Saying Digging by Seamus Heaney

Saying Digging by Seamus Heaney…

This is a poem that I started learning at the end of August. I have been trying to learn a poem a week. It is now mid September.

I don’t really know why but this poem turned out to be so difficult to learn. It is a little longer than the other ones I have learnt so far but I think there is something about the message in the poem. Something about it that I can hear but not really feel.

The poem is one of Heaney’s earlier poems and he is looking at his father and his grandfather and how they were brilliant at digging. The rhymes are beautiful and subtle and it just sounds so natural. It is a beautiful poem. Maybe the core message did not vibrate with me.

Why so difficult?

Some of the reasons that made it so difficult to learn this poem was that there was a lot of stuff going on: it was the end of the holidays and then it was back to school for my young family. I tried a couple of times to record it but nearly everytime I tried to record it I got something wrong. Either when I was saying it or else something happened during the recording.

I have seen great advantages from learning poetry though. I have seen it  in re-learning some of my music and lyrics for the groups I play with.

Why learn?

There was a concert with Onze Onze and it was so easy to relearn all the lyrics after the holidays. In an earlier post I wondered about the utility of learning these poems so I suppose I am getting an answer already.

I can also feel it in my writing. I have continued drawing as well and there are things changing with that too. I will announce the news in relation to drawings on a separate post.

Last night, I was at the birthday party of a friend and he co-celebrated his birthday with his father. We improvised some music with some musician friends. I improvised some lyrics.

What can we say about time passing? About those who have come before? How can we live up to the ones who were before us?

Heaney answers you have to use the tools that you have.

Hope you enjoy this poem and see you soon…

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.


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.
Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney.

Saying The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes

Smell in your Dreams

The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes is a poem about making a poem, almost like a dream it starts with the poet and a lonely clock ticking and then he senses something more nearer, he gets glimpses of this idea/being, slowly revealing itself to be a fox, everything building, until the final stanza when with ‘a sudden sharp hot stink of fox, it enters the dark hole of the head.’ The animal smell of the fox, this closeness to the idea/fox, wakes us from the dream. ‘The page is printed’, the poem is there.

Blood in his Dreams

When Ted Hughes read ‘The Thought-Fox’ in public he used to introduce the poem by telling the audience about a dream he had two years before he wrote it. At that time Hughes was studying English Literature at Cambridge. He believed that his studies stifled his creativity. He dreamt that a burnt and bloody fox, the size of a man with human hands, walking on his hind legs, came into his room. The fox put a bloody hand on the essay he was writing and said, ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’ When he wrote ‘The Thought-Fox’, he may not have been thinking about this dream at all, but it is interesting that he subsequently made this connection.

As in so many things creative, it is often in hindsight that we can see the golden thread which links them together.

Why the Fox?

I am no stranger to foxes and wrote a poem which you can find elsewhere on this website called “Why the Fox?”.

Hughes claimed that the fox was his totemic animal. In some shamanic traditions the shamans never tell who their spirit animals are, while in others the shamans are quite open about this. Your totemic animals change and you may have several during your life in shamanic traditions.

I have been drawing a fox man for nearly a year now. I do not know why. I find it easy to draw him. It is of course partly autobiographical and an easy mask to hide behind. I can say or attempt to say things about the world I live in, while all the time imagining other worlds.

The fox is a cliché. it is often invoked to represent a mixture of the civilised savage: ourselves. Many people talk to me about Mister Fox the great film, and of course from time to time in my drawings the Crow puts in an appearance with the Fox. The Fox has a resonance in our culture- he is so common as to be invisible. He is known for the folk qualities of slyness and his trickster attitude. At the same time the fox is lovable. And deeper still the fox is wild. The fox is a wild animal.

The Fox in Contemporary Art

A friend of mine explained to me that the fox is very popular in contemporary art because it is easy to find stuffed foxes in antique shops. The fox dies, is stuffed and reborn again in an installation. If the fox is lucky its physical remains are not too badly treated in this reincarnation. For some it would be better that they were forgotten beside the battered, empty valved dusty trumpet at the back of the antique shop. When I see the fox’s helpless body mistreated and disrespected I feel sad.

Meeting the Fox for Real

I just came back to France from holidays in Dublin, my home town. This is also part of the reason why it has been so hard to post this video of me saying the Thought-Fox. I also have stopped drawing foxes. I don’t know why. Holidays I suppose…

Dublin is full of foxes. Real foxes and surely many false ones too. I saw a fox crossing the road in broad daylight. A fine healthy fox, well-fed with a beautiful coat. A couple of nights later I was coming home late from a friend’s house and I saw a fox in the same place in the dark. It may have been the same fox. It crossed the road in front of me and went down another road. It stood beneath the yellow lamp. I looked down the road after him and it turned to stare at me. We held the stare for a long time and then I reached for my phone to somehow capture it; a bad photo, a shaky video. It looked at me from the lamplight and I tried to discreetly take out my camera. Then it turned and was gone. I stood there with my useless smartphone.

I went on home thinking about how do we meet foxes? How do we meet animals? How do we meet that wild part of ourselves? And then we try to capture it. And if we capture the wilderness it runs away.

The Fox-Catcher

‘So you see, in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it. And all through imagining it clearly enough and finding the living words.’ Ted Hughes (Poetry in the Making)

Not everyone would agree that catching the wild thing is the right thing. And this is a Thought-Fox, notice that hyphen in the title now?

Attempt at Conclusion

It’s late at night, you are alone trying to find an idea, trying to draw, trying to write, trying to write music, trying to imagine a new thing, a way to put into something a something that you sense…

This is what the Thought Fox is about. It is about the birth of a poem.

So. I have started learning a poem by heart a week. At the end of the week I post the poem on my website and on my instagram. I am on week three and I don’t really know why I am doing it. I enjoy the process of learning and I imagine that I will start to see other benefits. But for the moment it is a way of selecting poetry that I love, an echo of the infinite contained in the finite body…

I am trying to learn a poem a week but this one has been a little tricky to learn and to find the time to say it.
There is nothing more useless and useful than poetry. Especially now so many of us have a need for the promise of poetry, the rawness of poetry, the true lies of poetry, the possible impossibility.
I was about to give up– I know so many people have done this before. I am doing this for me alone and my own enjoyment. I post it to give myself an obligation and a deadline. If you don’t like it, I don’t give a f**k… 🙂

I hope that it will give you the wish to do something that you want to do yourself- you don’t have to post it…

The Thought-Fox

by Ted Hughes

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

~

From The Hawk in the Rain (1957)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats

Poetry

Here I am reciting a poem by Yeats, on the the beach. The pauses are because I am reciting by heart. I am doing this in response to a creative challenge on the excellent Lateral Action blog… There is a podcast called 21st Century Creative. It is a first series and I really recommend it to anyone who is interested in creativity. You can go back and listen to all the podcasts. The last episode will be next week but there will be another season very soon. There are excellent interviews with many different creative people.

This episode the challenge was to learn a poem by heart. I do this on a regular basis for my own songs but this has reminded me that I wanted to do it for myself. In this way I can explore poetry from the inside. I also help my children learn poetry for their school homework and they love to do it.

I have developed techniques for memorization which include repetition, analysis of structures, rhyming schemes and visualization. It is always impressive to see how quickly my sons learn poems. They are very good at it but they are also good at learning in advance. In fact one of the main parts of memorizing is sleeping. This allows the text to really live inside of you.

I should really redo the poem and maybe I will this evening!

I will post the results here as I learn some of my favourite poems. There is a huge difference when we read poems and when we recite them.

The line “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” is pure music to the ear and in the mouth. It becomes clear when we recite it.

My version: filling myself up with music

As I learnt the poem I repeated it like a mantra, letting the music of the words, the images, fill me up. I recited the poem at the end of the day on the beach to my wife. It was a little difficult. I possibly should have learnt a poem in French but my wife speaks pretty good English.

Incidentally it is very interesting to listen to Yeats’ own reading of the poem : it is not at all the way I hear the music of the poem. You can hear his version at the bottom of this post. Yeats was not as fond of this poem as others are. For him it was a work of his youth…

Earlier in the day as I walked through the streets, reciting the poem, it began to resound more and more with me.

As I swam out in the sea in the evening, I imagined the “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;” as I stood in the city surrounded with people (“While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core”) I tried to hear the silence and the calm that is at the heart of this poem. As the evening set (“There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”) I was looking at the golden cloud in the sky’s blue grey azure, trying to transpose this memory of Yeats’ childhood holidays onto this noisy mediterranean resort.

This wish to go, to leave where we are (“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,”) fills up the whole poem. I began to hear the poem from inside me.

Reciting this poem on the beach was fun as well, you can hear all the seaside noises…

Here is my recital for what it’s worth.

This will surely lead to some lyrics or words of my own… A personal version of the Lake Isle of Innisfree.

This is also why it is a great idea to learn poems: you then transpose those ideas onto your own material… And Yeats is no slouch when it comes to beautiful words…

Keep creating.

 

Willian Butler Yeats

Here is Yeats’ version: