Poem Pick of the Week: “Digging” by Seamus Heaney

Poem Pick of the Week: “Digging” by Seamus Heaney

Digging

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 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.

(Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney.)

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“Digging”, by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, begins like a child’s limerick:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Which is appropriate, since the narrator is referencing memories (more on that later) of his father and grandfather. It continues in a similar way in the next stanza:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Notice the end rhymes (or near-rhymes): thumb/gun & sound/ground/down as well the use of additional assonance that continues throughout:

snug/under/rump/comes/lug/cut/up/cuts

This, and the frequent use of alliteration:

squat… snug

spade sinks… gravelly ground

tall tops

potatoes… picked

hardness… hands… handle

really gives the poem a musical quality, making it a joy to read (and read aloud).

Now, back to the idea of memory. Though the narrator begins speaking in the present tense:

My father digging. I look down

he then goes on to recount memories of his grandfather, also digging. The last stanza:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

repeats the first line and a half of the poem, ending with a determination to do his own kind of digging with his own tool. He will use his pen to excavate the memories of his father and grandfather and, in his own way, continue the family tradition.

Photo by Craig Whitehead on

Poem Pick of the Week: “The Vacation” by Wendell Berry

Poem Pick of the Week: “The Vacation” by Wendell Berry

The Vacation

By Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.

He went flying down the river in his boat

with his video camera to his eye, making

a moving picture of the moving river

upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly

toward the end of his vacation. He showed

his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,

preserving it forever: the river, the trees,

the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat

behind which he stood with his camera

preserving his vacation even as he was having it

so that after he had had it he would still

have it. It would be there. With a flick

of a switch, there it would be. But he

would not be in it. He would never be in it.

I love poems that tell you something without “telling” you. In “The Vacation”, by Wendell Berry, the poet shares a simple anecdote. ‘Once there was a man…’. At first, the reader is expecting to learn something about this man – this particular man – but what we learn instead is a lesson. The poem is an allegory revealing a (not so hidden) moral. The message is clear: Be present. The man in the story spends his entire vacation ‘with his video camera to his eye’… showing the vacation to the camera instead of enjoying it himself. How many times have you been to a concert, or a ball game or even just to a beautiful spot somewhere on this Earth, and watched the people around you focus on their cell phones as they snap pictures (or worse, selfies) and record videos? In those situations I always wonder “What are they going to do with all these photos/videos?” It amazes me that they choose to miss what’s right in front of them in order to preserve it digitally in their pockets.

Another thing I like about this poem is the lack of explicit judgement. It’s clear (at the end) how the narrator feels about what’s been described, but there is no opinion stated. It’s more like a journalistic endeavor: Just the Facts. I think that’s why the ending works so well. The repetition of the simple truth that the man would not be in the recording of his own vacation – but more importantly wasn’t truly “there” while he was on it – packs a real punch.

Goal for this week: Be In It!

Photo by matthaeus on

“The Journey” by Mary Oliver

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Continuing with a similar theme to my last post (see: “On ‘The Layers’ by Stanley Kunitz), here is another poem about moving forward: ‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver.

Unlike the Kunitz piece, which is narrated by a definite “I”, “The Journey” is written in the second person point of view: One day you finally knew/what you had to do… This has the effect of compelling the reader to imagine their own life and the adventure they have been on. Another important difference is this piece is written in the past tense – as if the journey has ended and you are looking back and taking stock.

An interesting commonality between the two poems is the appearance of a guiding voice (this time after the stars began to burn/through the sheets of clouds – reminiscent of the nimbus-clouded voice from Kunitz). It is initially described as a “new” voice, one heard after listening to others giving (shouting, actually) bad advice but one realizes, albeit slowly, that it has been with you all along, keeping you company, as you made your way through the world. It is your own. At some point you began to listen to this inner voice and leave the others behind. Like in “The Layers”, there is a sense of acceptance of whatever comes: you were determined to save your own life – the only life you could save.

I find this poem to be extremely encouraging, giving me permission to follow my own heart and inner voice. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

On “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I really love this poem. It speaks to a central question I have been thinking about a lot lately – what now?

About to turn 50, I too feel like I have ‘led many lives’. ‘I am not who I was’, either, yet ‘some principle of being/abides, from which I struggle/not to stray.’ This reminds me of the “Ship of Theseus” thought experiment: does a ship that has had all of its components changed over time remain the same ship? Physically, I am not the same as I was even this morning. (Though the myth that our entire body regenerates every 7 to 10 years turns out to be just that – a myth.) Over the years, I have gained new experiences, collected new memories and forgotten others. Yet, some principle of who I “am” remains intact. Call this “aura” or “soul” or “self”. The Buddhists would say that there is no “self”. Maybe they’re right. Still, I feel that there is something there is that is “me”. Some essence from which I struggle not to stray.

The image of ‘scavenger angels’ with ‘heavy wings’ hovering over ‘the abandoned campsites’ he has left behind is a powerful one. The poet is compelled to pause and look back at the ‘milestones’ in his past as he gathers strength to proceed on his journey. It’s only natural to look back at one’s life and reflect. This is not a poem of a young man. I don’t know when Kunitz wrote it, but I would not be surprised if he wasn’t around my age when he did.

After looking back, and lamenting how his tribe has scattered and mourning the friends he has lost, the poet turns to face the road ahead. Though unsure where it leads, he is cautiously optimistic – ‘exulting somewhat’. He is appreciative of having come as far as he as, with ‘every stone on the road precious’ to him.

He recalls that in his darkest time, when he was wandering aimlessly ‘through wreckage’ he heard a voice delivering him a message. It was not completely clear (‘nimbus-clouded’) but he heard it. It said: ‘Live in the layers, not on the litter.’ I do not know exactly what ‘the layers’ are. Fortunately, is seems neither does the poet. He claims to ‘lack the art to decipher it’, which is odd seeing as he possessed the art to write it! To me, this is a wonderful example of a writer discovering something rather than attempting to impart some knowledge as an authority. He presents the mystery and invites the reader to contemplate it along with him. ‘The litter’ seems fairly clear, and is also a reference to the ‘wreckage’ he was roaming in earlier in the poem. I suppose it means don’t waste time wallowing in the regret of mistakes or in facts of the your situation that you may not have chosen. Choose instead to live among the possibilities that exist just from making this far. This idea calls to mind a line from Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love”: ‘You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above.’ Amen to that.

Finally, the poet states that ‘the next chapter/ in my book of transformations/ is already written.’ I don’t know if this is a nod to Determinism – the doctrine that all events are ultimately determined by causes external to the will – or, simply the idea that, no matter what happens, change will occur. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi, when asked if he could sum up the philosophy of Zen Buddhism in a simple phrase, thought for a moment and said: “Everything changes.” The poet bravely faces this fact in the poem’s last line: ‘I am not done with my changes.’ It is a stoic statement. No judgement, no attachment, no aversion. I hope to match his courage. How about you?