This is Not a Spade

Here is an extract from an article called This is Not a Spade : The Poetry of Seamus Heaney by Ola Larsmo.

At the core of Seamus Heaney‘s poetry a profound experience is revealed – that a gap exists between the totality of what can be said and the totality of all that can be witnessed, between the limits of languages and the margins of the actual world in which we live. For Heaney ‘poetry’ is a means of measuring this gap – if not bridging it.

In Heaney’s early poems this gap is connected to a sense of deep loss and even of moral guilt. The young poet keeps encountering a growing distance between the world of language and the physical world he sees around him. In a biographical sense, this may be linked to the fact of being born within an agrarian society where the poet has his roots, but from which the gifts of language and education has excluded him, so that he does not fully belong there any more. This distance is superbly captured in his poem ‘Digging’, from the debut collection Death of a Naturalist (1966).

The young Heaney sits by his desk, pen in hand, and watches his father digging in the garden. As both come from a long line of Ulster farmers, the father is doing what the Heaneys have been doing for generations: tending the land.

by God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

The son does something different:

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.

The son has moved into a different world, yet, through his words, both tasks become related. Both dig beneath the surface of things, cultivating the possibilities of what may grow. In this early poem – the first one in his Selected Poems – Heaney uses a rhetoric figure that for a considerable period would be his trademark: the ‘chiasma’, or crossing of themes. The poem starts out with the image of the pen, and goes on to relate what could be termed as the young intellectual’s respect and awe for the seemingly commonplace skills of the working man, represented by his father’s ‘spademanship’ – before the focus returns to the pen, which has now been transformed to a tool for hard work – which Heaney enlists in the genealogical, or historical, line of working men. The pen and the spade trade places and within the course of the poem, quite literally, became metaphors for each other. Spade-as-pen; pen-as-spade.


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