Seamus Heaney poetry
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Poetry – AS: Paper 2, Section B The Language of Literary Texts
A Level Paper 2, Section A The Language of Poetry and Plays
At both AS and A Level, this examined component asks students to analyse the use and impact of poetic and stylistic techniques, demonstrating how meaning and effects are created.
Topic: Seamus Heaney, selected poems
- Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a substantial poetry collection.
- Apply relevant methods for text analysis, drawing on linguistic and literary techniques.
- Explore how linguistic and literary approaches can inform interpretations of texts.
- Identify how meanings and effects are created and conveyed in texts.
- Analyse the ways in which a poetry text draws on its literary, cultural and stylistic contexts.
At AS Level, the exam asks the students to compare two named poems from the collection they have been studying.
At A Level, the exam asks the students to compare the named poem with one or two others of their choice from the collection they have been studying.
This examined component requires the students to read the following fifteen poems written by Seamus Heaney: “Death of a Naturalist”, “Churning Day”, “Fodder”, “Anahorish”, “Act of Union”, “The Tolland Man”, “Punishment”, “Strange Fruit”, “Funeral Rites”, “The Haw Lantern” “Oysters”, “The Toome Road”, “A Kite for Michael and Christopher”, “Mycenae Lookout”, “Postscript”.
In this specification, the students will analyse how meanings are shaped in poetry, exploring how the poet uses poetic and stylistic techniques to present ideas. They will focus on the way in which meaning is created through the use of pattern making and pattern breaking, (deviation) and through repetition.
This analysis will require the students to have an awareness of phonology, lexis and semantics, grammar and morphology, pragmatics and discourse.
Students will also analyse the connections between the poems, and explore the influence of context on the poems. The context may be the literary context (the way in which the poem uses the conventions of a particular genre, for example), or the broader social or historical context.
Conceptual links to other parts of the specification
In common with AS Paper 2, Section A (The Language of Prose), and A Level Paper 3, Section A (Reading as a Writer, Writing as a Reader), this paper requires the students to think about how the texts are constructed, rather than simply analysing the themes, for example. The focus might be on how the choice of first person narrator shapes the meaning of the poem, for instance, rather than on who that narrator actually is.
The students closely analyse the language of poetry through poetic and stylistic techniques, which is a useful skill that can be applied to other AS and A Level units. The knowledge they gain about the way in which language works, the effects that it creates, and the way in which it can be used, is also an excellent basis for the students’ own written work at A Level, and for any analysis that they do of either spoken or written texts in almost any genre.
An understanding of the relevance of context is essential to any study that requires students to think about the purpose or audience of the text (particularly relevant in the exploration of the texts in the anthology in AS and A Level Paper 1, for example).
In this component, the students are already required to make connections between two named poems (AS) or between one named poem and one or two poems of their choice (A Level), and this process of finding connections is part of thinking contextually. The students are exploring the poem in the light of at least one other poem in the collection, and are therefore thinking about the patterns that emerge or the patterns that are broken in terms of the poet’s choice of lexis, syntax etc.
An awareness of the broader context of other genres is also required in order that the students can see how the poet breaks or follows those conventions.
Some knowledge of wider social or historical context may be useful, if that context affects the grammatical, or lexical choices made by the poet.
The activities in this guide are examples of the way in which the context of the poems can be explored.
Learner Resource 1 – overview of poems and themes, integrating the poet’s own comments with more general identification of themes.
Learner Resource 4 – where students interpret “The Haw Lantern”, with reference to different contextual stimuli (folklore, the Irish Troubles, Diogenes), exploring to what extent the context might influence their reading of the poem.
Learner Resource 5 – an activity that requires students to use the guidance for one poem, to provide the inspiration for the analysis for another, and in the process the students are asked to integrate context into the general examination of voice, lexis, grammar and syntax, figurative language etc.
In this activity, students are given a list of quotes taken from 15 of Heaney’s poems and asked to find any links they can between them. They may start by identifying thematic links, but they can then go on to begin to think about the characteristic narrative voice, or any lexical patterns that are evident.
This task would serve as an introductory activity to the study of Heaney’s poetry, and consequently, there is support for the students in terms of a list of Heaney’s themes, for example. They can then go on to link their findings to the extracts taken from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Lecture (“Crediting Poetry”), as a consolidation activity.
It would provide a good starting point for Learner resource 2, which asks the students to more closely analyse the poetry.
For an overview of Heaney’s work and a list of further reading click on the 'Seamus Heaney biography' link.
This is an activity in which students work in groups on clusters of different word classes taken from the poem “A Kite for Michael and Christopher”. They have guidance in the form of open and closed questions to help their discussion and analysis. Having heard all the feedback, it may be worth having a discussion about how the meaning emerges from these apparently disconnected words. This may be a new way for the students to approach the poem, and they may be surprised to discover the depth of analysis that can be achieved. The summative discussion that takes place after the students have read the poem is therefore important. The introductory paragraph task could be done individually in class, as an assignment, or as a group activity.
This activity would work well early on in the teaching of Heaney, building the students’ confidence in terms of writing about Heaney and considering his use of poetic and stylistic techniques.
See also an example of stylistic analysis of a poem (at degree level).
Listen to Heaney giving a short talk about, and then reading “A Kite for Michael and Christopher”.
The students are encouraged to think about the phonology of “Anahorish” and how Heaney uses the sound of words to help shape the meaning in the poem. This activity guides them through the first verse, before asking them to continue to plot the sound through the remaining three verses.
This task could be applied to any of Heaney’s poems, perhaps offering the students a slightly different way of approaching a poem, revealing how the patterns of sound affect its tone.
For more analysis on “Anahorish” , see Component 02 – which features candidate style answers with commentary.
This activity would work well mid-way through study of Heaney’s work, as a general knowledge of the poet’s characteristic preoccupations/lexis etc. would help the students’ analysis.
This activity gives students an opportunity to see how context can affect the way in which we read a poem. Three groups are each given a different piece of stimulus material, and a set of questions that they can choose to guide their analysis of the poem. In the feedback, the subjectivity of analysis becomes clear. The final task requires them to think about the lexical groups within the poem, and the fluidity with which the poet moves between metaphorical and literal.
The activity could be used as classwork, which then extends into an assignment where the students complete the analysis (looking at, for example, rhyme, rhythm, phonology, form, grammar and syntax), producing either an annotated poem, (or with the guidance of a question) an essay plan, or the essay itself.
This task would work well near the end of the study of Heaney’s poetry, as it has the potential for independent work, and could be used without the guiding questions.
In addition to the activity in Learner resource 5, these two tables could be used in many ways in the classroom. They could be used after the students have done their own analysis, and they could annotate the tables to add in their own ideas. They could use them to help to think about the structure of their essay, numbering the boxes and discussing whether they agree as a class. They could work in groups, taking the notes as a starting point to produce a presentation on one of the poems, or on a comparison of the poems, to the rest of the class. They could be encouraged to do further research on, for example, the bog bodies.
This activity is designed to be done later on in the study of Heaney, as it presumes that students have an understanding of the terminology and of Heaney’s characteristic use of language.
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