Thursday, December 7, 2006

Seamus Heaney, "Digging"

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.


From Death of a Naturalist (1966)

This poem mines a similar vein to yesterday's - that of the poet's personal conception of his own poetic activity, with implications of how that poet and activity are related to society. Throughout his work, Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) exhibits an interest in the characteristic (Northern) Irish obsessions with "rootedness", lineage, and tradition in a general sense. Here these common threads are particularized using Heaney's own rural experience, made vivid by his evocation of the sense and deft crafting of sound - "the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots awaken in my head." As with Neruda, a history of political oppression and unrest lurks behind the poem (though it was written before the beginning of the late-twentieth-century Troubles in 1969), as well as a question of value of poetry compared to the productive labor of farm work - these matters of course highlighted in the bookending first and last stanzas. In [his own] defense {of poetry}, the poet suggests it as a force of connection with his lineage and tradition, as in other poems in the next couple collections he will "dig up" history. A more critical reading, however, might begin by noticing the acknowledgment of the break, the sense that Heaney is not following in his fathers' work, that for all the "rootedness" of the poem's imagery, the roots in the penultimate stanza are cut. The gender valence of the poem also begs mention - not just the patrilineal conception of lineage and tradition, but phallic and sexual nature of the pen/gun/shovel, and the question of whether such activity may be a violence upon the land.
These readings certainly complicate the assured authority of the voice and the position professed. What the final judgment is - of the poem's "meaning", what we ought to think of it, or what we ought to think of Heaney for writing it - I can't tell you. I guess reading poetry is also a bit like digging - we uncover many layers in our work, but each only tells part of the story of the land and what might grow from it.

(More about Seamus Heaney: - audio)

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