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-)

Digging

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)

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About Aine Greaney

I'm an Irish writer living in greater Boston. I've published four books--two novels, a small collection of short stories and a how-to writing book, "Writer with a Day Job" (Writers Digest Books). I've also published lots of short stories, essays and feature articles. My latest project, "What Brought You Here" is a non-fiction narrative about being an expatriate in America. Find me on Twitter @ainegreaney. Or at my author web page, www.ainegreaney.com. As well as creative writing, I am the communications director for a healthcare non-profit. I also lead creative writing workshops at various libraries, schools and arts programs. At my workshops, I've been inspired by lots of wonderful writers--most of whom work a day job!
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5 Responses to For Labor Day: Seamus Heaney and Other Thoughts on Work and Writing

  1. acadiann says:

    Hey, Greaney…something else we have in common — Potatoes! There’s a Cajun/Acadian phrase that goes “Lache pas la patate,” which is literally “don’t drop the potato,” but that means “don’t ever give up” or “hang in there.”

    • Aine Greaney says:

      I love it, Ann. Ah, yes, the days I spent digging spuds … when we first moved into the house that’s in the family now, my mother was out digging spuds for dins one day and found all these clay pipes–evidence of a wake site. (ya know, they all sat around smoking and then buried the pipes in the ground or with the corpse). Love the expression, too. So here I am on a Saturday, re-starting the book, not dropping the potato. xxx

  2. Laurie Skiba says:

    I thought it was brilliant the first time I read this, Aine, and think so again. Thank you! I too have been moved by the elegies pouring in about Seamus Heaney. And on this day, our 29th wedding anniversary, my husband and I remember how we named our trusty diesel Volkwagen pickup truck (our first vehicle together) Seamus, after the poet, hoping for a life together of rich, lyrical adventure, which is what it’s been.

  3. Loretta Worters says:

    Thank you for sharing that wonderful story. What a loss to the world. I loved LISTENING to the piece more than reading it. He was an inspiration to writers everywhere. What a wonderful memory for you to have of him as your teacher and that you appreciated his work when you matured. Keep digging!

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