How does Heaney use language and devices to make the familiar strange?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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What makes this Nobel Prizewinning author, now sadly no longer with us, so special, is the way that he takes scenes based on his childhood in Ireland and imbues them with such familiarity, but then causes the reader to see them in a completely different and more subversive way. Take, for example, his poem "Blackberry-Picking," which immediately conjures up memories that will be familiar to any number of children living in the countryside. What begins as a poem that fulfills our expectations of children picking blackberries and eating them, enjoying the "lust for / Picking," turns into a profound meditation of death and the mortality of man, as the blackberries that are hoarded by the children in hope of keeping them as a stock throughout the autumn and winter months, turn bad:

Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.

I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

The blackberries then become a powerful symbol of the attempt of man to defy the aging process and conquer death, and the inevitable failure of such attempts. Just as the children each year try to pick blackberries and keep them from rotting, so too it proves impossible to stop time and death in its tracks. Just as the beauty of the blackberries that initially taste like "thickened wine," filled with "summer's blood," eventually turns "sour" and smells of "rot," so too is man destined to die. This poem was written in memory of Philip Hobsbaum, and is a perfect example of the way in which Heaney uses everyday and simple language and devices to make the familiar seem strange by taking something that we have expectations of and then subverting it and turning it into a symbol of something else entirely. 

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