Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hopeful Digging with a Nobel Prize Winner

A view of Oranmore, Ireland
(with Oranmore Castle in the distance)
Last summer I was in Ireland--home of Nobel Prize winner and poet Seamus Heaney. I actually heard Seamus Heaney (pronounced "Shay-mus Hay-knee") speak at the AWP conference in Boston in February 2013. What a fascinating man to listen to. He seemed like he had 2 feet on the ground at all times--though his mind and imagination knew no limits.

It was during my time in Ireland that I first read his poem "Digging" from his collection Death of a Naturalist. I love the way he handles the passage of time. How there are so many layers to all he says-- "the curt cuts of an edge/ Through living roots awaken in my head." The imagery and innuendo of this poem is striking.

Coming from a line of farmers myself and living in a rural, semi-agrarian area, Heaney's connection with the earth is familiar, as is his disconnect from the earth as well. His line "But I've no spade to follow men like them" resonates with me, as does his final decision to dig with his pen rather than his spade.

I believe hope is threaded throughout this poem. Perhaps that is what draws me to it the most.

After reading "Digging" for the first time, I had to share it with my fellow word-lovers and word-smiths. So, over a dinner of Indian food in Oranmore, Ireland, I read "Digging" to 3 of my dearest friends and watched the words of Seamus Heaney cast a spell over our quiet corner table.

Reading "Digging" over dinner in Oranmore
As you read, imagine the lush Irish landscape, savor the language, listen for the hope. (You can hear Heaney read the poem here.)

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 again, 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.


Wishing you all a happy NATIONAL POETRY MONTH and a Hopeful Tuesday!



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Karen. And thank you, too, for that picture of the reading. It's one of my favorites.

  2. Lovely, eloquent and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing...

  3. I was thinking of my Grandfather in his little garden that he took us too. I am not sure why he took us because there were potato bugs and dirt. I guess he felt he had to toughen up the next generation as well. This poem made me picture his hands, rough and well seasoned.

    1. I love that this brings to mind your grandfather's hands - "rough and well seasoned." Amazing the things we remember and the things that are passed on to us. Thanks, Laura.

  4. This poem remains as lovely as it ever was, and im so glad you are sharing it with us all over again

    1. PS- excuse my crappy punctuation,I am battling through the comments section with obstreperous technology!

    2. Punctuation aside [insert smiley] thanks for reading, Liza. It was fun to relive our lovely Oranmore experience.

  5. Love it, love it, Anna. I've never read Seamus Heaney, so thank you for sharing. I've had the spade, but still don't feel like I do a very good job of following men and women like them.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed Seamus, Danni! This poem actually brought you to my mind :)


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