Essay #5

Andrew Davis

16 April 2015
Revised, 4 November 2016

The idea of “Digging”: that generously gives back, return upon return,(the close-reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem) is heritage of a family legacy. Much conversation upon what connects a particular people to a place could be in-exhaustive ad infinitum, and what job, role, or profession is to make one’s self into a man, what will be one’s living is carried down in men from one generation to the next, and the weight it begins to gain through the years becomes so heavy–the words a father impresses on his fellow male descendant. The beginning of the poem is deceivingly  simple. Consider how much matter the poet addresses in the opening sentence:

“Between my finger and my thumb /  [t]he squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”

This is not a simple sentence. The predicate is of much sensitivity. Consider the verb “squat” that isn’t thought of, generally, as poetic by its harsh sound lacking in musicality; and perhaps the author means to carry the cadence with the diction he would most certainly apply to the rugged atmosphere, or the crudeness and lack-there-of anything pure in the wild. Most certainly, the reader must consider the ars poetic image or the process the writer presents. What is the process? Since squatting as a process might not be necessarily related to a reader, initially, as one of beauty, one theory is Heaney is honing and carving out a negative sense of the word, which every writer would understand from a very early age which deals with the outward biases of societies upon writers. In families where everyone has to provide some type of labor to get ahead in the world, often, it becomes the weight of children to carry on that labor: factory work, working in a field, and it is important to stress just how important these types of physical work are if you are to make it, if you mean to survive, in the less fortunate places of the world, where opportunity is hard to come by. Bigger than the family legacy, even, all endeavors of art, to the public, are considered biasedly to be unprofitable.  This can be very easily relayed to the reader through an image of a writer sitting at a desk writing and the obstinate wondering at how one economically, politically, or whatever could possibly pass the day away writing when there are real world problems to solve. The image could be in a sense of fetish and bondage, a torturous act of rendering art that gives the writer pleasure. Hard to negate a negativity or the sensitivity for the profession of writing, and the act itself is a victim at stake; the author’s process, then is catharsis. The poet, then, is being assertive–not to be confused with aggressive–on a particular choice one has to make. Consider the environment in which the image is created, especially when that environment is a war-torn Ireland–at civil war between Catholic and Protestant. The pen is an object being held that is filling space between the fingers and might even be considered uncomfortable for people. The poet gives, again, an assertion in his stance on how to address these issues operating the common colloquialism of “[t]he pen is mightier than the sword”. Thereby (refraining this line at the end of the poem) the poet not only adds a music quality to the poem, but also Heaney creates a mantra so that to the reader a motto from Heaney’s book on life, his axiom, is given and handed-down to the world to let them deal with it. After defining what sense, or senses be it, of “Digging” for the writer, Heaney gives us another definition of digging in a following observation:

“Under my window, a clean rasping sound   [w]hen the spade sinks into gravelly ground:  [m]y father digging. I look down”

The captured moment is steeped in repetitious sounds and onomatopoeia. The detailed seconds instinctively capture the “s” we associate with spade. What is more evident is the fact from where to the ear the sound originates What the author heard and notated is produced by Heaney’s father. Now that the noise has been captured we know as readers how Heaney means digging exactly: not only literally, but figuratively. This digging one associates with the business of Irishmen. This is how the heritage is employed and we instinctively should know from the onset that Heaney stands in quite an opposing different stance actively to the choice of his father whose digging a potato field. While there is a heritage with many men digging potatoes as industry carried down from generation to generation, Heaney has made a choice to go a different path than his family. There is a wealth of books on similar subject where men of the pen have traveled long distances to physically create distance between themselves and their own subject matter; however, as easy as it seems this is quite difficult because Heaney hasn’t left: he’s still there in the farm-house where he grew up. This is one part fear, one part courage:  to choose to dig with a pen because it has, not only to do with an inheritance, much to do with acceptance of a ritual and past-time thought of as a hobby, and not a way to make a living, In essence making the word digging his own Heaney draws authority on voice. We are immediately in media res between the conversations of his father and him. These and more are tools of the trade: projection. To further emphasize this point the reader may find the potato in the following room or stanza:

“[t]ill his straining rump among the flowerbeds [b]ends low, comes up twenty years away [s]tooping in rhythm through potato drills [w]here he was digging.”

So, another interesting thing is recognizing the reader’s ongoing action synthesized through the act of looking down through the poet in observation of his father and the reader looking down to the next stanza. “Flowerbeds” are important to note for word choice: connotations the potato bears in similarities to flowers by way of gardens, The word is like a synecdoche. There is an allusion to the exercise, not just his father’s, but the writer’s, and the reader’s. There is an association with digging repeating in refrain so that digging takes on new senses and new meanings. When one thinks on the elegy there is another implied way that we experience his father’s and grandfather’s experience through elegy, and that digging is even a part of the process of memory. How hard it is to separate the praise for these men from the work, or stereotype, the voice will choose not to preference, while not reading as demeaning is a careful balancing act which Heaney does masterfully. The meaning further reverberates upon knowing that Seamus Heaney is in his own grave. Memory is a part of the process because of the time. Twenty years will have passed foreseeing the death of his father in the grave, so that now his father’s ritual is an expiring memory. Of all points this cannot be stressed enough: the death of the Naturalist is not his father’s death (though Heaney’s calculation is correct) it is the inheritance of naturalism in Heaney. The drills and straining are so closely connected that there is instinctively a comment and conversation on physical exertion. Stooping is part of the process. and putting the potato towards the end draws upon its own importance. The piece is very conversational in word choice such as using “till” instead of “until” which gives the poem really a mark of honesty, not to be confused with sensitivity. Another process is introduced in the following stanza:

“The course boot nestled on the lug, the shaft [a]gainst the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep [t]o scatter new potatoes that we picked, [l]oving their cool hardness in our hands.”

Therefore, we have a further observations of the digging process and also how the potatoes are created. The process of how to pick a potato is performed and the third person pronoun “we” is the reader and the author taking part in an intimate process with his father and himself. We even hold the potato itself. The  spade is further used and observed. We feel their pain in the process, particularly in the placement of the spade and the work of digging and seeding the potato garden. The following couplet of praise or exclamation further alludes to the elegiac aspect of the poem:

“By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.”

Concretely it is resolved that Heaney is the naturalist alluded to in the title of the collection Death of a Naturalist. A praise, a praise is inherent in this, Heaney is observing these multiple things and taking his life under consideration, specifically his own life choices and how he will be different than his own dad and how he will escape his heritage of farming potatoes. We rest on this point of the family:

“My grandfather cut more turf in a day  [t]han any other man in Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle [c]orked sloppily with paper. He straightened up [t]o drink it, then fell to right away [n]icking and slicing neatly, heaving sods  [o]ver his shoulder, going down and down  [f]or the good turf. Digging.”

The importance is made alone by repeating the process again and again, though the details change ever slightly or the autobiographical focus shifts from character to character. A physical process cannot be ignored one which passed from family member to family member without question to be paid and is necessary for us to understand Heaney’s family tree, legends, and all. We don’t fully understand the negative consequences or tone quality it takes until the turn in the following stanza which aids in questioning just how positive the praise for the men is:

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap [o]f soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge [t]hrough living roots awaken in my head.  But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

And perhaps the negative tone quality still does not diminish the testament and witnessing of this work these men have done that Heaney separates himself from: be it allergies, the intensity of the work, the pressure to be performed to create, and feed not only yourself, but others is a heavy burden. Seamus Heaney makes a choice that it is with the pen, “[he’ll] dig with it”, This poem and others can be found in his collection entitled Opened Ground.

Work Cited

Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  1999. 3-4. Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s