29 April 2011


From an Irish Poet during National Poetry month:

A great and important Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, shows in this poem his sharp, accurate description of what he sees and hears that nonetheless brings us, his reader, to a whole other more universal meaning. It's the absolutely gorgeous, astounding delight of poetry that it can accomplish this time and again.


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 the gravely 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 course 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.

Seamus Heaney
from: Selected Poems 1966-1987

My husband's cousins live in the west of Ireland, County Clare. Their home backs up to bog land and Aidan still digs turf for winter fires which fill the house with an ancient earthy scent. So this poem rings ancestral chimes for me on the one hand and accurately depicts the sight and sound (the sheer sound of this poem is a delight) of work that's still going on and that I've seen on the other.

But on a another level, I love his reference to his father's and his grandfather's digging "down for the good turf" and his own digging with his pen knowing that as a poet he must dig deep as well. And isn't that our challenge, too?

County Clare bog land and lake.

Turf drying.


  1. It's a wonderful poem, and I really enjoy the talent that produced it. I can almost smell the peat from his description. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. I love poems that speak of the pen as sword, tool or transport to another world. This poem carried me to hard life of an Irish farmer with a few short stokes of the pen. That's power.

  3. DJan, The smell is wonderful, ancient and earthy.
    Patti, I love that about good poetry. The pen to dig, great metaphor.

  4. Sally, Glad you enjoyed. He's an amazing poet.

  5. I can smell the peat - there's nothing else on Earth quite like it.


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