Wow, it’s amazing how small things can throw you off kilter. I got a brand new computer and for reasons that neither I nor my technologically astute friends can figure out, it kept me blocked from the internet for two weeks (or there abouts). Two weeks turned into four, and after a while I began thinking about forgetting that I had a blog at all (I’ve done it so many times before!).
I do plan on changing the format of this blog entirely after I’ve hit my 200th post, but how, I’ve yet to decide. I’ll keep you posted.
Anyhow, onto the content of the post. I was reviewing some of last year’s material, but with different poems. In the textbook XJ Kennedy’s Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., I’m at the “Words” chapter. This section is titled, “The Value of a Dictionary”. When writing anything a dictionary isn’t just valuable, it’s necessary. If you are writing to an English speaking audience, you are communicating to them. In order to communicate they have to understand you. How does this occur in a world where everyone comes from a unique point of view? Mutual understanding leads to more productive fiction. If your audience can’t understand what they’re reading, how will any of your ideas come through? How can the understand the nuances of the amazing subtext, if they can’t even understand the text? Enter the dictionary, a common place for every one from different backgrounds can meet and understand one another.
Choosing your words carefully will always strengthen your prose whether it’s a poem or a business letter. If you want your audience to pay attention choose unique words, the more perfectly they fit your meaning, the more you will capture your audience.
I chose this poem, because Heany is Irish and today is Saint Patrick’s Day and I thought that he illustrated good word choice fairly well. He has words that define different types of markings “goalposts”, “latitude”, “longitude”, “outline”, “corner”, and “spot”. He also has some lovely passages that do the same thing, “And crossed the line our called names drew between us”, “You also loved lines pegged out in the garden,/The spade nicking the first straight edge along…”, “to mark the outline of a house…”.
The thing I like about the poem is how it is so neatly tied together. The title “Markings” draws all of the verses back to it. He explores markings on a field, markings on a map, markings that mark out a garden or a plot of land to be built upon, and the lines that a mower makes as it flattens down a field.
His different markings explore how real and unreal the markings are. The children have played beyond the limit (“some limit has been passed”) and now the game is only real in their heads and the outside world is a “dream heaviness”. He has used the word “dream” to refer to the world outside of the boys’ consciousness when the dictionary definition of the word is a reality only experienced within the confines of the mind. This word positioning cues the reader to see the world outside of the boys’ minds as unreal and the one within as the more true reality. So what does this say about the poet’s opinion of markings that didn’t exist until people put them there? What about the markings that plot out the gardens? What would he say about geographical markings like giant rivers that become borders on maps? My state, Washington State, is marked out from Oregon by the Columbia River. Is that river a dream heaviness? Or a true marking? Do things exist because we see them? Or do they exist because we know them? That’s the difference in dictionary definitions; seeing is just what is reflected into the eye and processed by the brain as images, knowing is the mind understanding what that thing is. But what about the thing we see but do not understand? What would a cave man see if he saw a cell phone? How would he come to understand it? How would it be real to him? When you first saw a nebula, did you see that it was different chemicals in space (hydrogen, helium) lit up by ionization? Or did you just see pretty colors in outer space? (Hint: scientists only saw pretty colors in outer space until they studied and measured them.)
But I think the most interesting part is the first thought that came into my head when I read the title. When I read “Markings”, I did not think of lines defining a field or a border, instead I thought of marks made by a pen on a piece of paper. That is what a poem is after all. Everything else exists in your head.
by Seamus Heaney
We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts,
That was all. The corners and the squares
Were there like longitude and latitude
Under the bumpy ground, to be
Agreed about or disagreed about
When the tie came. And then we picked the teams
And crossed the line our called names drew between us.
Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world…
It was quick and constant, a game that never need
Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.
You also loved lines pegged out in the garden,
The spade nicking the first straight edge along
The tight white string. Or string stretched perfectly
To mark the outline of a house foundation,
Pale timber battens set at right angles
For every corner, each freshly sawn new board
Spick and span in the oddly passive grass.
Or the imaginary line straight down
A field of grazing, to be ploughed open
From the rod stuck in one headrig to the rod
Stuck in the other.
All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
A mower parted the bronze sea of corn.
A windlass hauled the centre out of water.
Two men with a cross-cut kept it swimming
Into a felled beech backwards and forwards
So that they seemed to row the steady earth.