Throughout Cervantes’s poem ‘‘Freeway 280’’ is the theme of renewal. The first incident is presented in the images of the fruit trees and the wild plants that grow in the abandoned plots of land under the freeway. Though the houses have been knocked down to make way for the construction of the highway, the land remains. There are thousands of cars passing overhead, yet under the mass of concrete there exists a natural garden. The more fragile plants, like the roses, as well as the people who once lived on this land, are long gone, but the more hardy plants have risen out of the soil on their own. Rather than becoming a barren piece of land, a plot consisting only of dirt and trash, the earth has renewed itself, sending up healthy plants. These plants are even stronger than before, the speaker states. The plants are not just weeds. They are edible plants that will nourish the people who eat them. But the plants and the people . . . Read More
Cervantes’s poem ‘‘Freeway 280,’’ like the other poems in her collection Emplumada, focuses on the coming-of-age process. Knowing this, readers can imagine a young girl surveying a special section of her old neighborhood, describing what was there when the speaker of this poem was a child as well as what is there now. The speaker describes not only the landscape as she sees it but also the elements and forces of this special place that have formed her. The poem is about place as well as the speaker’s personal development.
The speaker begins by letting the reader know that the neighborhood is not a place where well-to-do families live. The houses that were once there were small, a fact that the poet conveys by the use of a Spanish word. There also used to be industry nearby, which implies two things. Houses built near industrial areas are usually occupied by people who have little wealth. This particular industry was a . . . Read More
Heaney’s ‘‘Follower’’ laments the loss of contact with a tradition of family, of place, and of long ages past that nevertheless sits beneath and sustains his poetical work. The boundary between the traditional way of life that has shaped human culture and modernity was drawn for the educated classes of Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century. The change from tradition to modernity has come to the rest of the world as each place has contacted and absorbed modern Western culture. For Heaney it came when he won a scholarship to St. Columb’s Catholic boarding school in Derry and he was thrust from the family farm into a new world of learning. ‘‘Follower’’ is about the loss of tradition. In fact, the main theme of Heaney’s poetic career is the sense of loss that accompanies moving away from tradition. His poems often focus on the details of his family life in his childhood before his personal break with tradition. He has tried to create an English in his . . . Read More
Heaney’s ‘‘Follower’’ concerns the transition from a traditional way of life to a new way of life embedded in modernity. For Western civilization as a whole, this process began during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. For Heaney’s family and for the poet himself, this change occurred in the course of Heaney’s own life and education.
In a traditional culture such as the one in which Heaney grew up in rural Ulster in the early 1940s, most people accepted the culture they were part of as given, not something to be questioned or examined. Life was based on closely held human relationships, not only within families but between individuals of differing classes, such as landowners and peasants, whose interactions created the economic fabric of culture. An individual’s place in society was largely determined by his ancestry, with some exceptions, including peasant boys who became priests or sailors. Almost everyone . . . Read More
Traditionally, poetry in English is marked by a special cadence or rhythm of the language used known as meter. For this purpose every syllable is said to be either stressed or unstressed. The meter consists of the repetition of metrical units known as feet: an iamb, for instance, is a foot consisting of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. The most common line of poetry in English is the iambic pentameter, that is, a line consisting of five iambs. It is almost possible to resolve the lines of Heaney’s ‘‘Follower’’ into lines of iambic quadrameter (lines with four iambs), though with a few oddly placed pentameter lines. Given the overwhelmingly iambic character of ordinary spoken English, however, it seems more likely that Heaney is using more contemporary techniques of composition and abandoning meter as an element of the poem. He does use some metrical effects; for example, the last stanza of the poem . . . Read More
Much of Heaney’s work is devoted to what, for want of a better word, may be called tradition. Tradition is the set of customs that are inherited by a culture and give it its identity. In ‘‘Follower,’’ Heaney makes the particular craft of farming—his father’s excellence at its tasks, as well as the close association between father and a son made possible by the traditional way of life in which a son was essentially apprenticed to his father for education—stand for tradition as a whole. A great deal of Heaney’s later work has involved the adaptation or translation into modern English of works vital to the Western tradition including stories from Irish mythology, Greek tragedy, and the AngloSaxon epic Beowulf. In his own poetry Heaney often laments the loss of tradition. ‘‘Follower’’ is one of the most important examples of Heaney’s treatment of tradition. It describes in loving, idealized terms the . . . Read More
‘‘Follower’’ consists of six four-line stanzas, or quatrains. Each stanza follows an abab rhyme scheme, meaning the first and third line of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth. No particular metrical scheme is followed, and the length of the lines is determined by the ideas they contain and by grammatical breaks.
Heaney takes as his subject a description of his father plowing a field. He does not use a tractor. No modern device intrudes on the scene. His father cuts through the field with an old-fashioned hand plow drawn by a horse. The use of horses (most likely a team) indicates some level of prosperity since a less successful farmer would be forced to use a cheaper draft animal such as an ox. The plough horses are well trained and respond to the plowman’s voice command. The metaphor of the second and third lines is somewhat odd. The speaker views his father in profile and describes the curve of his body bent . . . Read More
‘‘The Centaur’’ begins with an air of nostalgia. An adult speaker looks back with some pleasure at her ten-year-old self and the joys of summer adventures. One might expect a sigh over remembrance of things past, but that is not the direction the poem actually takes. Instead, as the poem unfolds, the adult speaker almost disappears and is certainly not there to pine over lost pleasures. Instead, the poem focuses on a specific, though perhaps characteristic, incident that occurred when the ten-year-old girl went down to the willow grove to cut herself a ‘‘horse.’’
This is a quite magical incident that Swenson describes in characteristically full detail, making it come alive for the reader. The speaker’s younger self, the ten-year-old girl, goes down to a willow grove near an old canal, turns a stick into a horse, and then follows up that trick by turning herself into a horse, or at least partly into a horse, creating a hybrid being, part human and part . . . Read More
The Mormons and Utah
Swenson’s parents converted to Mormonism, more properly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religion founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 and established itself under Brigham Young in Utah later in that century. The Mormons dominated Utah in Swenson’s childhood, and the rest of her family was strongly devoted to Mormonism, but even as a child Swenson did not feel strongly connected to it. Part of what the girl in ‘‘The Centaur’’ may be escaping is Mormon rules of propriety. According to R. R. Knudson, in her biography The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson, Swenson as a child liked to play cards and later took up smoking, even though both activities were frowned on by Mormons. The Mormons also had strict notions of gender roles, again something that the girl in Swenson’s poem seems to be escaping, or subverting. It is not that Swenson, in this poem or others, attacked the Mormon religion; it is . . . Read More
The poem is written in free verse (a form of poetry in which no formal meter is used) without any rhyme scheme, though perhaps with a rhymed couplet at the end and some internal rhyme at the beginning, but it is not as free as in some of Swenson’s other poems. There is enjambment, meaning that sentences carry over from one stanza to another, creating a feeling of movement in the poem, but most lines end with the end of syntactic units; phrases generally are not broken over two lines, but come to an end when the lines end, so there is regularity as well as movement, order as well as wildness, reflecting the content of the poem.
Metaphors, Symbolism, and Synecdoche
‘‘The Centaur’’ might be said to contain metaphors, in which one thing is described in terms of another: the willow branch is a horse; the girl’s hair is a horse’s mane; and the girl snorts and paws the ground . . . Read More