For My Grandmother Knitting by Liz Lochhead is a six-stanza poem that utilizes repeated wording, a lack of punctuation, a distinct choice of perspective, and simplistic ideas of history to showcase the story of a grandmother who has a goal to remain useful in the modern world. While those around her might feel that her actions are “[un]necessary” given the limitations her physical abilities have endured through the aging process, she hides her discomfort and continues with her contributions in a deeply-rooted determination to be useful.
The phrasing echoes the sentiment that she cannot help herself in this regard any more than the younger generation can help not understanding her mentality. No matter how much that younger generation assumes her contributions do not matter in the literal sense of what her knitting products are, those products mean much more to the grandmother since they are her method of catering to those she loves. She needs to be useful, and she will continue.
For My Grandmother Knitting Analysis
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.
The first stanza dives into the narrative of the poem without giving any kind of introduction in regard to who is being discussed, which immediately creates a disconnect between the reader and the plot. Since there is no statement about this introductory information, the reader must infer who is being addressed by the title, and that person is the grandmother. In addition, no specific information is given about what her “hands” are doing, and the reader must again infer that the activity is knitting from the title.
This approach mirrors the disconnect between generations that is referenced within the first line of the stanza when the narrator declares that “[t]here is no need they say” for the action that is being undertaken. Despite the more modern concept that no “necessary” place exists for the craft being undertaken, the grandmother still knits without a care for the disregard that is granted to the practice from the younger generation, and the younger generation does not understand why the grandmother is knitting. Both sides are at a loss in connection to the other’s mentality, and the lack of information being given to the reader is a parallel of that separation in thought. Another quality the poem showcases that mirrors that disconnect is the lack of punctuation throughout the poem, as is evidenced in this first stanza since it creates an unorganized confusion.
What the reader can physically note, however, is that the grandmother has been involved with “fish[ing],” and even though she is aged, she is still competent with knitting. The “rhythms in the working of [her] hands” are “as eas[y] as if [her] hands were once again those sure and skilful hands” she once had. This hints that her “hands” are not as steady and youthful as they once were, but she is still capable of successfully knitting. It is also noteworthy that “skilful” is misspelled, which represents that she is not as capable as she once was in knitting, but what she is currently capable of is sufficient to be understood. Just as “skilful” is missing a letter but is still recognizable, the abilities the grandmother has lost over time affect the final version of the products, but not so much as to make those products completely unfitting. There is value there, even if the results have changed.
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
This stanza continues with the limited punctuation to address the disconnect between the generations, and it deals more with the history of the grandmother. Like the first stanza, the narration of this section highlights the grandmother’s lessened abilities through age since her “grasp of things is not so good,” and once more, the reference to her history is strengthened by her dealings with “fish.” This time, however, the action of the “slit[ting]” of the “fish” is referenced as a specific action from her past. By stating this element of “fish[ing,]” the reader now knows she was not just involved with something as knitting-related as creating nets. Rather, her “hands” were strong enough to “master” something as “necessary” as preparing food.
In the end, this “necessity” is the key element being solidified to the reader since the knitting has thus far been treated as “[un]necessary,” which addresses yet another element of the disconnect between the generations. Back in her younger days, the grandmother’s actions were treated as “[h]ard work” and a “necessity,” but modern people treat them as not “need[ed].”
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 slapped sometimes
The usefulness of the grandmother’s “hands” is expanded in regard to her past experiences beyond the “fish[ing]” principle as the narrator takes the reader through a series of applications and tasks those “hands” have had. Specifically, she has “scrubbed [her husband’s] back” and “mended” materials for her “six” children over the years. Beyond these designated tasks, the narration explains general elements of the grandmother’s life. She was a “miner’s wife” and “the bride with the hand-span waist.” Overall, this stanza is the one that takes the reader deeply into the grandmother’s history to show how significant she was in her earlier years—that she was “necessary.”
This repeated concept, “necessity,” shows a striving and yearning toward returning to that same “necessary” level of existence, just as the repeated notion of “they say there is no need” shows a constant state of that “necessity” being downplayed by the younger generation. Given that the stanza includes actions that she tended to with her “hands” as well as labels she embraced throughout her years, it is possible that this book-ended depiction of the scenario concerns more than just her knitting abilities. Rather, it can be seen as a representation of her overall place in society, that she yearns to be “necessary,” but the youth of the world insist she is not.
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…
Within this stanza, the general concept of “necessity” versus a lack of “necessity” is scaled back from a societal level to an actual family showcasing this contrast of opinion. The grandmother, once more, is noted as tending to these hobbies that “there is no need” for in the modern world, and she is doing this for her grandchildren by knitting “scarves and cardigans,” likely among other creations that those grandchildren “can wear.”
It is possible that the grandmother sees this as a method of staying “necessary” and helpful to her family, but the grandchildren brush off the actions as things that have “no need” since they “have too much already.” While the reader might not feel harshness of criticism from the grandchildren—in fact, these lines can be envisioned as being delivered through loving grins—the downplay of the grandmother’s actions can still tear down what remains of the “necessity” she is trying to hold to. If the grandchildren do not “need” the creations she makes for them, “there’s no necessity” to it, which would mean her abilities to provide for those she loves are not “need[ed]” any longer.
Also worth noting is that the punctuation disorganization of the poem is elevated within this stanza since a word seems to be missing. Specifically, there is no noted subject for “have too much already.” The children would likely say “we have too much already,” but the word has been omitted to create further confusion and disorganization that parallel the disconnect of the generations.
As well, this prevents a first person perspective from being utilized in the poem, limiting the perspectives to second and third person. The narrator is expressing the plot in third person as things happen to the family, and the grandmother is being treated in second person, such as “your hands” and “you slit.” This lack of first person perspective shows the narrator herself is irrelevant since nothing is being stated from her point of view, and the tendency to only use “you” for the grandmother indicates that all others are not the focus. Instead, the grandmother is being showcased as the focal point of the work by being the only one formally and specifically addressed.
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 rhythms in the working of your hands
as if your hands remembered
of their own accord the pattern
as if your hands had forgotten
how to stop.
The grandmother bids “goodbye” to her grandchildren on “Sunday,” and the damage her “hands” have endured over the years is then addressed. By waiting until the grandchildren are gone, the narrator could be noting that the grandmother hides her discomfort from them in an effort to seem all right. She endures the hurt quietly, but once the grandchildren are gone, she can admit that discomfort. She has “painful hands…on shrunken wrists” that are “[s]wollen-jointed,” “[r]ed,” “[a]rthritic,” and “[o]ld,” and in the wake of her grandchildren’s departure, she can admit those stresses and burdens.
Still, she does not quit knitting, whether this is from a need to be “necessary” or a learned trait of pushing forward. In fact, “the needles still move their rhythms…easily,” despite the discomfort and layered reasons to let the process of knitting go.
The idea that her “hands” are noted as performing these knitting tasks like they are doing so “of their own accord” lends credence to the possibility that this will to be useful is so ingrained in her that she cannot help herself. If such is the case, it is not that she needs to feel useful. It is rather that she needs to be useful, even if the world around her cannot see that usefulness as something that is “necessary.” Her need to tend to this responsibility runs deeper than others’ perspectives—again another reason why she is the only one addressed outside of third person perspective—”as if [she] had forgotten how to stop.”
In the end, the grandmother does not seem to be looking for acknowledgement of usefulness. She only needs to be useful, and while it is heartbreaking that the world cannot see her “necessity,” that lack of perspective is not enough to keep her from doing what she feels she needs to do. She will keep knitting, being “necessary” in the one way she knows she still can.
About Liz Lochhead
Born in 1947, Liz Lochhead is a poet from Scotland who has also found success as an art teacher, and she was the recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. She married an architect named Tim Logan, and she penned multiple collections of literature that showcase such a simplistic, but meaningful, approach to wording that she easily stands out among her poet peers.