Seamus Heaney died today. He was 74. By no means a young man, but in this day and age it cannot be denied that one of the world’s greatest poets has left us early, and this is to say nothing of the feelings I can barely imagine his family and friends are suffering under as we speak.
I was once in the same room as him. That is the best that I can say of my personal relationship with him. It was in UCD and he was presenting on a reworked version of the Antigone, where he spoke about the challenge of translation and representing the Ancient Greek classic in the twenty first century. To tell the truth, I can’t recall if we went up and introduced ourselves or not. He struck me as I did not expect someone of his significance to strike me; down to earth, honest, and light hearted, with a deep and warm voice from which words seemed like they were happiest coming from.
I wanted to post a poem that I thought would symbolise how I felt about Heaney. One that would allow me to think of him and his place in the world, and my position next to him. I don’t really know much of his poetry, and by much I mean probably about a percent of his thousands of published works.
When these unfortunate situations come around it’s always appropriate to find the right poem, and maybe the right poem is the one we always remember first when we think of a poet, or artist, novelist, or whoever it is to be remembered.
The poem I remember is Digging.
As I read this poem I read about a man who could not match his familial talent for digging. Potatoes. Turf. Earth. These were all buried deep his background, but he found himself buried deep in books and writing, struggling to see how he could emulate his father and grandfather.
When I was thirteen or fourteen we read this poem in school. I enjoyed it and understood it, but perhaps that was all. Little connection with this seems to have been made between the poem and the man who wrote it who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years later. This connection was not established until many years later.
In the poem, what Heaney teaches me here is that it doesn’t matter how distant or untraditional your direction in life may find itself verging. Always do your damnedest and dig deep always for the good turf and your labours will be rewarded. If you feel you are not doing them justice by not following in their footsteps, there are fewer finer displays of gratitude than dedicating your success to the influence of family who went before you.
It seems like a simple message because it is, that’s why it is so effective. The idea behind this has not been lost on me despite being so far away from Ireland and my own father and grandfather. We all take different paths in life but we need good guides to show us where best to tread or footsteps.
Rest in Peace Seamus Heaney, you have finished digging. And the hole you dug is good, very good.
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.
(poem courtesy of the Poetry Foundation)