A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 11 July 2009



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.
SEAMUS HEANEY From Death of a Naturalist (1966)
I don't think anyone who's been reading my Ur-posts lately will fail to realise the significance of this poem for me. Written early in Heaney's poetic career, this is an archetypal poem about the practical father and the literary son. The differences - and the connections (the 'living roots') - between them.
Seamus Heaney is one of my very favourite poets. I love both his poetry and his critical essays. He's certainly one of the finest writers of my generation. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here's his wonderful Nobel lecture. Do read it.


The Weaver of Grass said...

Very poignant poem Robert - thinking of your present situation.
I agree his poetry is very powerful - there are similarities with RS Thomas for me.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, Weaver - absolutely.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

I've been a fan of Heaney for a long time, and know this poem. I can see its placement here, among these pieces, and understand—just as I can see why he would be one of your favorites.

Poetry sometimes speaks to us in ways that nothing else quiet manages, though music also has a unique avenue into our soul. If you don't mind my saying, you seem to be in a and good and open place right now, a place where you can listen and find solace and understanding, where the lines can be redrawn with new perspective; a place perhaps both frightening and wonderful.

However you choose to continue your Ur-posts, allow your heart to guide your way. Listen…

The Solitary Walker said...

Uncannily accurate, and sensitively said, my friend. More true than you could even possibly know. Thank you for reading so alertly.

gleaner said...

I really like this poem. Reading it I felt like I was there in the fields - powerfully visceral reading.

BTW, this may be really dumb of me but what does UR mean in ur-walk? Is it a substitute for 'your' ?

The Solitary Walker said...

Gleaner - the German prefix 'Ur' denotes something that's the first or the oldest of something, as in 'Urwald' (primeval forest) or 'Ursprache' (the original, root language from which all other languages spring). So it means original, primitive and ancient. You do come across it in English as a 'loan word', or more accurately as a 'loan-prefix'. As such, I think it's a good way to describe my 'beginning and end of walks'. Also - there's another resonance, as German was my subject at university...

am said...

Thanks so much for posting this poem and for the link to Heaney's Nobel Lecture. It took a few days before I had time to read it.

I thought of Bob Dylan and his practical father, too. And my own father, who died in 2003 on St. Patrick's Day. And his grandfather. My father's father left the farm in Minnesota, wrote poetry, essays and a novel. He was not considered a practical man. I have no brothers and am one of the few literary grandchildren on that side of my family in the generation of those born during and after World War II.