Séamus Heaney’s poem, “Digging” has always been my favorite piece of literature about work.
Have a listen to Heaney reading from his poem, “Digging.”
Or read the hard-copy version (below).
Random Thoughts on Poetry, Writing and Labor
As an undergraduate in Dublin, I was lucky enough to have Seamus Heaney as my professor and the chair of our English Department. As I sit here now, today, in America, I can shut my eyes and hear him reading to us in that second-floor classroom, to a rag-tag group of 18-year-old undergrads who were too young and too immature to appreciate what we were really hearing.
Years later, just before he became a Nobel laureate, I read an interview with Heaney in some Irish magazine in which he spoke briefly about his then-dual life as a working professor and as one of the world’s most esteemed poets. In the interview, I loved the part where he stated that he always considered it his first duty to earn a living and provide for his family.
My father was the same. Above all else, my father believed in paying his way, in working hard. In 2011, a year before he died, he told me that he was most proud of having produced an equally hard-working family.
Today, on Labor Day, I am proud to be the kind of hard worker who could make my father proud.
Other Thoughts on Work and Labor
Many of us define ourselves through what we do. During an airplane conversation with a stranger we say: “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m an accountant,” or, “I’m a farmer.”
For others, our paid employment is merely a paycheck, a way to put food on the table and pay the rent.
Today, for the 8.3% of unemployed Americans who are out there pounding the pavement, a steady job is what they long for, what they hope will land in tomorrow’s in-box or voice mail.
On Labor Day, take a moment to give thanks for your job–whatever it is. And give thanks for the organized labor and the workers who, 118 years ago, marched and advocated for a national holiday to honor our collective contribution.
And finally, remember that in 21st-century America, immigrants comprise 14% of the American workforce. Often, immigrants have launched the businesses and created the jobs that allow others to earn a living and feed their American families.
Indulge me as I post these stories and statistics about the labor contributions of contemporary immigrants in the U.S.
Or listen to this NPR “Here and Now” segment, “Can Immigrants Save Small-Town America?”
Or how about this Op-Ed piece, “Don’t Shut the Golden Door” in the New York Times?
Séamus Heaney (1939-)
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.
- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)