There I was at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry surrounded by writers from various spots on the globe, all of us finishing a week of craft discussions, close readings, and general merriment. We were discussing Heaney’s poem, “Digging” and I had to open my big mouth and confess that I never liked that poem. I felt instant regret. What the fuck are you thinking? This is the SEAMUS HEANEY Centre for Poetry. This is Belfast, Northern Ireland, not terribly far from Heaney’s birthplace. Not terribly far from the plot of land his father dug up that inspired the poem. Are you trying to alienate everyone?
Thankfully, the workshop leader, the talented Leontia Flynn, broke the silence by affirming that, indeed, it’s not a perfect poem.
“Pens aren’t really squat, are they?” she said, referring to the opening lines: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” and closing ones: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”
It would be an understatement to say I was relieved.
In the year or so that’s followed, I’ve thought back to this moment, not with pride. The week in Belfast reacquainted me with Heaney’s work, inasmuch as I have been rereading him throughout the last several months. First the selected poems, then all of North (always my favorite) then some of the later collections. All of this has reminded me that, yes, Heaney deserves all the praise he gets. The man had an ear unlike anyone else’s, a gift for finding essential phrases and constructing them into damn-near perfect lines. His work is daring yet restrained, and almost always invigorating.
But “Digging” just never sat well with me. And why should it? Not every poem can be gold. No one poet has produced a flawless body of work. It’s just ain’t gonna happen. None of my heroes—Ciaran Carson, C. K. Williams, Medbh McGuckian, Anna Akhmatova, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman, Paul Muldoon, and a host of others I could name but I have to stop somewhere—have a perfect track record.
That being stated, “Digging” seems at times to be Heaney’s most famous work. When he died, three different people read me some of “Digging,” if not the whole thing. Though the man wrote so much so well, “Digging”—one of Heaney’s earliest efforts—seems to be the sole poem stuck in the minds of casual readers, many of whom edit anthologies.
That’s where I first read “Digging”: the second volume of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Having kept the book with me after dropping out of college, I used to tote it from home to work and read some bits on the train and on my lunch break. It was while eating a bowl of potato soup that I found “Digging” toward the back of the anthology. How serendipitous to be eating potato soup and reading about Heaney’s dad digging potatoes! I took note of the poem, loving the cleanness of it. I think I’d skipped several pages and a few hundred years to get to “Digging” so I may have been refreshed by Heaney’s words after so much of the Victorians.
Years later, when I started to read Heaney with greater interest, when poems like “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” and “Casualty” became known to me, I soured on “Digging.” A fine poem in some regards, but the idea of Heaney grappling with his masculinity in the face of his father and grandfather’s ruggedness just annoyed me. “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” Oh, and why’s that, Seamus? None around? No digging to be done anymore? Too busy are you? Having worked a collection of mind-numbing, rotten jobs, I was a bit too reactive to any high-faultin’ bullshit about the struggles of the artist, which is what I stupidly took Heaney to be saying. He compares his pen to a spade and says he’ll dig with it. Yeah, great. Write your poems, but we’re hungry here. Can you maybe also put the pen down a dig a few potatoes while you’re at it?
Of course I was being ridiculous. My reading of “Digging” was one-dimensional. I saw it as his means of coming to terms with his ancestry of laborers, a line he could not (would not?) join. I think “Casualty,” my favorite Heaney poem in some ways, confirmed this when the speaker represents the interrogation of his friend recently slaughtered by a night out at the pub despite warnings of an imminent bombing.
He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’
Ah ha! Heaney (who I assumed was the speaker of the poem—never assume) was referred to, somewhat tauntingly, as “An educated man.” Was this the reputation he held among working class associates? Did he assume the role with pride or with a sort of mild embarrassment? I ask because I know that feeling. While not coming from a part of the world anything like Heaney’s, I did grow in a rather working class environment where reading, much less writing, poetry was not something one boasted about lest one get taken down a few pegs. Look at Mr. Fancy Man! So maybe I was projecting? Maybe the mild shame of being “An educated man” who digs with a pen rather than a spade wasn’t Heaney dealing with his issues but me dealing with my own.
I have long said that one will find what they like in poetry, often what they bring to it. If you come at a poem with some baggage, you may find that baggage staring back at you. It’s like that damn tree in The Empire Strikes Back—be careful what you bring into it. Could all of my years spent disliking “Digging” be the product of my own bullshit?
Objectively, there’s much to like in “Digging.” It sounds gorgeous. Even during my most anti-“Digging” period I was willing to celebrate “the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat.” And what about the second stanza, possibly my favorite:
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Here are the cleanest rhymes of the poem, though they resist perfection. Sure, “sound” and “ground” are pure, but “down” is off enough to pull us back to the preceding stanza, a slant-rhyming couplet:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
“Thumb” and “gun” are great together. They have that similarity of sound as well as the visual they create: cocking back the hammer before pulling the trigger. This sort of playful loose rhyme gets me excited. Those words... how to find the ones that don’t advertise themselves as rhyme? That’s the goddamn beautiful struggle. I’m sure that I missed the approximate rhyme while reading “Digging” for the first time. I may have noticed the second stanza’s more obvious rhymes, but the first couplet flew past me.
The subsequent stanzas stop rhyming all together, though I’m tempted to argue for a deliberateness of the line endings, especially in the fourth and fifth stanzas:
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.
Taking the last words of the fourth stanza together, we have “shaft firmly deep picked hands” which sounds like a line of poetry itself. Regarding the next couplet, “spade man” is grand. A new superhero, perhaps, one whose super power is the ability to “cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog.”
A friend tried to convince me that the digging in “Digging” is metaphorical, and that Heaney is most concerned with the digging one must do when they toil in the life of the mind. That certainly seems evident in the grandfather’s “Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, going down and down / For the good turf. Digging.” I was reading it through one lens, my friend through another. These multiple interpretations are both correct if you ask me, though I’m now happy to report that I’m on Team Digging after all these years. It’s a fucking great poem.
Still, last week, when buying a used copy of Heaney’s Seeing Things, I had to give an eye roll to the inscription left by the person who gave the previous owner the book as a gift. The gift giver, Jeffery, wrote in Melissa’s copy:
Christmas 1993 (belated but there nonetheless)
Here’s to happiness and peace on Earth and life-long friendship! Thank you for all of your efforts in helping obtain all 3.
Then Jeffery, that pretentious fop, ended with the last stanza of “Digging” the one that always bugged me. Ugh. Is this the only poem of Heaney’s people know? Have any of them taken the time to memorize a few lines from “Punishment” or “Limbo” perhaps the most chilling poem the man ever wrote?
Of course there are plenty of people who’ve memorized Heaney poems. I know a few. But that won’t stop “Digging” from being the poem that’ll come to the lips of many when they hear the name Seamus Heaney. And why not? If that is the case then good for Heaney. It’s rare that anyone writes one poem worth remembering, much less hundreds.