Poetry Review: “Digging” by Seamus Heaney

seamus-heaneyThe 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, it 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 an old  composition book I 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 when 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.



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.

Comments are closed.