Friday, 6 February 2015

Show and Tell - Waterman and Heaney

  • In "Tonight the Summer's Over" from Rory Waterman's "Tonight the Summer's Over", canoers see a heron burst from the bank and disappear round the bend. The canoers think "We were happy - weren't we - because each bend was blind". Having initially not seen the heron, the canoers continue their imprecise, indirect observations as they try to follow it -
    • sparrows and whatnot cheeped
    • cows ... watched us ignoring them
    • inverted willows shivered with river-weeds

    The final line (a generalisation of - and end-rhyme with - the initial reason for their happiness) is "We must pursue, and not expect to find" (which isn't the same as "take each day as it comes"). How inclusive you want the "we" to be is up to you.

    The poem's called "Navigating". Life is a river. Also the book can be read as autobiographical, full of surprises.

  • In "Digging" from Seamus Heaney's "Death of a Naturalist", the persona says "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun ... My father, digging ... To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands. ... Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it". An extended metaphor has been created -
    The persona expresses admiration of his father's (and grandfather's) wielding of a spade. The soil might represent Ireland, history. The potatoes and words are being uncovered for others to enjoy. The initial gun turns finally into a pen. Maybe the forbears are literary rather than genetic.

They are both undeniably successful poems. And yet, if someone sagely told you that

  • "life is like a winding river; you never know what's going to happen next" or
  • "As my father digs up potatoes with a spade, so I write poetry with my pen"

would you wish them to elaborate? I'm not sure I would. I think aphorisms and similes benefit from brevity, and these two seem ok as they are. What's gained by showing as well as telling, by adding specifics to the generalities without removing the summarising aphorism? Why not just show? It would have been possible to exploit dramatic irony - the characters could have made remarks without appreciating their symbolism, the narrator not involved. Or juxtaposition could have been used to invite readers to make connections - this after all is poetry, and readers' minds will be primed to follow hints - in Reality and Symbols I say more about how symbolism and realism flicker.

Significantly though, these poems begin the books they're in (indeed, Heaney's "Selected Poems" also commences with it), and the books are early ones in the poets' careers. They act as prologues, introductions best viewed as compressed books rather than bloated sayings. Of the 2 poems, I prefer Waterman's because of what the details add. It may be father and son canoeing together. I'm puzzled by Heaney's gun - maybe he's referring to Ireland's past which he intends to dig up.

See also Michael Woods' piece about 'Digging'

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