The Love of Poems in a Post-Poetry Age: Part II

This is the second part of a two-part post. Please click here to read Part 1.

As Seamus Heaney took up his chosen art, he found his poet’s voice in a difficult and beautiful reflection in his most famous poem, “Digging.” It was difficult because it involved measuring his personal limitations against the great men who had reared him, chiefly his father and his grandfather. It was beautiful because the exercise gave birth to a clear vision of his possibilities as a poet.

Follow this link to read Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” Then meet me back here, and let’s try to make sense of “Digging.”


I want to focus on six key elements that are crucial for a good poem. They are elements all of us can find and with which all of us can develop our love for poetry. For the purposes of this post, I am avoiding almost all the technical terms commentaries utilize. My one exception is “metaphor.”  I am also opting not to discuss melodic qualities such as rhyme and meter, saving that for another day.

Here are six elements we can use to explore and discuss the poem:

1. Voice.  It matters who is speaking, just as it does in a stage play. Identifying who is speaking helps us understand the motivation for what is said or done. This does not mean we rely on an outside commentary on the poet’s politics or religion. Rather, we follow the evidence of the poem. The rule of thumb in reading poetry is that, unless it is clearly evident that the poet has developed a voice other than his own, we should assume that the voice of the poem is his. In “Digging,” we can assume that the voice is Heaney’s. While one may have read the first part of this post and learned some elements in the poet’s biography and vision, neither is necessary to get a good hold on this poem. Given that Heaney’s is the voice of the poem, there is still work to be done. Where exactly is Heaney in the poem?

2. Setting.  Poetry situates us in the world. A good poem almost always illuminates our lives through the vehicle of one or more real, concrete places. In “Digging,” Heaney’s reflection takes us to specific places. Where are they? Again, follow the evidence internal to the poem.

3. Images.  We can understand poetry as thinking, not in concepts but in images. For example, a good poem usually has at least one or two strong metaphors or similes. As I said in my previous post with the example from Psalm 23, a metaphor is a transfer of meaning between otherwise unconnected words; a simile simply uses “as” or “like” to help make the connection. What metaphor does Heaney give us to ponder? Where and how does he present the metaphor? Beyond metaphors, what other images emerge?  

4. The sensorial or the sensual.  The poem should make us see, touch, hear, smell and taste what is experienced and now conveyed in the compact form of the poem. In “Digging,” what adjectives and verbs make us feel or see the places we encounter? What sensory observations move Heaney from where he starts the poem to where he ends it? How do they make us feel what he is experiencing? This next question is closely related to element #3: What takes shape in our minds, or what becomes clear in our imaginations, precisely because the poem’s imagery strikes our senses?

5. Patterns and repetitions.  A poet uses certain tools to bind the poem as a chef might bind a dish so that one can taste that element all the way through. What words are most repeated in the poem? How do they carry us through the full length of the poem? (Hint: don’t neglect the title!)

6. Movement.  Unsurprisingly but importantly, a poem has a beginning, a middle and an end. We should take note of where we are at the start, where we are at the finish, and how we got there. At each turn of the poem, we should also ask when those turns occur since a poem often hinges on some revolution of time or on a movement back and forth in time. “Digging” starts in one real place, then moves on to others.  It starts from the perspective of the present and moves backwards in time as one does through a memory. It also expresses a sequence of thought and makes us think from beginning to end. Here are the questions that we ask about this movement:  What does the poet seem to be thinking at the start of his poem?  What does he think in the final lines? Where is he at each point in time? How do we know what he is thinking at any juncture? In other words, what is the evidence of his reflection at the key moments? How can we express the entire movement in thought over the course of the poem? What does it have to do with the movement internal to the poem from one place to another and from one time to another?

These half dozen elements are helpful because they focus our minds on the specific details of the poem and allow us to savor the work as a whole. That, more than anything, is the key to reading a poem well: drinking in every detail packed into the poem from beginning to end and thoughtfully appreciating it as a whole. Knowing what questions to ask helps us appreciate a good poem just like knowing what to look for in a wine helps us taste it intelligently and appreciatively.

So, what do we see in “Digging”? I’ll share my thoughts.

The aspiring poet, sitting at his desk near a window and above the ground below, clearly has a plan as represented by the pen that is like a “gun”—as if he would bang out poems as quickly as he could shoot bullets, efficiently, mechanically. That strikes one as cold and rather inhumane; it seems unbeautiful. We note that the opening lines that dwell on this soulless imagery are deliberately crafted in a sing-song rhyme scheme: “thumb” and “gun”; then “sound,” “ground”  and “down.” That sing-song rhyming fails to capture what a poet does and as such is unreal and therefore untrue, like the mechanical nature of the poet’s pen when working like a gun. The structure—the sing-song scheme—and the operation—the pen as a gun—do not fit the art.  

Then his ear is struck by the sound of his father’s gardening and his eye by the site of his father below his window. We know it is his father because he identifies “my father’s straining rump.”  What follows is that his gun-fired-poetry-writing is suspended. Interrupted, he turns and finds himself reflecting on his father and grandfather and the land they worked. He goes “down” into his memory and, by that act of remembering, down to the “turf” and to the men who worked it.

The boy version of himself is there in the memory—specifically, in the potato drills and the peat bog. We know this by the evidence of the poem: “we picked” the new potatoes, “[l]oving their coolness in our hands.”  The “we” and “our” are inclusive words that let us know young Seamus Heaney (and others who we reasonably imagine are his siblings) is there with his father. And, when the grandfather takes a break just long enough to knock down a bottle of milk, “Corked sloppily with paper,” we know  Seamus is there as well because of the line “Once I carried him milk in a bottle.”

The two fathers are magnificent. Their physicality is conveyed by the language of action: his father is “stooping” and “digging”; he “nestled” and “rooted” and “buried.”  His grandfather “cut,” then we see him “nicking” and “slicing” and “heaving”—“digging”.  

The repeated use of “digging” and the repetition of going “down” make us feel both the physical action of the men and the movement of Heaney’s memory. Because the reflection is triggered by the distraction of his father’s gardening, the reflection feels passive: he is pulled into it and then drawn deeper by the compelling imagery. At the same time, we feel that the poet is fully engaged, going down himself, reaching for something that certainly appears to contrast sharply with the lifeless mechanical image that opens the poem. Although he is in the present, sitting at his poet’s desk above the garden where his father presently works the gravelly soil, the exercise of recollection has now stirred something equally real, so real that the transfer of meaning from the past to the present is complete. His father’s and his grandfather’s digging and that sensual world of his boyhood now return and press in on him: “Through living roots” they “awaken in my head.”

Now, however, what rises to the surface is the difficulty I mentioned earlier. It appears to be a kind of regret. Having drunk deeply from the two powerful memories, having felt again the grandeur of the drills and the bog and the masterful way his fathers worked with those two Irish forms of turf, the son realizes he measures up short: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

At such a moment of self-understanding, a man might simply despair. Or, in an attempt at autonomy, he might turn his back. Neither is Heaney’s response, which is captured instead by a re-working of the key metaphor in the poem. Neither despondent nor inclined to forget who he is, Heaney drops the simile in the opening lines of the poem where he likened his poet’s pen to a gun and now adopts a new one. With the resolution “I’ll dig with it” he takes the meaning of his father’s and grandfather’s spades and shifts it to his pen—as if to say, “My pen is like a spade.”  

Now the poet has a new voice, informed more vitally by the strength he draws from recalling his fathers and their land. Now, among his people and their land and all the experience that binds him to both, the poet has a place to dig, to cultivate those “living roots.”

In doing so, in cultivating those “living roots,” Seamus Heaney fulfills the poet’s calling: to make his life and, in turn, our lives, more real by recollecting the humanity we share. In other words, because of his poems, “living roots” awaken in our minds too.


Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.

If you like “Digging,” check out these other poems by Seamus Heaney: “Follower,” “The Mother of the Groom,” “The Forge,” “Mid-Term Break,” “Casualty,” the “Glanmore Sonnets,” and “Saint Kevin and the Blackbird.” You can find them online, many through the Poetry Foundation and Poem Hunter.

Header image of a newly plowed potato drill by Richard Croft. Used under license CC BY-SA 2.0.