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Seamus Heaney Turns 70 &”Digging” Deep with his Pen Offers Poetics for Hard Times

April 20, 2009

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Digging by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as 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 could 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, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, 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.

by Seamus Heaney  (1939-)

– from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Here him read this poem with images from his life:

Tim Rutten of the LA Times writes about how:sperrins-images-sent-by-elaine-077_t1 In a recent interview, Heaney said he was often asked what the value of poetry was during times of economic recession. The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone.      "If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness," Heaney said.

The poetry, and wisdom, of Seamus Heaney, The Irish Nobel laureate may be on to something with his notion that the arts can help people through troubled economic times.

In a recent interview, Heaney said he was often asked what the value of poetry was during times of economic recession. The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone.

“If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness,” Heaney said.

Here’s the beginning of Tim Rutten’s article:
Seamus Heaney, the greatest living English-language poet, turned 70 this week.

The Irish, of course, take their poets more seriously than most — and they take their Nobel laureates, of whom Heaney is the fourth, very seriously indeed. Monday (April 13), then, was quite a day for the Derry-born farmer’s son now known to literary Dublin’s sharp-tongued gossips as “famous Seamus.”

Famous he surely is. In the United Kingdom last year, two-thirds of all books sold by a living poet were by Heaney — and this despite the fact that he once protested his inclusion in “The Penguin Book of English Verse” with these tart lines: “Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen.” No wonder that on a recent visit to The Times, Irish President Mary McAleese recited one of Heaney’s poems from memory.

Ireland commemorated his birthday with an exhibit of art inspired by his work, with newly written string quartets and a symphony based on his poems, and with a nationally televised documentary on his life and writings. More than 400 invited guests listened to the poet deliver a birthday address, which was broadcast live over one of the national radio stations, and, afterward, there followed more than 12 continuous hours of Heaney in recorded readings of his collected poems.

This being the world in which we live, you can see the documentary on YouTube, and the address is on the Web as well. The collected poems will be available shortly in a 15-disc boxed set. As the poet told the Irish Times on Monday, along with “the mystery of poetry there was the marketing of product … and commoditization comes with a certain amount of artistic acceptance.”

But don’t be fooled by Heaney’s nod to commerce; his poems, which, as the Swedish Academy noted in 1995, “exalt everyday miracles and the living past,” are not likely to be traded on anyone’s exchange. The current economic downturn has hit Ireland harder than most countries, and its people have been deeply shaken by the prospect that this remarkable period of prosperity — the first

Ireland has known since before the Great Famine and the only period since then in which emigration has been negligible– may be coming to an end.

In a recent interview, Heaney said he was often asked what the value of poetry was during times of economic recession. The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone.

“If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness,” Heaney said.

At first, that may seem like a quaint observation — one of those poet-as-holy-fool lines. Yet an effort to “fortify your inward side,” Heaney explained to another questioner, can act as a kind of “immune system” against material difficulties.

Now hard times are hard times, and those who see a chance for self-improvement in painful adversity are usually spared the opportunity. But there is something compelling about the notion that, as the most successful materialists in the history of the world, we in the United States and Western Europe might somehow rediscover what we all used to unselfconsciously call “inwardness.”
Read the entire article here: The poetry, and wisdom, of Seamus Heaney

contact author: timothy.rutten@latimes.com

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 22, 2009 6:58 am

    had not read much of his poetry but from the little I read I fell for his sense of humor. Thank you for sharing

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