National Poetry Month, day 1: Seamus Heaney

I want to post a poem each day this month! Here is the first, a poem about writing poetry, by Seamus Heaney. Note how he compares his own work–writing, with the pen as his tool–with that of his father, who is digging up potatoes in the garden. It’s a metaphor that works in a lot of ways: if one characterizes writing as “digging”, then one sees writing as a way of delving deep into the regions of the mind as digging is a way of delving deep into the regions of the world.

But Heaney also sees a disconnect between the work that he does, the work with which he is accustomed and comfortable and skilled at doing, and the work that his father and his grandfather did with such strength and skill, stopping only to drain an offered bottle of milk. How vivid the details: the smell of the potato plants and their fungi, the sound the peat makes as one digs, the sharpness of the lines left by the men doing the digging. A tone of possible regret creeps in as Heaney notes that he has no spade to take up of his own. He cannot dig in the earth as his forebears did.

But he can dig with the “squat pen”.

“Digging”, by Seamus Heaney

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.

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