Poetry Sunday: Digging

The world lost one of its most famous, best beloved, and most honored poets last week, when Seamus Heaney of Ireland died at age 74. Many of his obituaries hailed the Nobel Prize-winning poet for his ability to meld the soil and strife of Ireland into poetry of lyrical beauty and ethical depth.

He was born on a family farm in Northern Ireland, but, as an adult who was Catholic and nationalist, he chose to live in Dublin. However, his poetry often used the imagery of his childhood. He wrote of peat bogs, small towns, and potato farms. He also wrote of the sectarian violence that tore Northern Ireland apart. He explored both the causes of the violence and its inevitable sorrows.

The first thing that I specifically remember reading of Heaney's was the wonderful translation that he did of Beowulf several years ago. I had fallen in love with that ancient work when I had to read it in college many years before. Heaney's translation was a revelation which made clear the brilliance of the poem.

I can't say that I have read a lot of Heaney's original poetry, but most of what I've read I have liked very much. There is one in particular, though, that stands out in my mind and that is the one I am featuring on this Poetry Sunday.


Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; 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.

Heaney dug deep with his pen, and with it he brought beauty and enlightenment to the world.  


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