This Afternoon in My Class (March 19, 2010): Seamus Heaney

As a brief follow-up to my previous post, which discussed a certain flagging of enthusiasm for one of my classes, I’ll just report that I thoroughly enjoyed this afternoon’s tutorial meeting on Seamus Heaney. The best thing about it was that it was the first time I can remember this term that a significant number of students were genuinely enthusiastic about a poem: that is, often students will contribute, thoughtfully, to discussion, but today even the body language was different, with people leaning forward into the discussion and smiling and nodding at each other as they talked. The poem that got this reaction was Seamus Heaney’s “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 awakens 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.

I opened by asking about the pen as a gun: why make that particular comparison? What is the risk or the threat of his pen? Pretty quickly we were talking about the difficulty of the poet son, who has broken from the tradition of his father and grandfather, writing about them and their work without condescending to them or, at the other extreme, sentimentalizing them. It turned out (and I think that this is why the discussion became so animated) that many of them understood the anxiety, or perhaps just self-consciousness, of that kind of break from tradition because they have been through it themselves, coming from mining or farming or military backgrounds, sometimes themselves among the first in their families to go to university, or to study something like English, or to want to be writers. One student also pointed to the “sloppily” corked milk bottle, a sign, he suggested (and many agreed) that it speaks to an anxiety also about the manliness or practical value of choosing poetry: there’s an ideal of the “man of the house,” good with his hands, tough, physical, that the speaker can’t reach (“I’ve no spade to follow men like them”). Though he looks down on his father from his window, he isn’t looking down on him otherwise, we thought, but rather seeing him clearly, seeing the dignity of his skill and hard work. He puts his pen to work, in turn, digging up memories (which “awaken in [his] head”) and making something himself that (as another student suggested) his father would understand–it’s not difficult poetry, there are no unusual words in it, it’s hardly “poetic” at all, but direct, colloquial, even (sorry) earthy. And yet for all its seeming simplicity, as we dug into it, we found more and more of interest, even before we moved into the more abstract idea of poetry and/as archeology (another of our poems was “The Grauballe Man”).

Though we all hate the reduction of literary value to what is ” relatable” (a coinage many students seem unable to resist), and though I’m a big believer in stretching ourselves and our students into what is unfamiliar, there was a great energy today that came from this poem having meaning for them–meaning of its own, that they could appreciate, but also meaning for their own lives.

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