHarrison, National Trust, https://www.poemhunter.
com/poem/national-trust/accessed 9 January 2018. 5Emily Dickinson, ‘They shut me up in Prose’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, p. 1119.6 PaulaBennet, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet,(University of Iowa Press: Iowa City, 1990) p. 137.7Wendy Barker ,’Emily Dickinson and Poetic Strategy’, in The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson ed. By Wendy Martinpp.
77-90 p. 78. 8Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’, in The NortonAnthology of Poetry, pp. 1899-1900.
9 http://mural.uv.es/horpla/heaney.html10Helen Vender, Seamus Heaney,(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 29.
11Ibid. p. 29.
12Ibid. p. 29.