The Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney: highly favored to kick Ben Mazer’s ass

The  first Second Round Scarriet March Madness contest has Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, the old Irish lion, facing off against the young—and hungry—Ben Mazer.
Second seed Heaney beat Carolyn Forche 65-61 in the first round, while Mazer won a thriller against no. 1 seeded Ashbery in triple overtime, 102-101.
In other East play, Billy Collins advanced against Carol Ann Duffy, 90-77 and will play Marie Howe, who won a close contest with Jorie Graham, 63-60.
Franz Wright, who dominated Geoffrey Hill, 58-42 will dance with James Tate in round 2; Tate won handily against Paul Muldoon, 71-51.
Rounding out the East, Round Two: Robert Pinsky, who destroyed Charles Bernstein, 80-47, matches up against Mary Oliver, who had little trouble knocking off Charles Simic, 67-53.
Heaney brings his most anthologized piece, “Digging,” against Mazer in Round Two, a poem built around pen and spade.
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.
The poet’s boast, “I’ll dig with it,” sounds confident, perhaps because the very act of writing about one’s ancestors (who dig!) simply accomplishes the boast.  Or perhaps it’s because the poet compares his pen to a “gun” in line 2?  The whole thing is almost too perfect—except for the “squat pen.”  Are pens “squat?”  Well, they must be in this poem.  We wonder if the son was ever given a shovel by his dad and told, “Dig with this!”
Mazer counters with the following:


“Our references have all aged a little
as we were looking at them, not noticing.”  —John Ashbery

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.

Mazer’s poem is about a lot of things; there are lines in this poem which are about a lot of things.

Heaney’s poem is not about a lot of things.  Heaney’s poem can be reduced to, “My dad was a peat moss farmer, but I’m going to be a writer: I’m going to dig with my pen.”  

Mazer’s poem cannot be reduced.  I think this style of poetry really began with early Auden, who awarded the Yale Younger to John Ashbery, and Mazer captures the idea with this line: “Poems are but evidence of poetry.”  The poetry is what we’re really after and poems, in their discreteness, can never be more than “evidence” that poetry has been there.  The style might be summed up thusly: I’m too intelligent to write mere poems, but my intelligence is very much attracted to poetry, and I find, with my intelligence, I’m able to produce poetry without it sinking into a poem.

Heaney wins with the primitive war cry, “I’ll dig with it” but loses—because after the poem registers its cave man meaning, with its men digging in the ground, the reason laughs: ‘who cares that these men dig in the ground?’  A poem has been crafted, but without poetry, for the soul cares not for the primitive manual labor of the poem.

The soul cares for, “death past the breakers” and “near but sounds as if it’s far away.”  One can hold up to examine, over and over, “Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all” to the light.  And it will look new from every angle…

And so poetry—which represents the soul’s pleasurable respite from discrete reality—is worshiped by the poets who are no longer interested in poems.

The game between Heaney and Mazer is close.  We have no idea who will win.

The game’s on the TV, which is high up on the blue wall and there’s a lot going on below… the beer’s flowing…

Marla Muse:  It’s making me nervous.  I can’t look!



  1. mpv.muthu said,

    May 2, 2012 at 4:32 am

    Both Poems are good and narrates a deep account of the experiences of the Poets.


  2. noochinator said,

    May 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Heaney’s game plan
    Is fairly transparent—
    Mazer’s however
    Is not so apparent.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm

      Is Heaney really talking sex?
      Where’s the father confessor?
      For the mystery of love that’s coming next,
      Mazer calls a professor.

  3. May 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    How does the process of determining a “winner” actually work?

  4. thomasbrady said,

    May 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm


    Rhymes that hit the mark are 2 points, half rhymes are 1 point.
    Forced rhymes are -2 or -1 points.
    Sound/meaning agreements are 3 pts.
    Metaphors, depending on their effectiveness are 10 pts to -10 pts.
    Originality is 5-30 points.
    Effectiveness of imagery is on a sliding scale of 20 to -20 points.
    Artistic unity is 25 to -25 points.
    Good taste/bad taste 25 to -25 points.
    Ease of Understanding/Obscurity 35 to -35 points.
    Moral Untangling/Philosophical Weight 30 to 0 pts.
    Rhetorical Skill 24 to 0 pts
    Intangibles 18 to 0 pts


    • noochinator said,

      May 2, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      Woodman used to make the point,
      ‘fore he gave up the ‘riet as futility,
      That League Prez Brady’s bias leaned
      Towards paraphrasability.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: