Masculinity in the Poetry of Owen Sheers
In Skirrid Hill, Owen Sheers explores many themes, one of which is undoubtedly manhood. Throughout the collection, he often focuses in on adolescence and discovering his power as an individual. In this way, it seems clear that Sheers is a poet who explores exactly what it feels like to be a man. Despite this, many of Sheers’ poems do not exclusively focus on what it feels like to be a man, as he explores many traditionally unmasculine themes, including nature, for example, in the poem ‘Swallows’.
The poem ‘Hedge School’ investigates Sheers’ realisation as a child of his own power as a man, specifically the potential for violence that he felt as he moved into adulthood. The title of the poem refers to Sheers’ roots in Ireland, as ‘hedge schools’ were institutions of informal education. By having the content of the poem about actual blackberry bushes, Sheers seems to be suggesting that his own education was really gained from the natural world and his experiences outside of school. The epigraph of the poem refers to a tale of wickedness and violence, which presents this as a predominant theme for the poem. This narrative tactic reflects back on the theme of manhood, as the boy in the poem moves through adolescence and realises that he is capable of such violence.
The first stanza explores the boy’s growing freedom as he moved from childhood into adulthood. He describes, ‘The walk home from school got longer / those first weeks of September,’ in which the use of enjambement emphasises his message of his journey home being drawn-out, as the child explores his freedom. This stanza also establishes the main theme of the poem, ‘picking of blackberries,’ which is initially presented as an innocent image of boyhood. Then, the second stanza really reflects Sheers’ feelings on being a man and the power that comes with it. Sheers uses vivid imagery to describe how the boy tastes the blackberries, referring to them as ‘a nervous heart’ and ‘cobwebbed and dusty as a Claret’, in which the use of simile presents how refined tastes become in adulthood. In this poem, it seems that the boy is reluctant to make the transition into adulthood and sees it as unappealing through these descriptions.
Sheers presents his take on what it feels like to be a man predominantly in the last stanza, which is significantly longer than the first three and which reflects the boy’s development and growth in this poem. This stanza uses more violent and sinister language, such as ‘close my palm into a fist’, which suggests that violence is central to being male. His use of similes (’knuckles scratched and my hand blue-black red, as bloodied as a butcher’s or a farmer’s at lambing’) creates dark imagery and introduces a realisation of life and death, perhaps as a boy would realise as he grew into adolescence. The final line of the poem reinforces Sheers’ true message of identity and manhood in the poem, ‘a boy who’s discovered for the very first time, just how dark he runs inside.’ This presents the idea of the boy discovering his power and desires as a man, and how these lessons he’s learnt through nature itself. This idea is introduced early in the poem, when Sheers suggests, ‘Another lesson perhaps, this choice of how to take them,’ emphasising the options a young boy has when growing into a man, and how he might discover this set of options.
‘Hedge School’ has little evidence of rhyme and is written in irregular stanzas; this form of free verse lets the reader have more detail and gain a deeper insight into what Sheers is truly saying. In this way, it is clear that Sheers is trying to create a poem that is structured almost like a string of thoughts, as a young boy explores his own choices in his transition into manhood. In the collection, the poem is positioned among other poems about growing up, family, and nature. It acts as a momentary reflection on a darker turning point of childhood, amongst more sentimental poems such as ‘Farther’ and ‘Trees’.
‘Joseph Jones’ is another poem that clearly explores exactly what it feels like to be a man. The poem is titled purposely with names known to be common, which suggests that Sheers is trying to present a stereotype of what a man should be. The use of alliteration within the name almost brings a comical sense to the poem, which supports the stereotype as the poem begins quite clearly portraying a typical ‘lad’, an image often viewed with humour. The poem opens with a sense of nostalgia (‘Of course I remember Joseph’) and goes on to describe what the man was like (‘Fifty press-ups before a night out, hair shined with gel…’) which presents the character as macho and over-confident. This description also sets the tone of the poem as conversational, perhaps to represent how casually Joseph liked to present himself, despite how much effort he really put into his appearance. These descriptions suggest that Sheers is presenting his view of what it feels like to be a younger man, one more concerned with how others view him. The speaker remembers Joseph bragging about his sexual exploits, a traditionally very boisterous thing to do: ‘Told us all how he got his red wings.’ This vulgarity suggests that Sheers is presenting how society often conditions men into being derogatory towards women. This idea is continued within the stanza with descriptions of the girl being purely about her clothing rather than articulating or embodying anything of substance: ‘Her skirt,’ ‘white tights shed to high heels.’
Sheers goes on to show the reader that despite the illusion of Joseph Jones, in reality he had made little of himself. He describes him as a ‘small town myth’ which seems to downplay everything that has been said about Joseph so far, illustrating the idea that his confidence is just an illusion. In the final stanza, Sheers uses a listing technique to show all that Joseph had achieved: ‘XR2, late nights fights, a trial once’. The layout of this stanza makes the lines look particularly short compared to the previous stanzas, portraying the empty space in Joseph’s life. It ends the poem on a melancholy note, suggesting that there is a lack of substance to the character. This shows that Sheers is presenting exactly what it feels like to be a man, as this idea of a typical, macho man cannot be lived up to and will likely not end up with a very fulfilling life. ‘Joseph Jones’ is, in fact, positioned in the collection directly after ‘Hedge School’, which suggests that Sheers is presenting to the reader a transition from boyhood, to the realisation of his power as a man, to manhood being presented as essentially disappointing; despite how it may look on the surface. This poem clearly shows Sheers’ as exploring exactly what it feels like to be a man.
In contrast, in the poem ‘Swallows’, rather than exploring what it feel like to be a man Sheers focuses on the nature and its regenerative power, which are seen as generally unmasculine themes. The title of the poem is significant as swallows themselves are traditionally symbolic of the cycle of life, reflecting the predominant theme of the poem, nature. Sheers describes the swallows as ‘italic’ which shows them to be elegant. This image is further explored by Sheers as he uses the word choice ‘jive’ to create imagery of the swallows being like dancers in the sky. He goes on to say how they fly ‘between the telephone wires’ which as well as presenting them as agile, suggests that Sheers recognises the contrasts between nature and the man made world. The way Sheers presents nature here is shown to very pure and beautiful.
Sheers’ main message in ‘Swallows’ is that the lives and deaths of the birds are overlooked. This idea is explored in the second stanza (‘there is no seam / between parent and child’) before being continued in the final stanza, where the line ‘Just always the swallows’ shows that Sheers recognises the inclination of humans to take things for granted, and see the swallows as something that will always be there for us to notice. He goes on to describe the swallows as having a sense of permanency, ‘script of descenders, / dipping their ink to sign their signatures / across the page of the sky.’ By comparing the swallows’ flight to writing, Sheers recognises their significance in nature, and seems to compare their permanence to the permanence of his writing. The structure of this poem is regular quatrains, which are perhaps used to reflect the perfection of nature through Sheers’ eyes, as he romanticises the swallows. His view of nature in this poem is centered on death and the cyclical nature of life, in great contrast to previous poems which explored what it feels like to be a man.
Although Sheers’ writing sometimes reflects traditionally unmasculine themes such as nature, he is a poet who explores exactly what it feels like to be a man. This emphasis evident through his exploration of boyhood and adolescence in ‘Hedge School’ and stereotypes of men in ‘Joseph Jones’.
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In Skirrid Hill, Owen Sheers explores many themes, one of which is undoubtedly manhood. Throughout the collection, he often focuses in on adolescence and discovering his power as an individual. […]