Poetry Review: “Digging” by Seamus Heaney

For the next month or so, postings at MontanaWriter will be sparse by necessity, and I will be re-posting –with new content and edits– some older posts that were written and posted before readership here really began to grow. Soon, “and very soon,” there will be enough time again… for new directions and trajectories. But for now, patience is the order of the day.

The first  book of Seamus Heaney’s I ever purchased wasSweeney Astray at a used bookstore in Dinkytown, Minneapolis. That was in October 1986. Since then I have purchased and read many, many other books of his poetry and prose. I treasure each and every one.

By the time Heaney published Sweeny Astray in 1983, he had already written and published a number of volumes of poetry. On the day I purchased the book, a translation  of a medieval Irish work called Buile Suibhne, I was more familiar with the famous Irish  character of Mad Sweeney than I was of poet/translator Seamus Heaney. By the time I finished the book, I was a committed Heaney fan.

Those who are old enough to remember life before the internet, will remember that there was a time when finding information could be difficult, when was not as simple as just “googling” a name and sifting through hits.

In 1986, when I wanted to know more about this poet I had just “discovered,” and what other books he may have written, I had to go to the library at the University of Minnesota. I spent an entire weekend “researching” Heaney, taking notes in one of old  composition book I always used as a journal… and days combing the shelves of various used bookstores looking for his works. Almost 25 years later, out of habit I suppose, I still find myself looking for his works whenever I am at used bookstores, even though I think I have almost everything he has written.

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland. His best poetry centers around the places and faces of his childhood and youth. He is at his best when writing about those things. “Digging” is such a poem. It is also a wonderful poem about writing poetry.

Enjoy!

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

 

Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

* * * * * * * * * *

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

This is one of Heaney’s first poems and in it we see so much that we have come to associate with him: sounds, themes, and that remarkable ear. There are few poets that are as delightful to read out-loud, or at least, few late 20th Century ones.

In Heaney we find the DNA of Yeats and Auden mixed with something earthier (Patrick Kavanaugh at his best). While Yeats and Auden have little of the the working class, the earthy, the common place in their language, perspective, or subject matter (something almost always a part of the best Americanpoetry) , Heaney along with Ted Hughes, “rediscovered” the earth and earthliness and brought it back to British Isles poetry.

 

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