For Labor Day: Seamus Heaney and Other Thoughts on Work and Writing
I wrote this exactly a year ago, never thinking that it would become one of many international elegies for a great poet and wit and humanitarian.Séamus Heaney's poem, "Digging" has always been my favorite piece of literature about work.
Have a listen to Heaney reading from his poem, "Digging."
Or read the printed version (below).
Random Thoughts on Poetry, Writing and Labor
As an undergraduate in Dublin, I was lucky enough to have Seamus Heaney as my professor and the chair of our English Department. As I sit here now, today, in America, I can shut my eyes and hear him reading to us in that second-floor classroom, to a rag-tag group of 18-year-old undergrads who were too young and too immature to appreciate what we were really hearing.
Years later, just before he became a Nobel laureate, I read an interview with Heaney in some Irish magazine in which he spoke briefly about his then-dual life as a working professor and as one of the world's most esteemed poets. In the interview, I loved the part where he stated that he always considered it his first duty to earn a living and provide for his family.
My father also dug his share of potatoes and turf and God knows what else. Above all else, my father believed in paying his way, in working hard.
In 2011, a year before Dad died, he told me that he was most proud of having produced an equally hard-working family.
Today, on Labor Day, I am proud to be the kind of hard worker who could make my father proud.
Séamus Heaney (1939-)
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.
- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)