We have only to turn to the opening pages of Heaney’s collection of essays, to read: ’To this day, green, wet corners, flooded wastes, soft rushy bottoms, any place with the invitation of watery ground and tundra vegetation, even glimpsed from a car or a train, possess an immediate and deeply peaceful attraction.
It is rather the hen or the egg question: does the poet have a particular form of experience because his inner nature provokes such experience, or does a strange experience at a sensitive age trigger off the poetic impulse?
I am more inclined to feel that the first solution is the true one, and that the initial step in the poet’s quest is the result of a specific poetic sensibility for which all experience has the taste of wonder.
Naturally, the creative force of such an impulse springs from a central source, and the Freudian echoes Heaney suggests are frequent in his verse "digging becomes a sexual metaphor, an emblem of initiation, like putting your hand into the bush or robbing the nest, one of the various natural analogies for uncovering and touching the hidden thing"6.
The poet treats this poem with humorous realism by calling it "a big coarse-grained navvy of a poem,"7 and when we read later subtler and finer textured poems we are inclined to agree.
This parallel allows two universes to coexist within the poem’s unfolding revelations; the secret, abstract workings of the poet’s mind are seen in terms of the physical activity where sharp cutting work contrasts with the soft liquid movements of earth.
It is one of Heaney’s earliest poems, written when he first began to "dabble in verse" as he says4.
The word "initiation" here is most relevant to the theme of our discussion for does it not imply that incipient moment, the birth of a poet, with which we are concerned?
The poem’s analogy for the writing process indeed, that of working the earth, will repeat itself "again and again" throughout the following poems, and when Heaney here declares himself "doomed" to this repetitive process, he is in fact expressing the almost physical force with which the muse, the poetic impulse or call it what you will - pushes him onwards, digging and digging further.
In both these examples we distinguish a common characteristic; a kind of primitive approach to the mystery of a poet’s intimate melody and rhythm, the "vital element" in the first example we gave is paralleled in the second by the word "feeling", that is, a living impulse, an imperative form of guidance springing from within.
This pristine seizure of mystery, this realistic interpretation of its working, is one of the most salient features in Heaney’s writing, and that he should speak of the craft of verse in such terms is in keeping with his work itself.