April 1 is no day for fools. It’s the kickoff to the most important month of the year – Poetry Month. It’s not marketed nearly enough. There should be cards and decorations, parties and mascots. Children should dress up as Emily Dickinson or John Donne and be exempt from all non-poetry related homework. Speaking should be limited to verse. Car dealerships and clothing stores should trumpet discounts for customers who bring in a sestina or smaller discounts for villanelles. Until I can make this dream a reality, we’ll have to settle for a poem a day.
You can’t beat the dead Irish for poetry. A close second is the living Irish. Here’s a favorite of mine by Seamus Heaney, who is still kicking it poetry-style. I met him once, at a reading in college, where I was so tongue-tied and awestruck, I blurted out, “I just love you so much!” No joke. He looked at me like I was a stalker, but signed my book anyway.
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 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 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 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.
I get a lump in my throat even reading it now. I love the imagery. I can almost smell the peat, and the milk “corked sloppily with paper” is an unforgettable image. His young self’s awed impression of his father and grandfather is finely rendered. Then the abrupt shift at the end – there is more going on here. He’s not a calloused-hand laborer like the men before him. He’s a poet. We can’t help but wonder how comfortable he is – or they are – with this. Feel the sadness of “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” Just whisper it under your breath…”somebody has I-S-S-U-E-S….”
This poem gets better and better upon rereading. Every time, I notice something new, which all good poetry should enable. I love the gutter ‘u’ sounds in “snug as a gun” and the hint of violence. I love the emotional “By God…” he adds to his praise of his father. Picture the line without it: not the same.
I’d write more, but this is inspiring me to dig my old (and signed!) copy of Heaney’s poems and read more. Happy Poetry Month, everyone. Offer up a couplet as a tribute.