I’ve chosen Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ as the first poem to write about here on The Stele for a couple of reasons: firstly, it is the very first poem from the very first collection (Death of a Naturalist) by one of my favourite poets. Secondly, ‘Digging’ is Heaney’s ars poetica – his raison d’etre for writing poetry. Not many poets start their careers as published poets with this type of poem, and here Heaney passionately tells us why he must be a poet.
Digging is a call to arms from and to the young Heaney; it is respectful for tradition but without permitting tradition to choose the course of his life.
The first two lines of Digging, though short, are brilliant: ‘The squat pen..’ suggests he’s ready to go, to attack his life’s work. ‘Snug as a gun’ is difficult to read – the juxtaposition of the two seemingly different words makes the reader pull up and re-read before going any further. Why a gun? Perhaps Heaney is saying that the pen has power to him; the snugness is his way of saying it fits him perfectly, unlike the tool of his antecedents, the spade, which we discover fitted them equally well in later stanzas.
The poem’s first two stanzas rhyme at the end of each line, but Heaney doesn’t continue this through the rest of the poem. His meter changes and we are in free verse territory; this has the effect of jolting the reader, making him stop and start again, thrusting the poem’s language and meaning into the foreground.
Throughout the poem Heaney writes with short, consonantal words like slap, cuts, nicking, sods and lug – all sharp, coarse and cutting to the ears and, not coincidentally, all from the Germanic side of the english language’s family tree. The language of the poem is earthy and simple and doesn’t jar with the subject matter, particularly when Heaney is describing his grandfather’s work. (‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap of soggy peat.’)
The rhythm of his Father and Grandfather’s spades is beat with alliteration (‘Spade sinks’, ‘gravelly ground’, ‘tall tops’) and assonance, particularly with the vowel sound in ‘snug’ which thuds across the entire the poem. (eg cut, gun, thumb, lug, rump.)
Towards the end of the poem, Heaney writes: ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. This is an interesting line – he obviously could have a spade and continue the family tradition but has chosen a different direction, a different craft; one that is more suited to the person that he is.
Have a listen to Seamus Heaney himself reading ‘Digging’: