Digging my Favorite High School Poem

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hey There,

What do you remember from your high school lit classes? I remember in the late 90s, my Missouri high school still did not have air conditioning. What? I'm serious. Freshman year, I remember reading the part of Juliet one September afternoon while sweat poured down my face. A rose by any other name?

Not every experience in lit was so excruciating. I can't remember what year we read it, but one of my favorite poems was one of Seamus Heaney's most popular poems, "Digging." When Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, the foundation granting it "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

Lyrical beauty.
Ethical depth.
Exalted everyday miracles.
The living past.

Wow. What a legacy. What a beautiful way of seeing the world.

In "Digging," he captures heritage so poignantly. You can tell that the speaker has watched his father digging over the course of many years and that he's noticed the rhythm and care of his father at work. The pride of coming from fine North Irish digging stock reflects in the scatter of new potatoes and the spaded heave of new sod. Gorgeous.

The greatest literature speaks once and speaks a thousand times because you never land on the page the same person. Tonight, I'm struck by the peace and confidence the speaker has with his pen. He's not mad he and his father aren't spending time together planting in the garden. He's upstairs with a pen in hand, contributing to the world in a way he trusts he should. I imagine him in a house like the one off in the distance in the pic (by flight187 on flickr @public domain) above.

Here is Digging as printed by the Poetry Foundation.

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.

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