MAZER UPSETS HEANEY! MAZER UPSETS HEANEY!

Ladies and gentlemen, for the second time this spring, Ben Mazer has stunned the world of sports by defeating a heavily favored opponent in the 2012 Scarriet March Madness poetry contest!   First, John Ashbery, and now Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney goes down. 

How did he do it, ladies and gentlemen?

This was no obscure poem by Heaney—but his most anthologized piece!  “Digging!”  Universally praised and reprinted!

Oh, we can’t believe it!

How was Heaney’s poem vulnerable?  This is a Nobel Prize winner’s most famous poem!  How did it lose?

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
 
[Has there ever been an opening two lines as powerful as this?  Don't shoot! The pen resting!  It rests---between my finger and my thumb.  Oh poet! with your finger and thumb!  Oh writer with your instrument! O snug, squat pen!  Please, please, don't shoot!]
 
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.
 
[O savage digging in the flowers!  gravelly and rasping, the sound!]
 
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.
 
[O coarse boot!  O hard potato! ]
 
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
 
[God is invoked!  Shades of Milton!  A spade!  Think of it!  A spade!]
 
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.
 
[Sloppily corked milk!  And digging!  The salt of the earth invoked!  Manly!  Wild!  Savage!  Sweaty!  Good turf!  Sods heaved! ]
 
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.
 
[O tragedy!  "I've no spade"! ]
 
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
 
[O God!  "I'll dig with it."  Just like that!  With my squat pen, I'll dig! ]
 
How was Mazer able to stop this onslaught???
 
With this sad sea-dream: 
 
 
That hulking rooftop like a leviathan
still unexpectedly sails into view,
its byzantine tilework faded red and grey
like boxes within boxes visible from the sea,
at summer’s start eluding the goswogii.
Woodberry’s copy of his life of Poe
emerges from the flood, a constancy
that nobody will buy year after year.
Poe was born in Boston. In aught nine
Bruce Rogers did the job and Eliot
did shameful things that never will be known
on out of town trips. Something in the fog
grins like a skeleton beneath the cracked
continuity of what seemed like time.
Fall is spring-like. The fresh violins
of new arrangements lift the tortured heart
to hope, reflected light, the heart laid bare.
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.
The museum closes in a timeless wave
of unutterable rhythms, lashed by rain.
The sea’s maw beckons to the life it spawned.
The white sheen of a sun pierced spray of fog
as we drop down the hill to the cliff’s edge
pierces the crowd out of time’s slow parade
that hits us like old music or a dream,
billowing out between their stupored legs,
the hot dog zeppelins and powder flags,
as if unseeable, but the grey ghost
of that hellion rowing with an iron crowbar
peers out through banjo chinks in the ragtime
that’s near but sounds as if it’s far away,
the certainty of death past the breakers.
 
 
There is a continuity here, in terms of sea and approaching land and glimpsing earth’s large buildings and contemplating with a self-conscious pathos the accomplishment of the human soul:  Poe’s “heart laid bare,” the sly reference to Eliot, and the reference to Christ: death at thirty-three, though it’s Hart Crane, too…this passage is especially rich:
 
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

The musical use of “t’ and “r” sounds is beautiful and uncanny: “poetry,” “mysterious,” “search,” “thirty-three,” “winter,’ “Archduke Trio,” “conservatory,” “moderate,” “contemporary,” and “admirer,” “admire,” those two words emphasizing the “r” music in a wonderful little coda.

Mazer 88, Heaney 86

4 Comments

  1. MazerFan said,

    May 3, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Good choice, old chap – though I would bump Mazer 20 points above him.

    “Poems are but evidence of poetry.”

    “Although I am only a moderate admirer
    of your poetry, there is not a single other
    contemporary poet who I do admire.”

    There are some hard jewels at the bottom of this dreamy sea…What does Heaney offer us?

    Some “vivid” descriptions of dirt, potatoes, and a shovel for his corny metaphor.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      Mazerfan,

      Big old Heaney pulled down plenty of rebounds and that old-fahioned method of shooting still sinks a lot of baskets: old school Heaney was a force in that game, and the refs! did you see all those terrible calls against Mazer? The refs don’t get it, sometimes…I think there were refs working that game who did not understand Mazer’s poem….

      I agree that Mazer gives us haunting phrases that are more than the sum of their parts: the back-door love of “Although I am only a moderate admirer of your poetry, there is not a single other contemporary poet who I do admire” is affectionate and wry and ridiculous and funny and sincere and somehow heart-breaking all at once.

      Tom

      • noochinator said,

        May 3, 2012 at 2:58 pm

        Of course the refs
        Did not understand it—
        “Give us what we know!” ‘s
        What they’ve always demanded.

  2. May 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    The great poet of the day, if received opinion is to be regarded, is not English but Irish, Seamus Heaney. I wish I knew why. He seems like a poet: he is amiable, rough-hewn in appearance, determinedly not cosmopolitan, Celtic to the highest power. I only wish I could recall a single phrase from the perhaps hundred or so of his poems that I’ve read. But every age must have a great poet, whether he truly exists or not, and Seamus Heaney is apparently the man appointed for the job.


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