Heaney’s Gun

I’ve written in this blog before about the need to introduce more people to poetry and how to do it – well, I’ve started. The human dynamo who is Sarah Gregson, the Learning and Participation Manager at the Corn Exchange Theatre in Newbury, is keen to increase the poetry and spoken word programme at the theatre, so we have started ‘Poetry for the Petrified’ – initially, five evenings of poetry reading and writing, on Wednesdays, upstairs in the Balcony Bar. There were ten participants this week – some are already seasoned poets, some complete beginners, some with experience in other types of writing, some not.

Some of the students brought poems to share. We heard the end section of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” – the Ring the wild bells bit – some Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Follower’, a lovely piece by that famous poet “Anon” on the subject of trees and how we use wood, and this translation from a Turkish poem by Edip Cansever, which I really enjoyed.

I also brought a Heaney poem along; ‘Digging’ – the first poem in his first collection, partly because it sounded like a personal manifesto. That poem, and ‘Follower’ both seemed to lament his inability to take up the farming life, and hope that a life in writing would prove to be a worthy substitute. But one of our number did have a slight problem with the opening lines of ‘Digging’:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests, snug as a gun.

Why a gun? When guns don’t feature in the rest of the poem? Was it some reference to ‘The Troubles’, or maybe a farmer’s shotgun? Or was it just that Heaney, who was a great one for ‘sonics’, fell in love with those blunt ‘u’ sounds and added that near palindrome for fun?

Anyway it set me thinking of Chekhov’s maxim (pardon the poor pun) about dramatic relevance, which has been variously stated – he probably said it several times:

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one
it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

Did that gun really earn it’s place in the poem, or was it a distraction? A red herring? Very un-Heaney-like to make a slip up, but then it was a very early poem by the master. I’d be interested in your view on that.

We covered quite a bit of ground in that first class. Next week, I think we will talk about thinginess, and write some poems about Things…