Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Something about "Digging"

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

The first line of Seamus Heaney's "Digging" is no pose; it's a picture of himself, pen in hand, where it fits "snug as a gun." It's a simile specifically chosen because Heaney believes that whatever he's writing--this very poem perhaps--is worthy of reckoning and not silly, not at all. That gun even suggests even some urgency.

But as he sits there this sound intrudes.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging.

He's trying to write. His father is working.

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.

In his son's memory, Seamus Heaney's father is digging potatoes, churning the ground with that spade; and the whole business is a little wearying. After all Seamus Heaney isn't wielding a shovel, only a pen--a gun of a pen, but only a pen. Maybe he feels as if he's not measuring up. Maybe his father doesn't get this pen his son insists on.

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.

There was, after all, some rich enjoyment to the job. He father loved his work.

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.

As did his father before him, a man whose potato prowess carried through the whole blame town. That memory births another:

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.

His grandfather's renown triggers a larger vision, an estimation of those particularly Irish potatoes and an entire way of life.


One word, the title, used now twice in this short poem because now that word has come to mean more than it did when in his imagination he first heard his father with the spade. With that one word, the man with the pen comes full circle, digging up his own metaphorical potatoes.

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.
He's become his father's son, his grandfather's child. He may never dig potatoes, but he wants them both to know that he too is digging.

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.

Seamus Heaney's poem examines the richness of history and heritage, even when it may seem that a legacy has been left behind. He's proud of from whence he comes; but he'll dig in different fields than they did.

"Digging" is among the very first poems I lugged into my first college class, 41 years ago. I read it again last week when Garrison Keillor used it on Writers Almanac and remembered it, as well as that moment so long ago.

I remember loving it because I found myself in it, and I remember believing my students would love it too, might even find themselves in it, many of them from working class families that hadn't sent kids off to college before, from farms where just then the soybeans were yellowing or the cows had to be milked.

I wanted them to love "Digging" too. Makes me smile this morning to think I could.

But even if I didn't, today those students are 50-somethings. They know what it feels like when "living roots awaken" in their heads and in their hearts. They have a sense, I'm sure, of the living heritage rooted in each of them.

Even if they don't sit, pen in hand, or fingers over keyboards, I guessing most know something about digging.

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