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Okay, then. Here we go with some new poems.

 

I've chosen two by Seamus Heaney, who is a great favourite of mine. One of the things I love about Heaney's poetry is that certainly in the early days you can track very clearly his progression as a poet - his uncertainty over this 'vocation' and how being a poet relates to his family and national identity. It's a painful and confusing journey, but you can track the incremental steps he takes towards poetic maturity.

 

          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.

 

 

     Bogland

 

for T. P. Flanagan

 

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening--

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encroaching horizon,

 

Is wooed into the cyclops' eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

 

They've taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

 

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

 

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They'll never dig coal here,

 

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

 

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

 

 

So I've chosen one of the earliest, 'Digging', which you may well have come across before, as a poem that reveals much of the angst he feels in pursuing a less physical path than was traditional in his family. This can then be compared with 'Bogland', where he has begun to find greater confidence in his poetic calling.

 

I've chosen these in particular because the conclusion of 'Digging' connects with the digging that goes on in the Irish bogs and the ancient things that are found there. It's the symbolic resonance that Heaney finds in the Irish earth that I find fascinating - his way of connecting with identity. I like the first poem for its sensitive exploration of what becoming a poet means to him and the second for its liberating enjoyment in exploring a symbol throughout the entire length of the poem.

 

Anyway, I'd better say no more: I hope that gives you a few lines to think along.

 

(P.S. Flanagan was a painter and art teacher. Heaney watched him make some preparatory drawings for a series of studies of bogland.)

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Well done David. I don't know much about Heaney but my initial reaction is that I like both of these poems. I like the contrast between his father and grandfather and himself...the physical work and the poet sitting writing. Not sure about "snug as a gun".

 

The second is indeed different need to think about it a bit more.

 

At least you know someone is listening, pointy ears or not.

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At least you know someone is listening, pointy ears or not.

:D

 

Glad you like them - the second was indeed meant to invite a bit more thought. I'd be interested to know what others think about "snug as a gun" - it's probably the most challenging line in the poem - all the more so for being the closing note.

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:D

 

Glad you like them - the second was indeed meant to invite a bit more thought. I'd be interested to know what others think about "snug as a gun" - it's probably the most challenging line in the poem - all the more so for being the closing note.

 

Actually its in the first lines!

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I agree that 'snug as a gun' is interesting. For me, it expresses the power of the writing instrument, but also perhaps its danger. His pen certainly is as powerful as the manual work that his family carried out, but it could also be used, as a Catholic poet, as a support for political ideologies in Northen Ireland at that time. Although the poem isn't strikingly political as some of his others are, Heaney's grappling with his own identity must have links with Irish political history and I can't help feeling a resonance of that in the simile he uses here. Perhaps the fact that he makes a conscious decision to 'dig' with it reflects a rejection of other potentially more violent uses by the end?

 

The poem reminds me of Tony Harrison's poem Lines to my Grandfathers, where the working-class poet here reflects in a similar fashion on his lineage and identity.

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More from me, I'm afraid, with some questions too. I do know Digging very well, but, although I have encountered Bogland before, it's much less familiar to me. I like the opening connection between landscape and identity - just as the prairies reflect something about American identity, so the bogs encapsulate Irishness. And it's interesting that Heaney focuses on the preservative qualities of the bog: the butter and the Elk are still there - just like the bog bodies in some of the other poems. It's as if Irish history is inescapable and, as he concludes, 'bottomless'. It's also totally unromantic, which I like: the vision is not of lush, rolling pastures, but dampness, melting yet also 'kind'.

 

I'm not quite sure about the comment about 'coal' (oh, if only I'd paid more attention in Geography lessons!) Presumably, the bogs are too wet to provide the kind of compression that's needed to produce coal? So, Heaney's focus is on preservation and water rather than the more 'useful' coal? It just feels as if Ireland is somehow more pagan and antique - it hasn't produced the tools for industrial development like coal and, although peat was used as fuel, it's not remotely modern. And nothing is awaiting discovery - the 'pioneers' only find places where people have 'camped' before (another nomadic sense - not a fixed settlement). I love the layers of this poem - literally and metaphorically. The reader has to excavate Heaney's meaning in both poems through layers of accumulated symbolism and allusion. Powerful stuff!

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One of the things I love about the first poem is the use of sounds:

 

....................the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

 

All those slurpy muddy sounds of the soil, and then the much crisper sounds of the spade going through the roots. I think there's lots of "digging rhythms" in parts of the poem as well.

 

I also enjoyed the movement through time in Digging - the jump from his father digging the garden, (retired?) outside Heaney's window as he writes, to his father twenty years before that, digging the fields, then further back to his grandfather.

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So I've chosen one of the earliest, 'Digging', which you may well have come across before, as a poem that reveals much of the angst he feels in pursuing a less physical path than was traditional in his family.

 

I think I disagree with this way of looking at the poem. Partly, on a subjective level I just don't get a sense of much angst as I read the poem, which made me look at it more closely to see what you were finding that I'd missed.

 

I think in Heaney is making a journey in this poem, in how he sees his poetry. He starts off at his desk thinking of his pen as a gun, a really striking image, as others have mentionned. He sees his pen as a way of attacking and poetry as an aggressive, potentially distructive activity.

 

As he hears his father digging under the window, it sets him thinking back through time about how his ancestors have laboured so long and hard to form the land, to prepare it and to grow crops, and to uncover what lies beneath the surface - and so, as he comes back to the present and his pen at his desk, he changes how he sees his pen. It's still a squat pen, but now it's not a weapon, but something he will dig with. I think the poem is a movement from Heaney seeing poetry as an aggressive thing, to him seeing it as a tool to bring about fruitful harvest and nourishment, rather than about angst and inadequacy about not being a manual labourer!

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That's a fair point Claire, and I suppose I'm in part influenced by the other Heaney poems I know, which make me look at this one in a particular way. Your reading in an interesting one and you certainly make it credible, but for me the focus of the poem seems far more on familial aspects than the more general nature of poetry being destructive or otherwise. So much is devoted to the memories that they must have more bearing on the questions being raised about the act of writing.

 

The bulk of the poem is, of course, richly evocative of those wonderful memories he has of father and grandfather. That in itself hardly seems to convey any negative feelings, only admiration. However, this is all framed by his thoughts at the beginning and end, which for me changes the mood. At the start he has his pen, and as you rightly suggest it seems something dangerous, yet deceptively cosy (the juxtaposition of 'snug' and 'gun' is very effective). He feels comfortable with the pen (i.e. writing and intellectualism) but its implications could be serious. That could be viewed in relation to the power of poetry (and also the political scene, as Ade notes) but also in relation to his family and its traditions. There is a sense, too, (strengthened in 'Bogland') that Irish identity is intimately related to the soil, but in writing he potentially opts to move away from that - from his family and from his national identity.

 

Note that early image: his father is below him (concepts of the danger of feeling intellectually superior?) and they are separated by a window. He can see everything that his family and tradition stands for but he is separated from it.

 

His memory of their work admires them, but when he appears it is to take out refreshment - traditionally the woman's role. He feels inadequate and ultimately has to conclude "I've no spade to follow men like them". This has to be a painful admission after he has lauded their prowess with the soil.

 

The final section, however, provides resolution. The writing doesn't have to be a separating process, doesn't have to be threatening to all his family has stood for: instead it can follow the same path. He can 'dig' intellectually, though still be in touch with the soil - hence the wonderful physicality and sensory nature of the poem.

 

The poem 'Follower' explores his sense of inadequacy in the face of family tradition more explicitly.

 

Ade, I obviously didn't listen enough in geography either! I've assumed that it would ultimately become coal ("Missing its last definition by millions of years"), 'never' being a little relative rather than absolute. I see the idea as the soft accessibility of the bog, rather than the hardened coal. You can reach into this and - like the butter - it is sustaining. It preserves everything (a bit like poetry) and stands as a reminder of the past that informs and nourishes the present. I like your idea, Ade, that it is the antithesis of industrialism, which consumes and destroys.

 

I'm not sure I'd agree that nothing awaits discovery: new things like the butter and the elk are found, it's just that nothing is truly new, it's only different facets of the same national identity. As with each poem a new spadeful is turned over, the gathering picture is familiar but deepened and strengthened. The bog people poems you mention, Ade, are great at furthering this very process (e.g. 'The Tollund Man')

 

What do people make of the "pioneers" who "keep striking inwards and downwards" (a little like the grandfather digging down and down for the good turf)?

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Like others of you here I have been fascinated by ‘Snug as a gun’ for a while, so it has been great to read your comments. The middle part of the poem is such a wonderful leaping off point that I concentrated on issues from that when I first read the poem and hardly noticed the phrase. Once I did notice it the poem became even more of a favourite.

 

‘Snug as a gun’ disturbs me; I think it is meant to (a sort of oxymoron in simile’s clothing, with assonance inside). How can a cold, hard killing machine ever be warm and cosy?

 

I also hear it as a play on words between ‘snug as a bug’ and ‘son of a gun’ – comfortable and close fitting, but with a dangerous element too, the rascal that ‘son of a gun’ has come to mean (I know there are older references for this phrase, but it is a modern poem).

 

His pen is like a half-cocked gun ready to fire as soon as the target is in sight and it will shoot words directly and forcefully. Heaney is already confident in his career path; he knows the power of the pen and wants to aim politically. It reminds me a little of ‘The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes in that he is in no hurry to write – as an established poet he can sit and wait for inspiration, another luxury that separates him from his father and grandfather.

 

By the end of the poem his tool of trade has changed. The opening lines are repeated but the phrase ‘snug as a gun’ is replaced by ‘I’ll dig with it’ and in fact he has already done so throughout the poem. I don’t think that Heaney is going to be any less of the revolutionary than when he started the poem, but he is not going to shoot down. He will dig and uncover, try to understand, through the eyes of his forefathers and the land of his inheritance (the very earth that was dug) - and then present this to others. The pen is mightier than the gun (sword).

 

Coincidentally, yesterday, before I’d even read this thread, I was talking about this poem with a Year 10 girl at school, who asked if ‘snug’ could be a term used in shooting (I love moments like that). When we googled it, we came up with two new ideas. The first was the repeated use of guns needing to be a snug fit in their leather holsters so that they were safe and would not fire accidentally (apparently for a quick draw they need to fit lass snugly) and the second was that of holding a rifle snug into the softest part of the shoulder avoiding muscle which could move and alter the aim. Yet more layers to play with.

 

 

(Sorry, I know it's supposed to be comparison time - just got carried away.)

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His pen is like a half-cocked gun ready to fire as soon as the target is in sight and it will shoot words directly and forcefully. Heaney is already confident in his career path; he knows the power of the pen and wants to aim politically. It reminds me a little of ‘The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes in that he is in no hurry to write – as an established poet he can sit and wait for inspiration, another luxury that separates him from his father and grandfather.

I was very interested by that analysis, Angel. I don't find it easy to go along with the political angle, though. Heaney, of course, does go on to write poems that deal openly with the troubles (which when this poem was written had not really developed into the later extremes - it's the 70s that sees his full political flowering), but it seems a push to take that whole interpretation from just one word - nothing else contextually seems to indicate a political angle. For me, if there is a political edge then it is just that, a shade rather than a guiding force in the poem.

 

At the very least, if we are to take it as the idea of poetry being used to tackle political issues, then it is another facet of the process of Heaney trying to come to terms with what he should do as a poet and find an appropriate path, because, as you say, by the end he has renounced it and resolves to dig downwards instead.

 

I loved the exploration of 'snug as a bug' and 'son of a gun'! Intriguing! Your googling of snug also points up other questions. What sort of gun is it? It's tempting, since a pen is held in one hand, to think of it as a handgun (which could be seen in a more militaristic light), but in the rural context a shotgun might seem more fitting. Your two googled responses potantially give credibility to both! There's such a lot in that word, isn't there!

 

I'm not sure I ever saw 'Thought Fox' as a patient poem, though, reflecting someone not being in a hurry to write. To me it seemed more expressive of the frustrations of the writer awaiting inspiration, which could not be tamed. Awake still at midnight, lonely isolation, fingers moving over a 'blank' page - suggesting empty writing: these aspects implied agonised impasse to me. The unhurried movements of the fox seemed more indicative of the nature of inspiration itself rather than the poet, who is entirely divorced from the process. In 'Digging' I don't suppose I would say Heaney feels 'hurried' to find his inspiration, but it does seem to be about looking for the way forward. By the end he has resolved to dig downwards with his pen; when we reach 'Bogland' we start to see the full fruits of this as we discover what he has been able to turn up.

 

I'd love to hear your thoughts on that poem, Angel! Don't worry about comparing them - any comments about any part of either poem are fully welcome. It's all about getting discussion going about poems again, which I'm pleased to say seems to have happened!

:)

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Don't know if this explanation of how coal is formed is a help or a hindrance:

 

"Believe it or not, a hard, black lump of coal started off millions of years ago as part of a prehistoric swamp! As trees and other plants died, they fell into the swamp waters and slowly formed a dense material called peat. Sediment and rocks covered the peat. Over millions of years, heat from the Earth's core and pressure from the rocks and sediment caused the peat to become rich carbon deposits. These carbon deposits eventually formed coal. Different levels of heat and pressure created four different types of coal, but they're all made of the same stuff -- ancient swamp plants! Coal is called fossil fuel because it's made of living matter that has decayed over time".

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At the very least, if we are to take it as the idea of poetry being used to tackle political issues, then it is another facet of the process of Heaney trying to come to terms with what he should do as a poet and find an appropriate path, because, as you say, by the end he has renounced it and resolves to dig downwards instead.

 

I can go with that. Thanks David – I’m very good at going off at a tangent and it helps to put things back in perspective. It's good to be able to bounce ideas around on this site ... if only I had more time.

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An entirely frivolous observation, to follow on from such indepth discussion - but I do find the image of butter being buried in peat and still being recognisable 100 years later really, really wierd!

 

Did it really happen? How did they know for sure it was butter? Did anyone taste it!?

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I have found the discussion on these poems interesting. I am unable to find the same depth of meaning myself, having come up against that phrase 'snug as a gun' like running into a brick wall, and being unable to get over it.

I enjoyed the imagery of the rest of the poem, but again reject the idea that the use of the pen precludes the wielding of a spade. Clearly, Heaney doesn't speak to me.

Bogland I also enjoyed for the imagery, without discerning a deeper meaning. Although There must be some message from the preservative nature of peat bog (I've seen Tollund Man, he's fascinating..if you forget that this is the remains of a person on public display)

 

I am wondering about Heaney's use of the word 'kind'. Is it perhaps not in the sense of gentle/caring, but perhaps meaning this:

 

Kind (2)

A group of individuals linked by traits held in common.

Fundamental, underlying character as a determinant of the class to which a thing belongs; nature or essence.

A doubtful or borderline member of a given category.

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I think its having to commit it to writing. I find talking easy :rolleyes: and often find my ideas evolving as I speak, but that doesn't work on the page. Some of the comments on here are quite in depth and reveal such a wide knowledge and understanding they are a joy to read. I think I'm just ashamed of my own ignorance. :o

 

I prefer the first poem, I find the rhythms of it more appealing. But why does it start with an almost rhyme Thumb/gun then 3 rhyming lines then stop rhyming? Is it for effect or to make a point?

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