Seamus Heaney's Plainspoken Power

In his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), he wrote what would remain one of his most famous poems, “Digging,” a kind of ars poetica, which opens:

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.

Continuing this imaginary visit with his father, Heaney writes,
“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."

The poem returns, inevitably, to the self, as the poet contemplates the way memory makes “living roots awaken in my head,” and observes, pointedly, how different his desk work is from his forebears’ field labor:

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.

In the 1970s, after he left Belfast and moved to the Republic of Ireland, following Bloody Sunday, his work became increasingly engaged with ethical and national questions, with conflict, and so on. But it never lost its sensuousness, its subtle way of airing human mysteries. I always loved his later poem “The Underground” (the opening lyric from 1984’s Station Island) for the way it effortlessly blends myth, music, and a narrative of potential loss. In four compact quatrains, it describes two people running as if for a train, opening “There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,/ You in your going-away coat speeding ahead.” In a reversal, after the trains have gone, the speaker ends up alone retracing his steps, “Bared and tensed…all attention / For your step following and damned if I look back.” (So much work is done in that adjective “going-away”—at once vernacular, evocative of a time and place where people wore such things, and symbolic.)

Heaney was also extraordinarily kind. In 2008, 13 years after my youthful time abroad, I went back to Ireland for the first time to read at a national poetry festival at Dun Laoghaire, a suburb of Dublin, at which Heaney was headliner. Dublin had changed (it was easy to find coffee, and everywhere you went you could hear Eastern European languages being spoken), and in the intervening years I had published a book of poems I was still astonished that anyone had read. There was a collective reading of younger poets and just as it got started, in came Seamus to sit and listen, which he did appreciatively. Then he gave a brilliant reading. Afterward we all hung out at the bar. There was some whispering about whether “Seamus” would come—he always did, I was told, by some of the less rattled Irish poets. We drank and talked in the warm light, telling jokes, and then sure enough in came Seamus to join us.

I was too shy to speak up, but he told me he liked my poems, and asked all of us if we wanted a beer. We did, of course. I don’t remember much else except being glad to be in his presence, talking about poetry; and I do remember that I didn’t know how to tell him how much reading his poems while I lived in Dublin had meant to me. Now I wish I had.

“Digging” from OPENED GROUND: SELECTED POEMS 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney.  Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney.  Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Presented by

Meghan O'Rourke

Meghan O'Rourke is an essayist and poet whose work has appeared in The New YorkerSlate, and The Best American Poetry. Her latest book is The Long Goodbye.

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