I don't know Seamus Heaney personally and I never had the pleasure of meeting him but I can honestly say that I found great comfort in his words from the moment I first read "Mid-Term Break" and chose it as my poem for my Grade 4 Speech and Drama Examinations.
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying -
He had always taken funerals in his stride -
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my had
And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble,"
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
I can vividly remember reciting that poem over and over in my head as I went to school, did my homework and lay in bed at night. I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror each night, watching my mouth form each word, concentrating on my pauses, breaths, intonations and inflections. I remember dissecting the poem, acknowledging the contrast as the baby "cooed and laughed" while his mother "coughed out angry tearless sighs" and wondering whether Big Jim Evans meant the boy's death was a "hard blow" or was he talking about the bang of the bumper?
I even remember reading up on Seamus Heaney in case my examiner threw me any questions about his life, writing style and influences as was customary during these exams. Indeed I think my anxiety caused me to be so focused on being the perfect student with the flawless answers, pitch perfect projection and natural use of tone that I almost forgot about the emotion that trickles throughout the poem and finally bursts its banks in the final line.
It was only when I walked into the room, greeted my examiner with a firm handshake, good eye contact and a pleasant smile, read through my comprehension, acted out my solo piece and introduced my poem did the emotion of the piece finally start to sink in. Instead of concentrating solely on my pronunciations and pace, I began to focus more on the emotion behind the words and in that moment I actually felt the pain in Heaney's words and the huge loss of his younger brother. I completely immersed myself in his words and by the time I reached the last line, I left a long pause, took a breath and felt tears prick at the corner of my eyes.
I had never experienced that emotion before and when I received my Certificate advising that I had received High Honours I knew that I had done myself, and Mr Heaney, justice. But it was his words that achieved the emotion, I was merely the actor, the carrier, the messenger. And that, for me, is the power of beautiful writing.
I experienced the magic of his words once again when I was 17 and studying for my Leaving Certificate. Mr Heaney was a poet on our course and as English was my favourite subject I enjoyed studying his work and I remember happily writing an essay around his use of imagery. His poems were wide, varied and unique but the one that struck me instantly in that "goosebump" kind of way was "Digging".
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 the 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 deept
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 curts 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.
Such a beautiful poem for an array of reasons, but the reason it stands out for me is because I feel it could be my life story. My father, an avid workman spends the bulk of his free time in my parents garden digging the potato drills, at home in the soil on a Sunday afternoon. He is happiest when he is at work, sowing the veg and reaping the rewards of his work proudly brandishing a large head of cabbage, a bucket of potatoes or a handful of bright carrots to us.
Similarly, his father was also a man happiest at work down in the bog of Clongorey. Many of my childhood memories consist of sticky, Summer nights running gaily around the turf footings trying to catch frogs and free ourselves from the bog swamps while my grandfather worked solidly building up the footings with the energy, speed and dexterity of a man half his age. He was happiest on the bog, a shovel in one hand and a flask of tea in the other on the rare occasion that he actually took a break.
It was only appropriate that when my grandfather died suddenly (after arriving home from a particularly gruelling session in the bog) that we chose Seamus Heaney's poem "Bogland" to read at his funeral. I read it, as a tribute to Pop and I can remember struggling to finish it as I choked back tears from the church lecturn. Afterwards, several mourners commented to me on the beauty and appropriateness of that pop as a fitting tribute to a man who adored the bog.
I too feel like Heaney outlines in Digging, different from the men in my family but I feel that while I differ in the style of work we chose, I inherited their workmanship and their sense of achievement and pride in their work. And for his ability to show me that through his writing, I will be forever grateful.
A great man passed away this week; a man who showed that it doesn't matter who you are, what your background is and what country you are from. If you have a gift and you cherish it, nurture it and work hard there is no limit as to what you can achieve.
And with that, I will keep my own shovel between my finger and thumb and I will dig.