This poem was written for people like me that somehow dismiss their grandparents as relics of a forgotten world who are just completely out of touch with the present and pretty useless, all in all.
However, it is meant as a defense against this attitude and makes us consider who old people were and what they have accomplished in their lives. We are made to acknowledge the cruelty of the aging process and what it does to us all, but forced to accept that this does not diminish the individual or their worth.
There is no need they say
but the needles still move
their rhythms in the working of your hands
as if your hands
were once again those sure and skilful hands
of the fisher-girl.
You are old now
and your grasp of things is not so good
but master of your moments then
deft and swift
you slit the still-ticking quick silver fish.
Hard work it was too
But now they say there is no need
as the needles move
in the working of your hands
once the hands of the bride
with the hand-span waist
once the hands of the miner’s wife
who scrubbed his back
in a tin bath by the coal fire
once the hands of the mother
of six who made do and mended
scraped and slaved
But now they say there is no need
the kids they say grandma
have too much already
more than they can wear
too many scarves and cardigans –
gran you do too much
there’s no necessity…
At your window you wave
them goodbye Sunday.
With your painful hands
big on shrunken wrists.
Swollen-jointed. Red. Arthritic. Old.
But the needles still move
their rhythm in the working of your hands
as if your hands remembered
of their own accord the patter
as if your hands had forgotten.
Liz Lochhead (1947-)
Lochhead is a Scottish poet – in fact she is currently the National Poet of Scotland – playwright and dramatist.
Unfortunately for us, there isn’t a huge amount of information out there that will allow us to explore any personal connection or autobiographical elements in this poem, but I’m not sure it is particularly difficult to imagine her inspiration.
If you do want to read a bit about her, the best biographical information I read can be found here.
As with the entirety of this collection, we definitely have an exploration of a certain type of love; this time it is familial love and based on respect and admiration.
Lochhead’s respect is based almost on imagination or assumed memory about how her grandmother has worked to bring up and develop their family unit and thus we could look at a broad theme of the importance of family.
The whole poem takes place while a grandchild sits and contemplates her grandmother knitting. It is important to remember this is the perspective as it allows us to analyse some of the ideas discussed more accurately.
If Hollywood decided to make a film about one poem, it wouldn’t be this one. All that happens is an old person sits and knits while a grandchild has a bit of a ponder about what her life must’ve been like.
In the opening stanza we have the reported voice of some family members who tell the grandmother she really doesn’t need to knit anything for them anymore. Stubborn as an ox, grandma continues regardless with deft and automatic movements and our poetic voice ponders what those hands were able to do in grandma’s younger days.
We move on to a fairly dismissive reflection on her state of mind at the beginning of the second. This is instantly current image is immediately replaced with an idea of how hard and skillfully she worked in her younger days.
The third echoes the first, with more calls for her to put the needles down, but is rapidly overshadows with a myriad of images of how those hands have worked and slaved to looked after and brought up a large family.
Still this dismissive voice insists what she is doing is pointless as their family no need her to work her backside off in order to provide for them. Luckily for grandma though these voices bugger off and leave her alone again after their visit. Grandma is presented to us at the end as suffering due to the aging process, but defiantly continuing to demonstrate the skills and hard work that has been her life.
Language and techniques
Okay, we need to start with our perspective.
The title tells us that the poetic voice comes from a grandchild (‘For My Grandmother’), but who are ‘they’? Given the context of the poem I think it is safe to assume that ‘they’ represent the grandmother’s children. However, we need to think about why Lochhead doesn’t just tell us this and instead chooses to address them using a collective pronoun.
Usually when you refer to other people as them you are highlighting the difference between you and them, usually because you think ‘they’ are somehow inferior to you. Think of the common idiom ‘us and them’, which is used to highlight divisions. I think this exactly what Lochhead is doing and we are certainly meant to side with the ‘us’ (in this case, grandma and grandchild) and think ‘they’ (grandma’s kids) are unfair or cruel.
By calling them ‘they’ it dehumanizes the poetic voice’s parents to a certain degree, which is fair in the context that their attitude is dismissive of the grandmother’s role in the world. In addition, this word units the poetic voice and the grandmother and shows us exactly where the sympathies of the poem lie.
The poem constantly overrules the dismissive ‘there is no need’ and ‘your grasp of things is not so good’ with the repetition of ‘but’. Every time grandma is patronised, she continues knitting defiantly, disregarding their views.
Now I want to talk about the imagery and symbolism of her knitting. I know you just want this to be a simple still image being described by Lochhead, but it isn’t. Yes, grandmothers knit, but consider exactly what knitting is. We can take a ball of yarn that is a mess and all over the shop and turn it into a lovely warm jumper or scarf. Her constant knitting symbolises how she has pulled together her family and made them a tight-knit group rather than a big disjointed mess.
Our poetic voice comments that her hands are ‘sure and skilful’, which relates to the dexterity and intricacy required when knitting and demonstrates how much respect our poetic voice has for her grandma. This could metaphorically represent the grandchild’s perception of the difficulty her grandma must have faced in bringing up a family of six and how much skill it must have required.
Additionally we appreciate that this represents how grandma has worked tirelessly to provide for her children her whole life. The fact her needles move ‘easily’ as if the ‘hands remembered’ makes of us think of her actions as being automatic or robot-like. This is a reflection of motherhood where a mother’s nature will automatically guide them to do what they can to provide for their young. In fact, Lochhead ends the poem by saying ‘as if your hands had forgotten’, which implies that grandma is not doing this consciously, but this is a natural instinct to provide for one’s own.
She ‘made do and mended’ to provide for her children and even though the reality of their lives has changed and now the families have ‘more than they can wear’, grandma still strives to make sure her children and grandchildren never go without.
This moves us on nicely to the contrasting times that Lochhead invites us to consider. Not only do we see different stages of her grandmother’s life (which I’ll go back to in a second), but also how the world has changed between the her youth and today. We can consider an austere war-time youth for the grandmother with the country going through rationing and some hardship, which is represented through Lochhead’s image of her having ‘scraped and slaved’ in order to get by. This picture is developed further by the nature of work she had to do to drag her family up, with her gutting fish, scrubbing and slaving, summed up quite neatly as ‘hard work it was too of necessity’. Compare this with her children who now have ‘more than they can wear’ and we can a dramatic improvement in the standard of living in the Western world where, relatively, we want for nothing.
The contrast between grandmother and her earlier incarnation as a working mother are just as stark. Her life is explored through the changing imagery of her hands. We get a brief glimpse of her youth in her ‘hands of the bride with the hand-span waist’, which suggests to me that at some point her life was solely focused on herself, her relationship. This last two lines before the hands begin to work as she ‘scrubbed’ her husband’s back, which also gives way quickly to her hands completing arduous tasks to look after her children.
Lochhead backs up her claims that her grandmother has worked hard in her life by calling her a ‘master of [her] moment’ and the lovely assonant and alliterative: ‘you slit the still-tickling quick silver fish’, which slides out of our mouths so deftly that we can feel it like her skill on our lips.
However, in the end we are left with her ‘painful hands’: ‘Swollen. Red. Arthritic. Old.’ This sums up how she is now seen by the world and lets us appreciate how elderly people feel. For all the hard work and graft we put into our lives, we are all going to be broken by aging and our bodies will only have memories of their former glories.
In spite of how useless she now is/feels, we are left with her continuing to knit, so doing whatever she can to continue trying to provide for her family, while also making us remember what she has done to provide for her relatives.
Some really interesting stuff here. I am going to focus on punctuation or the lack of it.
If you’ve read this out loud (which you absolutely should have done!), you’ll have notice that only the final stanza has any meaningful punctuation until it ends. The first four stanzas are effectively just long sentences, but overly long and difficult to get out in one breath.
This lack of punctuation provides a reflection of grandma’s life. As a wife, a mother and a grandma, she has worked all her life without break to bring up a big family. The repeating enjambment means we don’t stop examining all the hard work and graft she’s had to put into her life.
However, we have a stark contrast to this in the fifth stanza and particularly in the fifth line. As she ‘waves [her family] goodbye’ we have a much-needed pause. This symbolically represents the end of her life and the fact that she will finally be able to stop only when she no longer has to look after her family… because she’s DEAD! As she comes to the end of her life she continues providing for her family (through her knitting), but now the ‘painful hands’ and ‘shrunken wrists’ represent the fact that old age makes us less and less physically capable of supporting others. Again Lochhead breaks at the end of these two lines as after this pain becomes unbearable, granny pops her clogs.
The fifth line uses caesura to communicate the misery related to aging. Compared to the constant business of her previous life where she has never stopped (as demonstrated in the opening four stanzas), she now feels, and is made to feel, useless. She stops four times in this one line and each time she contemplates the pain and uselessness that her grandma must feel. Each of these adjectives is used not just to represent her hands, but the way she is perceived by her family, society and increasingly herself.
Although this poem is a really sweet poem in terms of its sentiment and the feeling of respect for the life of a grandmother, the tone is deeply melancholy. We respect and are in awe of all grandma has done for the family, but we are left acknowledging that she is no longer what she was and is becoming and feeling increasingly useless and out-of-place in the world.
If you want to do some more reading, check out BBC Bitesize who have analysed this poem superbly.