“It’s a soft day.”

Posted September 6th, 2013 by Albert DeCiccio Ph.D., Provost, Southern Vermont College

This is what my father-in-law, Paddy McGrath, would say when it was a day that was cloudy and rainy.  I don't know if it will rain today, but it feels like a soft day–and a sad one–for the most well-known and foremost Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, Seamus Heaney, has died.  

I heard Heaney speak at the Harvard Commencement for my brother-in-law a little more than ten years ago. At that time, his contemporary and poetic translation of the great Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, had been recently released, and he spoke about the importance of study and of exercising the imagination.  He read this poem, too, one of my very favorites, which I offer to you all in tribute to Seamus Heaney, to family, and to “digging”:


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as 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 could 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, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, 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.