For those whose voices have been otherwise silenced,
poetry can be a means of expressing what can’t be said otherwise. Such is the
case in the writings of Tony Harrison, Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney. All three
poets had vastly different struggles; for Harrison it was his Northern working
class background Yet not only do these
poets 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 why
they have this relationship with poetry.
‘Them & uz’ was, for Tony Harrison, a means of
seeking ‘revenge’ (as he himself described it) against a teacher who did not
believe people of his background belonged in poetry, for fear of ruining ‘the
speech of kings’1.
Not only does Harrison prove, in purely writing a poem, that he does in fact
belong in the poetic sphere but also subverts conventional poetic style
throughout ‘Them and uz’, showcasing the classism of the British educational
More specifically, the teacher of ‘Them and uz’ laments
a young Harrison’s distinctive Leeds dialect, calling him a ‘barbarian’ (l. 4) for
not reading a Keats poem as ‘nicely spoken’ (l.4) as the poet himself. When not
quoting the teacher, the poem is written in a clear Northern dialect, making
use 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). These
spelling and word choices force the reader to read the poem in Harrison’s own
accent and thus rejects the teacher’s idea that poetry can only be ‘the speech
Moreover, Harrison also rejects traditional poetic form
to challenge the respected ideals. (?) Any attempt to maintain a regular metre
is ruined by punctuation in the form of ellipses and parentheses that interrupt
the natural flow of words. Stanza breaks are also made seemingly at random,
often breaking up otherwise fairly regular rhyming couplets.2
Neil Roberts argues that this ‘untidy appearance on the page’ is what makes the
poem so ‘strikingly visual’ as to get a full feeling of its refusal to conform
to 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 a
poem in his own language, he is able to immortalise it. For Harrison, the fear
of 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 his
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 he
couldn’t, but a way of preserving his cultural history.
Despite writing in nineteenth century America,
Dickinson’s ‘They shut me up in Prose’5
bears striking similarities. Both poets view ‘Prose’ as a symbol of their
oppression, whereas in writing their poems, poetry becomes their liberator.
Where they differ is in their visualisation of ‘prose’; Harrison sees it purely
literally, 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 of
Dickinson’s poem suggests she views prose in both its literal sense as well as
figuratively. To be specifically shut up ‘in’ prose gives it a physical
element, and the similar syntax of the third line suggests a direct comparison
between prose and the ‘Closet’ she was ‘put’ in. Therefore both poets see prose
as restrictive, but Dickinson takes it a step further in likening it to a
prison she has been ‘shut up’ in against her will.
Furthermore, while the symbolism of ‘Prose’ is more
straightforward in ‘Them & uz’, Dickinson’s poetry is less
self-explanatory. It’s important to recognise that Dickinson did not publish
most of her poetry, and as a result the impression one gets from her writing is
less of a need to cement her voice in the literary world like Harrison but more
of a way of expressing on paper what she did not wish to express in public. Perhaps
the ambiguity of ‘They shut me up in Prose’ is a result of Dickinson not feeling
the need to explain when only writing for herself. The meaning of ‘Prose’ in
the poem, therefore, (?) has been debated. Paula Bennett sees it as ‘the prose
life of duty bound womanhood’6,
and there is likely to be some truth in this. Dickinson was writing in a time
where men’s poetry was more highly respected than women’s. Like Harrison, she
may have felt her voice being silenced by her oppressors. The dictionary
definitions 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 a
woman without a voice.
However, physical aspect of closet, agoraphobia, being
shut in, brain still free
As with Harrison, by simply engaging in the act of writing
poetry Dickinson shows she has rebelled against her imprisonment. The poem expresses
the idea that no physical ‘Captivity’ can truly keep Dickinson ‘still’ as her
‘Brain’ will always ‘go round’. It is this mental freedom, a freedom of
thought, that she demonstrates in the act of poetry. The comparison of her
brain to ‘a Bird’, a symbol of freedom, only enrichens this image.
Dickinson also expresses this rebellion through form. Like
in most of her poetry, the capitalisation of nouns rejects set rules of the
English language, and the use of hyphens creates a pace and rhythm that is
unique to Dickinson. Thus it gives her a distinctive voice of her own, which is
perhaps the greatest/ultimate (?) rebellion against those who attempted to
restrict 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 the
hyphen in Dickinson’s poetry, he argues that
(It is interesting that the hypothetical ‘Bird’ in the
poem is being punished for ‘Treason’. The image seems out of place among the
other nouns, which have been forefronted (?) through capitalisation, and not to
mention obviously impossible for a bird to commit. Its significance therefore
is in relation to)
Seamus Heaney’s relationship with his poetry, however, is
more complicated than that of Harrison or Dickinson. ‘Digging’ follows Heaney’s
mental process in trying to determine the purpose of his writing, while
comparing it to the livelihoods of his father and grandfather8.
Unlike Harrison and Dickinson, in ‘Digging’ poetry is not a clear force for
good. This is most evident in the second line, in which Heaney compares the way
he holds his pen to that of a ‘gun’. This likening of a writer’s tool to a
weapon can be interpreted as both poetry providing safety and security to
Heaney, as well as his fear of the destruction words can have. The ambiguity of
the meaning behind the gun imagery is what initially blurs the lines between
Heaney’s true view of poetry.
Heaney’s relationship with poetry is also complicated by
his inner conflict over whether to follow in the footsteps of his father and
grandfather or to choose his own livelihood. This is perhaps where ‘Digging’
most greatly differs from ‘Them & uz’. Although he remains proud of his
heritage, Harrison is trying to prove that he is the more than ‘one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to’ (ll. 7-8); it is clear that poetry is what
he wants to pursue. In contrast, Heaney recounts the lives of his father and
grandfather ‘digging’ up potatoes or ‘for the good turf’ (l. 24) in a highly
nostalgic tone, created by the incredible detail of his descriptions that evoke
almost 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 consistent
use of alliteration (such as in ‘gravelly ground’ (l. 4)) and the more inconsistent
use of rhyming couplets make the poem pleasant to read, adding to the feeling
of nostalgia. Moreover, when speaking of how well ‘the old man could handle a
spade’ in line 15, the phrase ‘by god’ clearly shows the awe and admiration
Heaney has for his father. Thus by the end of the penultimate stanza, where the
tone abruptly changes – marked by an end of the enjambment in the previous
three lines – and Heaney realises sadly that he has ‘no spade to follow men
one comes to understand the inner conflict occurring throughout the poem. Helen
Vendler links this to the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time,
claiming there were ‘two opposing voices from his culture’ telling him to
either ‘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 becomes
even more meaningful; it may represent violence, but it could also represent a
political stance11. While
his family have remained apolitical in their livelihoods, Heaney recognises that
if he chooses to be a writer there is no way his work can avoid mentioning the
In the final stanza, the conflict of the poem is
resolved. The first two lines are repeated, but instead of comparing the pen to
a gun, he now decides to ‘dig with it’ (l. 31). Therefore, while his father and
grandfather’s tools to ‘dig’ were spades, Heaney’s is now a pen. One way this
could be interpreted is Healey’s decision to write not political, but rather personal
poetry. As Vendler says, in comparing a pen to a spade Heaney suggests that
what his poetry shall ‘dig’ for is ‘warmth and ‘nourishment’ like the turf and
potatoes retrieved by his father and grandfather12.
On the other hand, Heaney changing the meaning of his pen
from a gun to a spade does not necessarily imply a refusal to be political, but
perhaps a change of tactic. After all, in acknowledging the Northern Ireland
troubles from the beginning of the poem, Heaney has chosen to be unavoidably
political. Furthermore, other poems by Heaney have featured political themes; ‘Station
Island’ in particular focuses on the violence in Northern Ireland once again. Perhaps
the significance of Heaney’s writing tool being a spade rather than a gun is
the decision to use poetry, rather than violence, to express his political
standpoint. The comparison to poetry being like turf or potatoes remains
important; in standing up for the Catholics being discriminated against at the
time, Heaney is helping give them life, just as his father and grandfather had
done for him.
By the poem’s eighth stanza, the nostalgic retelling of
the ‘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 universal
poetry can be
Tony Harrison, ‘Them & uz’, in The
Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edn, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter,
Jon Stallworthy (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 1873-1874. All
further references are to this edition.
Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry p. 218.
Harrison, National Trust, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/national-trust/
accessed 9 January 2018.
Emily Dickinson, ‘They shut me up in Prose’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, p. 1119.
Bennet, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet,
(University of Iowa Press: Iowa City, 1990) p. 137.
Wendy Barker ,’Emily Dickinson and Poetic Strategy’, in The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson ed. By Wendy Martin
pp.77-90 p. 78.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’, in The Norton
Anthology of Poetry, pp. 1899-1900.
Helen Vender, Seamus Heaney,
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 29.
Ibid. p. 29.
Ibid. p. 29.