by Seamus Heaney (1939-)

course4-book1 Heaney’s poem concerns a young man in the process of self-discovery. He unearths his identity as an aspiring writer by recollecting his father and grandfather, both Irish potato diggers.

At first the speaker sees only differences between the two older men and himself. But gradually he comes to realize the similarities between their work—and the skill with which they mastered it—and his work as a writer.

Please take time to read this poem aloud. Listen for the musical quality of the words: “The course boot nestled on the lug” is a wonderfully musical line.

1. Notice the fine alliteration (repetitive use of similar consonant sounds):
• a clean rasping sound / when the spade sinks into the gravelly ground
• the squelch and slap / of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
• nicking and slicing neatly.

2. The speaker undergoes a shift in attitude. At first he “looks down,” literally, at his father from the higher position of the window. In focusing on his father’s “straining rump,” the speaker projects a condescending tone, but by stanza 5 he exclaims, “By God, the old man could handle a spade.” In stanza 6 he remembers with pride that his grandfather “cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toner’s bog.” And at the end of stanza 8, he fears his own inadequacy: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

3. The pen is the poem’s central symbol, and in the last line the young man vows to “dig with it”—much as his father and grandfather dug deeply with their spades. A writer digs into the fertile soil of his imagination.

4. In the first lines, the young writer compares his pen to a gun, a simile that puzzled me … until one of my students, an avid hunter, suggested an answer. A gun is an instrument of precision, and when a good marksman takes aim, he hits his mark. The same with a good writer—only his targets are ideas, characters, plot. He shoots with words rather than bullets.

A & P
by John Updike (1932-2009)

course4-book2 Updike’s story is a classic “coming-of-age” tale about a young man who makes a brave stand...all to no avail. He learns a hard lesson about adult life.

Sammy speaks to us with a sarcastic, irreverent voice—he’s very funny; at the same time, his jabs are trenchant and insightful.

Updike is having fun in this story: think of it as a mock romance—a knight in shining armor who comes to the aid of a damsel in distress. Medieval romances were all about knights and nobles, and Sammy even calls his young damsel “Queenie.” Compared to Sammy, she’s of noble birth: think martinis vs. beer.

Also, for those too young to remember, A & P stood for the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, at one time the largest national grocery chain. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the A & P was ubiquitous, much like Wal-Mart today. You could walk into an A & P anywhere in the country and find the cat food. They were all alike.

1. Setting is central in this story—there are four:

store: strict order—every shelf organized by product and lable; conformity—shoppers walk up and down aisles (like sheep).
town: small and parochial; residents never venture five miles to the coastline. It’s also close to Salem, Mass., a sly allusion to the 17th-century witch trials— an even slier allusion to the McCarthy hearings in Congress.
1950s: the McCarthy era when Communists were the 20th-century's witches, and suspicious individuals needed to be rooted out.
summer: affluent tourists flock to the shore

2. Order and conformity are primary thematic concerns. In the store, the town, and the culture of the 1950’s, individuality, eccentricity, or just bucking the tide created suspicion. The entrance of the girls, in their state of undress and their wayward meandering through the aisles, represents a serious disruption to order

3. Be sure to catch the humor in the story— Sammy’s wry, cynical commentary about pretty much everything. My favorite is Sammy’s wonderment when he picks up the jar of herring and hears Queenie talk: "I slid right down her voice into her living room” where life is far classier than what he’s used to. The comparison between the martinis with “olives and sprigs of mint” and his own family’s “Schlitz in tall glasses” is incredibly funny. Yet the humor also points to the very real class distinctions between affluent summer vacationers and less affluent “townies.”

4. Sammy quits on principle—to defend damsels in distress. But when he goes to receive a reward for his heroic deed, he’s severely disappointed. He learns a hard lesson: the world is a tough place for those who stand on principle or for those who yearn to be free of mind-numbing conformity.

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