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Beginner's Heart

Seamus Heaney — Nobel Laureate that he is — doesn’t get the attention in popular poetry circles that folks like Dickinson and Frost do. And yet he’s a wonderful poet — a people’s poet as well as a poet’s poet.

His craft is amazing (how does he DO it??), and his content familiar to anyone who’s farmed, who’s been to old farms, who’s lived w/ the stories of elders.

Poetry is a practice for me — in the traditional Buddhist sense of the word dana: a giving, w/out thought of return. To read it is to honour someone else’s gift. To write is to send it out w/out knowing where it will find a home. Dana also means to share your time, your energies, for the benefit of others. Share your gifts, in other words. Surely that’s true of a master artist like Heaney.

Here’s his lovely poem ‘Digging’:

Digging

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.

 

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