Poetry in the Peat

Digging by Seamus Heaney –

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.

Farmers Planting Potatoes, Vincent van Gogh:


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.

Farmer with a Pitchfork, Winslow Homer:


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.

A Man Digging Potatoes, Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard:

(c) Oxford City Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

12 thoughts on “Poetry in the Peat

  1. cauartprof says:


    What a delightful way to start my Friday morning. The sun is just illuminating the front yard, the cat looking out the window for entertainment, my coffee close at hand, and your gift of Seamus Heaney. Many thanks.


    • artmodel says:


      Thank you so much, I love that! Sounds like my kind of morning 🙂
      Always enjoy your comments.


      • cauartprof says:

        Say, on an unrelated note, I just found out that my linocut of you was accepted to The 2014 Harnett Biennial of American Prints on view at the University of Richmond. Queen’s girl makes a splash in the mid-South!


        • artmodel says:

          YESS!!! That’s awesome! So happy about this Chris. The Queens girl is invading the south, put everyone on alert! 😆

          Really wonderful news. Thanks for sharing. Happy for you!


  2. Bill says:

    What’s amazing is the ambivalence I can feel about this topic. When I was going to college, I had a prof who came into class one Monday morning and proclaimed that he had spent the weekend chopping wood — and how great that felt. And I said to myself, “Is he kidding me? He has a PhD — and he’s chopping wood — and he likes it? I’m going to college so that I don’t have to do that kind of stuff.”

    So, here I am decades later and, after I finish this, I’m off to the gym to engage in physical exertion that, apart from pleasing my doctor and my waistline, isn’t going to do anybody any good. It will produce neither food nor firewood — it actually costs me money to go there. The only reason I’m doing it is that, like Heaney, I’m doing most of my digging with a squat pen. But you can’t escape it — the pen may be mightier than the sword, but it gets its ass kicked by a sedentary lifestyle 🙂 Doing the digging — the “real” digging — is just hardwired into our DNA — and, therefore, our art.

    • artmodel says:


      I totally get where your prof was coming from. We’ve arrived at an age where physical labor is not an integral part of many people’s lives anymore – certainly not for us big city folk. The sedentary lifestyle was fine for poets and writers and the like, but now we are often sedentary for both work and recreation. Sit at the office all day and stare at a computer screen, come home and sit again and play World of Warcraft.

      My humbler version of your prof’s invigorating weekend (no I don’t chop wood!) comes in the form of gardening. I procrastinate the tasks that require more exertion – heavy pruning, etc, but when I finally devote an entire to weekend to it, I confess that it feels really good afterwards. And that wonderful “digging” that Heaney describes for us comes alive for me when I’m planting a new perennial or shrub.

      Thanks for your comments!


  3. coondude says:

    SO the young Irishman said, “Ma, I want to do something with my life besides dig peat”. And she replied, “There you go again, thinking outside the bogs”.

  4. Drawing Aficionado says:

    Hi Claudia,
    My English is far too poor to fully appreciate Seamus Heaney’s poem.
    Nevertheless it is one of my preferred texts and I like to hear it said by Seamus himself to be cradled by the rough music of the words and by his impressive Irish accent.
    You have chosen potatoes diggers and farmers to illustrate the poem. Of course you’re right. But carpenters, violin-makers or lace makers would have been all right as well. All the people who are using their skills and experiences in silence, with patience and dignity. Artisans. (And certainly to be a life model is a to be an artisan).
    Modern world is based on technological revolutions, change and productivity, and as far as art is concerned on avant gardes. Seamus Heaney reminds me where I am coming from. For me this poem is about roots and humanity. It is a source of thoughts on what sense I want to give to my life.

    • artmodel says:

      Drawing Aficionado,

      I couldn’t agree more with your comments. You’re absolutely right that many other images would have worked with this poem when we consider Heaney’s larger point. To me, the poem wouldn’t be the same without his honest declaration that he’ll continue the tradition of his father and grandfather with his digging pen, rather than a spade. And yes, Heaney is expressing the importance of roots, native land, skills and labor that sustain generations.

      Your English doesn’t seem to be any hindrance to your understanding of the poem! Quite the opposite. As a words & phrases junkie I’m particularly struck by “nicking and slicing”, the “cool hardness” of the young potatoes, “squelch and slap of soggy peat”, and “living roots awaken in my head”. And Heaney’s description of how his grandfather took the milk, drank it down in seconds, and went right back to his digging is so vivid in its depiction of the hardworking, rural man who doesn’t really take “breaks”. It’s clear to everyone why Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.

      Thanks for your comments!


  5. Derek says:

    luvely poem

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