Digging by Seamus Heaney (a very belated St. Patrick’s Day poem)

My eighth grade teacher hailed from Ireland. I don’t mean his ancestors came over during the Potato Famine, I mean he was born in Blarney. Naturally, in addition to Walt Whitman, we were also introduced to the poetry of Seamus Heaney. We were incredibly fortunate to have him teaching the subject, because he could speak with firsthand experience on peat, as well as other Irish imagery in the poem, which would have been immediately, viscerally real for him. It was not a concept he read about in a book or on the internet. It had a look, a texture, and even a smell.

Here is the poem Digging, by Seamus Heaney, the poem I remember most clearly.

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.

Or if you prefer, here it is, as read by Seamus Heaney himself.

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