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Excavating by pen

(National Poetry Month, Day 10)

cutting turf in Donegal

Writing can be hard work, but its rewards are great—this can be said of many other types of work, too. “Digging” is one of my favorite Seamus Heaney poems. It covers gardening, potatoes, turf-cutting, family traditions, and time travel; what’s not to love? The best thing about this poem, in my opinion, is that we can actually hear the shovel and the turf-cutter going into the ground, and we can see, smell, and feel the ground these implements open. Reading “Digging” “awaken[s] in my head” consciousness of the “living roots” that have informed my own ideas about work and about writing.

The concept of writing as an archaeological act informs much of Heaney’s poetry, and this poem is a good entry-point for Heaney’s “bog poems,” which explore the individual’s, Ireland’s, and the world’s past.

Join me on this short trip back in time, through layers of gravelly, then root-laden and waterlogged soil, straight into our collective unconscious and our day-to-day present.

by Seamus Heaney

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.


P.S. To see and hear some turf cutting, click here.