A Poem For Saturday

by Alice Quinn

The supreme poet Seamus Heaney passed away yesterday in a Dublin Hospital at age 74.

No one alive wrote more eloquently about the art and the poets who meant the most to him: George Herbert’s “daylight sanity and vigor,” “the pure consequence of Elizabeth Bishop’s style,” “the bareface confrontation of Patrick Kavanagh’s,” “the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson, ” “the visionary strangeness of Eliot,” Frost loved for “his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness,” Gerard Manley Hopkins “for the intensity of his exclamations, which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know until I read him…”

Most of these quotations are drawn from his Nobel acceptance speech so characteristically titled “Crediting Poetry,” in which he wrote “I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life…To begin with, I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an up-front representation of the world it stood in for  or stood up for or stood its ground against.”

“The redressing effect of poetry,” he wrote, “comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances… Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.”

We’ll be posting poems by Seamus Heaney in tribute to him today and in the days ahead, beginning with the first poem, “Digging,” from his debut volume, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966:

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 with 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.

(From Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 © 1996 by Seamus Heaney. Used by kind permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)