How does this poem reflect the speaker's feelings about his heritage and how he has split away from it?
The poem's very goal—to liken the speaker's craft to digging—betrays the speaker's insecurity. By praising the digging work done by his forebearers, and then comparing his own work as a writer to it, he is, on an explicit level, trying to justify his work. But on a more subtle level, the poem may be trying to prove that labor like farming, traditionally seen as unskilled and thus less prestigious, is in fact just as valuable as an intellectual task such as writing a poem. Either way, the speaker is capturing the tension between his world of intellectual work and the world of manual work, as well as the tension between past and present Ireland.
What may this poem trying to do? How does it go about doing so, and what are some potential pitfalls the writer may fall into?
Heaney begins and ends the poem by declaring that he holds his pen firmly, and he spends much of the poem describing the tools that his father and grandfather used to write; the comparison he draws between his occupations and theirs is clear. The whole poem works to prove that both kinds of work are valuable. However, his efforts, perhaps in part because they are so clear, risk falling a little flat. This poem portrays both writing and digging romantically. The poem glosses over issues that could complicate this poem's position; for example, the speaker does not discuss the class difference between writers/academics and farmers.
While Heaney was clearly a skilled writer at the time he wrote this poem, the poem can come across a little heavy-handed in how it expresses its goal to establish the speaker as a writer who somehow still follows in the footsteps of his farmer father and grandfather.
What part does sound play in this poem?
Heaney will forever be known for his attention to sound, and this poem makes generous use of it. From "nicking and slicing neatly" to "the squelch and slap/of soggy peat," his words are those of someone very familiar with his subject and very in tune with the way that sound shapes meaning. By using his skills as a poet to describe where he came from, the speaker is tying himself in with his history while simultaneously separating himself from it; he is an observer, no longer a participant.
His descriptions of farm work, which are intense and majestic, also work to raise his family's craft in the eyes of the reader. He wants others to appreciate manual labor as much as he does; the best way for him to do this is to bring us as close as possible to the sensations associated with tilling the land in his writing.
Why are tools so central to this poem?
Tools play a central role in this poem; the speaker uses tools to manifest the link between his line of work and his father's and grandfather's. The way the speaker describes himself holding the pen strikes a close parallel to the description of his father's leg on the shovel.
The one tool that stands out in the poem is the gun, which is used as a metaphor in the first stanza. The gun does not reappear; in the last line, the phrase "snug as a gun" is replaced with "I'll dig with it," referring to the pen. A gun is essentially the opposite of a farming tool; it is used to maim or kill, while a spade is used to harvest food and sustain life. Perhaps the speaker is indicating that there are different ways he could write, and he chooses to "dig" back into his own history instead of ignoring his legacy in favor of intellectual pursuits.