Friday, September 6, 2013

I Wish I'd Written This


By Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

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.

- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died a week ago, was regarded as one of the greatest of contemporary poets. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, and a number of other distinguished awards. He was also a playwright, a translator (notably of Beowulf) and an academic who taught at Queens University, Belfast, then later at Berkely, Harvard and Oxford.

His obituary in the BBC News says, in part:

He was a translator, broadcaster and prose writer of distinction, but his poetry was his most remarkable achievement, for its range, its consistent quality and its impact on readers: Love poems, epic poems, poems about memory and the past, poems about conflict and civil strife, poems about the natural world, poems addressed to friends, poems that found significance in the everyday or delighted in the possibilities of the English language.

Not only is he very famous, the particular piece I've chosen is one of his most famous poems. My apologies if I'm not surprising you with something new, but it's worth a re-read. I like what it suggests about making poems; also it exemplifies one of his favourite themes: the farming background he came from. (And, when I was a little girl, I was so fascinated to see a family friend — one of those honorary uncles — digging potatoes, and even more intrigued by his answer when I asked what he was digging, that he promptly nicknamed me Spud. A fond and abiding memory.)

Heaney was evidently an example of those great people who have true humility. Here is a wonderful account by a journalist who got to know him, revealing Heaney's down-to-earth personality (as well as his very Irish liking for a drink). Do read it all, and do watch the video too!

Of course he was prolific! You can find his books at Amazon and Amazon, UK.  You can read individual poems at PoemHunter and you can find videos by him and about him on YouTube.

P.S. Many of you, I know, follow Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads. If anyone missed it, I've just been made aware of a great tribute to Heaney there, including a must-watch (and even more, must-listen) video.

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Love his rustic style. Clean, fresh just like the fountain pen snug between his thumb and index finger.

    Gracias for sharing, Rosemary

  2. Thanks, Rosemary ~ M

  3. I read your lovely post here about this man. I was just introduced to him by Kerry over at IGWRT's ... and I am going to read your links tonight when I am home, done with all my errands! I also must get him on my bookshelf - every poem so far I have read of his I feel as is if I sink into it.

    1. What a great thing to say — and experience! Yes, it sure sounds as if you need him on your shelf. :)

  4. I LOVE this poem, the pen instead of a shovel, the crisp description of his father's and grandfather's digging methods..........wonderful, Rosemary. Thank you for the work you do each week to bring us these delights.

  5. Lovely tribute and one of my favourite poems by Seamus Heaney. I blogged my own little tribute this week, there are many online which are testaments to such a fine man and poet. Thank you.

    1. Oh, your tribute was a delight to read, Cate! Love the poem you chose, and his last message to his wife.

    2. Thanks, too, for alerting me to the IGWRT post, with that fantastic video. I must add a link it to it in my article above!

  6. This is such a wonderful poem, Rosemary. Earlier this week I shared a link to it, also. The simplicity of his words rings so true. He is one of my favourite poets, too. :)

  7. What a beautiful share this week, Rosemary!! And a timely tribute to a great poet. Thank you.


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