Mourning Seamus Heaney

This weekend I came across an obituary for a recently deceased poet named Seamus Heaney. I remember thinking to myself that the name sounded vaguely familiar. After looking up his poems online I made the connection. Last September, during one of the early days of school, my English class was given a prompt on poem called “Digging.” The author was Seamus Heaney.

Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 in Northern Ireland. Raised as the eldest son of a cattle dealer, Heaney grew up with eight siblings. His mother’s family had connections to the local linen mill. Heaney would later note that his divided ancestry and deep Irish roots influenced and shaped his approach as a writer.

In 1957, he moved to Queen’s University Belfast to study literature. After graduating in 1961, Heaney began publishing his poetry as he trained to become a teacher. Two years later, Heaney was appointed a lecturer at St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College. Around this time, his first major poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist, was published and met with strong critical acclaim, and in 1969 he followed his success with the publishing of his second major collection, Door into the Dark.

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin in 2011.

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin in 2011.

Heaney continued publishing his writings well into the early 2000s, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” Much of Heaney’s poetry revealed a deep connection to his homeland and its history. Through his writing, Heaney was also able to consider the political violence in his land during the time of his early adulthood. However, he never forced any political stance on his readers through his poetry. Heaney believed that “the idea of poetry of art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes.” As an ardent supporter of artistic enrichment and education, Heaney continued to teach throughout his life.

As I now read over my prompt from last year, I can still remember how powerful the words of his poem were. For me, the strength of the poem stemmed from its simplicity. The words pierced right to heart of what it means to be a writer: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests. /I’ll dig with it.” Poetry, and writing in general, is an unearthing of history, culture, and beliefs. Heaney described his own writing as “testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”

As Ireland and the rest of the world mourns for one of its greatest contemporary poets, there is some solace to be found in knowing that Heaney, as a poet, left behind glimpses of himself in his writing that readers can re-discover and be touched by generations from now.

 

Digging

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 it.

— Khush Dhaliwal

Posted by on September 25, 2013. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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