Seamus Heaney died in a Dublin hospital in August 2013 at the age of 74, but he will live on for generations in thousands of classrooms, including my own. I have been teaching Heaney’s poetry to inner city kids from Brooklyn for 10 years now.
True, there are a lot of rural and religious images in Heaney’s poetry that might not be accessible or interesting to 21st century teens in general and Brooklyn kids in particular.
Nevertheless, the Heaney poem “Digging” has played a central role in my teaching. It is a poem I usually teach the first week of classes.
It is simple and mysterious. Quiet, and yet a call to arms. It has some unfamiliar vocabulary words to challenge the students, and employs many of the literary elements (simile, metaphor, repetition) which (unfortunately) have been drained of all their beauty by the bureaucrats who write state examinations.
Ultimately, one of the many messages in “Digging” is a message so important to teenagers. It can be summed up by what were reportedly Heaney’s final words: “Do not be afraid.”
Now, “Digging” is not a perfect poem to teach. As with many Heaney poems, it begins with agricultural imagery, in this case, the poet’s father digging for potatoes. Brooklyn kids don’t do much farming these days.
Plus, in the poem’s fifth line, Heaney uses the word “rump,” which inevitably produces giggles from a teenaged crowd. Heck, even the word “spade” (the shovel used by Heaney’s father) can create problems because it has been used as a racial insult in the past.
But those problems are all beside the point once we take apart the second line, in which Heaney declares that his pen fits in his hand as “snug as a gun.”
Why would he compare a pen to a gun? Is it possible those things can be similar in any way?
This poem has become so important in my classroom because answering these questions leads to much more fundamental questions. Why do we even bother to teach writing? Why do students need to improve their writing?
In short: Why write?
If you think these are silly questions with self-evident answers, well, you’ve never been in a classroom with resistant students, teenagers whose writing skills haven’t developed much past 4th or 5th grade levels.
They don’t enjoy doing something they can’t do well. Who does?
It’s my job to not only teach them how to write well, but -- more importantly -- to teach them why it is important to write well.
It’s a job made easier by Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” The poem’s speaker observes his father “Stooping in rhythm through potato drills / Where he was digging.”
He later adds, “By God, the old man could handle a spade/Just like his old man.”
So, how does the speaker in the poem feel about his father? And who is this other “old man?”
Suddenly, this is a multi-generational poem. Is it important to think about the generations that came before us? Why? What do you know about the generations that came before you?
It is around here where students begin making their own connections, how exploring your own family history is a from of “digging.”
I’ll never forget the first time a student’s eyes lit up and noted how the word “roots” matches this poem so perfectly, even before the poem’s speaker mentions “the curt cuts of an edge /Through living roots awaken in my head.”
Then the poem takes its final, radical turn.
“I’ve no spade to follow men like them/Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests/I’ll dig with it.”
Should children do what their parents do? Why or why not? And how do you “dig” with a pen anyway? What can you unearth?
A secret. A better job. A lover. Anything and everything. Good and bad.
Because a pen is not only like a shovel, but, don’t forget, it is also like a gun. And there are usually skeptical comments here, because these kids come from tough neighborhoods, and they’ll wonder what this farm boy in the poem knows about guns.
And then I may tell them a little bit about Irish history. And then they’ll write a little about their own history.
The first day of school in New York City is September 9. We will continue digging. We will not be afraid.