What Does Poetry Do To Readers And Listeners

free essayOnly outstanding poets with their artistic expression and fine talent can penetrate into the deepest corners of the soul. Undoubtedly, such artists are Seamus Heaney and Theodore Roethke. They touch the subtlest strings of people’s hearts with the artistic expression of their masterpieces. An important fact is that the poem “Digging” written by Heaney in 1966 and “My Papa’s Waltz” written by Roethke in 1961 use very similar techniques, thus allowing the reader to carefully observe an object or idea. These techniques may occur in the semantic (symbolism, metaphors, and wordplay), syntactic (anaphora and complex sentences), and phonetic (alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia) levels and show a wide artistic spectrum of devices, which make language different from the one used daily.

The essence of “defamiliarization”

In the early 20th century, a literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky used the term “defamiliarization” in the context of formalism. According to Shklovsky, defamiliarization is intended to show ordinary things in an unusual way. He supposes that, if a literary work does not give readers some fresh and uncommon ideas and emotions, “it has failed to fulfill the predetermined duty of literature” (Pourjafari 3). Thus, Shklovsky promotes the perception of literary works in a new, unusual, and fresh perspective. Heaney’s “Digging” and Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” are bright examples of literary defamiliarization. Therefore, the poems contain ceinrt features that allow them to function as tools for critical thought.

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Defamiliarization on the semantic point of view

Heaney and Roethke used foregrounding to pay readers’ attention to the main details of their poems. The poets describe some moments and images in an unconventional manner in order to disrupt the traditional organization of literary works. First, if to analyze these verses from a semantic standpoint, it must be noted that both poets reveal the father’s role in an unusual way. The importance and necessity of the father’s role in their sons’ lives is a common feature of both poems as the sons love, respect, and admire their fathers. However, “Digging” shows that, although the boy loves his father and grandfather, he does not want to continue the tradition of potato digging. Heaney describes the son’s wish as, “Through living roots awaken in my head” (Heaney 27), but “no spade to follow men like them” (Heaney 28). The speaker remembers his grandfather’s hard work: “My grandfather cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog” (Heaney 17-18), and how he helps him: “Once I carried him milk in a bottle” (Heaney 19). However, Heaney does not want to “follow men like them”; he prefers to go his own path: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it” (Heaney 29-31). “My Papa’s Waltz” by Roethke shows a quite different family relationship. One cannot see a father but a reader can feel his smell just in the first line: “The whisky on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy” (Roethke 1-2). This unusual way of describing the image of the father allows the reader to imagine him as a drunk and violent person at the same time. Roethke writes, “But I hung on like death,” which probably means that the boy has a fun dance with his father (Roethke 3). Hence, Heaney and Roethke show a familiar image of the father in unfamiliar way. The poets allow readers to imagine a concrete image of the father without providing any description of his appearance and traits but only by using several eloquent details.

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Another method that allows one to see ordinary things in the light of the uncommon ones is using a key metaphor. Both poets use action metaphors: Heaney describes “digging” and Roethke uses “dancing.” Heaney uses the metaphor hidden in the title of the poem (digging) to represent that the narrator digs in his memories in order to attain the desired goal – to write poetry. The process of Heaney’s digging is as hard as his father’s; that is why he has an unusual tool for digging: “The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” (Heaney 2). Roethke reveals his metaphor in a unique way, too. As the poem is called “Waltz,” the readers are sure that they will read about dancing. However, the poet conceals not just father’s dancing but the boy’s deep sadness and love to his father, who probably regularly drinks alcohol, insults, and commits violence against his family members. Roethke emphasizes, “Such waltzing was not easy” (Roethke 4) because “we romped until the pans/ Slid from the kitchen shelf” (Roethke 5-6). So, it is clear that the “dancing” is romping indeed. Therefore, Heaney and Roethke used the key metaphors, which, in fact, have opened the essence and provided conception to their great poems.

Roethke seamlessly introduces into “My Papa’s Waltz” other important details that reveal things in a rather offbeat way. For example, he mentions a buckle: “My right ear scraped a buckle” (Roethke 12), and readers immediately form association with a belt. Everyone knows that the belt is always a means of punishment for young children. In addition, the sprout of violence hidden by the halo of “waltzing” is, “The hand that held my wrist/ Was battered on one knuckle” (Roethke 9-10). Moreover, the poet says that the boy’s father continues to miss steps: “At every step you missed” (Roethke 11). This detail indicates that the father probably passes certain points in the upbringing of his son and pays insufficient attention to him in real life. Consequently, in “My Papa’s Waltz,” Roethke used some certain signs that help readers understand the essence and extraordinary overtones of the verse.

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From the other perspective, there is no violence in “My Papa’s Waltz” as it is believed that the father celebrated an event with his friends after a long and difficult day, and that is why the boy could smell whiskey. The father always works hard to provide his family with the necessary things. Moreover, the father loves his son and he continues waltzing with him despite his weariness. Therefore, the examination of unusual details in Roethke’s verse can be ambiguously interpreted so that the process of defamiliarization does not provide clear and concrete perception.

Readers have to pay their attention to the fact that the image of the earth in Heaney’s “Digging” is described in a surprising and remarkable way. First, this image is profound, symbolic, and significant as it represents the poet’s roots and his connection with the ancestors. Second, readers can feel the multifaceted image of the earth because of its unique filing. The readers can hear “a clean rasping sound” of the spade near the speaker’s house (Heaney 3). Besides, they can discover the texture and smell of the ground by reading “gravelly ground,” “turf,” “sods,” and “soggy peat” (Heaney 4, 16, 22, 26). It can be inferred that these descriptions signify strong family connection between different generations, but the reader gets familiarized with them in a quite extraordinary way.

Defamiliarization on the syntactic context

When analyzing “Digging” and “My Papa’s Waltz” from the syntactic point of view, it should be emphasized that Roethke uses complex syntactic constructions that demonstrate the complexity of waltzing, while Heaney applies semantic anaphora. Thus, “Digging” begins and ends with the words, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests” (Heaney 1-2, 29-30). This technique means that the poet gives his manifest to convince, motivate, and inspire readers in such uncommon way. Moreover, this anaphora is used to show the narrator’s constant hard work. So, syntactic filling of the poems are intended to transfer the ideas and essence of poetry in an unexpected way.

How It Works

Defamiliarization on the phonetic level

The analysis of the poems on the phonetic level leads to the conclusion that Roethke conveys rhythm and smoothness of waltzing by the usage of his sound combinations, whereas Heaney uses alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia to manifest an idea of “digging” in a non-conventional way. For instance, the alliteration “spade sinks” is used to describe the physical action of the father’s tireless spade (Heaney 4). Additionally, an example of onomatopoeia, “clean rasping sound,” allows the reader to vividly imagine the process of digging (Heaney 3). In addition, the assonance of “u” (“Thumb,” “snug,” and “gun”) is used in the first two lines to show how serious the process of digging is. Thus, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and assonance are effective in conveying bright sensations to the readers in the context of unfamiliar.

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In conclusion, having examined “Digging” and “My Papa’s Waltz” in the context of defamiliarization, it can be concluded that this process provides readers with a wide range of perception and understanding of literary works. These poems have many common features from the perspective of transferring ordinary things in an unusual manner. The poets used different literary devices on semantic, syntactic, and phonetic levels to help readers perceive the poems from the new and unique perspective. The images of the earth, father, digging, and waltzing are depicted in an extraordinary way by using complex syntactic figures and phonetic methods such as alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Therefore, defamiliarization methods used in the verses cause ambiguity and the possibility of endless interpretations of readings.

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