Sunday, January 25, 2009

Beat-Memo Homage: Dig It

You don't (or I don't, or one doesn't) hear anyone say, "I dig that" or "I can dig that" in the ancient hipster or old-Beatnik sense of "I understand that" or "I'm in tune with that" much anymore--except perhaps when people are genially mocking the usage.

I still recall fondly the pop-song, "Grazing in the Grass (Is a Gas)," with its dig-related riff and refrain. Not the apogee of American music, I grant.

According the OED online, this sense of "dig" arose in English (in print, at least) around 1935:

1935 Hot News Sept. 20/2 If you listen enough, and dig him enough, you will realise that that..riff is the high-spot of the record.
1941 Life 15 Dec. 89 Dig me? 1943 M. SHULMAN Barefoot Boy with Cheek 90 Awful fine slush pump, I mean awful fine. You ought to dig that. 1944 C. CALLOWAY Hepsters Dict., Dig v.{em}(1) Meet. (2) Look, see. (3) Comprehend, understand.

Notice that Cab Calloway is featured in an early citation. This is almost purely guesswork, but my familiarity with African American origins of some American slang and of "hepster," "hipster," and jazz-related slang induces me to hypothesize that this use "dig" may have sprang from African American colloquial speech, which heavily influenced Beat slang.

With regard to the more literal use of dig, I can report that I did a lot of digging in my youth and young adulthood, much of it related to putting in water-lines, building foundations for houses, putting in fence-posts, establishing drain-fields for septic tanks, and even looking for gold. Since then I've done a lot of digging in gardens.

Strange as it may sound, my father loved to dig. (He became a professional hard-rock gold-miner at age 17, at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley California; this meant digging.) To him it was an art. Probably the best tip I can give you from the art of digging according to him is to let the pick (or pry-bar) do the work. Never swing a pick as high or higher than your head; you really don't have to swing it at all. Work with it, and let its iron point do the work, not your forearms and back. If the pick is wearing you out, something is wrong--I mean besides the fact that there you are, using a pick.

Unfortunately, my experience digging, often alongside my father, may have ruined Seamus Heaney's famous "Digging" poem for me. In it, Heaney explicitly compares his writing ("digging" with a pen) to his father's digging in the ground. I think because I saw the comparison coming a mile away (when I first read the poem), I winced. Also, because digging is a form of labor and a skill unto itself, I'd be tempted to leave it alone and not associate it with the figurative digging of writing.

True, a pick and a pen both have a point, and so, therefore, does Heaney. But for some reason I wanted him to let writing be writing and digging be digging and not go for the comparison. I'm in an extremely tiny minority with this response, however, so I think it's mostly about me and not about Heaney's poem, which many people adore.

In any event, and in honor of those old hipsters and long-ago Beats, and in homage to writers I happen to like, here's a list-poem memo (for some reason, the idea of writing a Beat "memo" amused me, probably more than it should have):

Beat-Memo Homage

I dig Basho, Dickinson, Housman,
Lagerkvist, and Gogol. I dig Kafka, Calvino,
Borges, Brautigan. Can you dig Langston
Hughes,W.C. Williams, and Sam Johnson? I can.
Oh, man. I dig Swenson (May), Valenzuela (Luisa),
Sayers, Stout, and Conan Doyle. I dig
Shapiro, Stafford, Bukowski, and Jarrell.
Leonard Cohen and Jay McPherson: I dig
them, too. Of course I dig some of those
Beats, except they're ones who were
on the fringes of Beatly fringehood: Snyder,
Baraka, Everson, Levertov. Sure,
I dig Ginsburg and Kerouac, just
not as much as other people do. I dig Camus,
who didn't believe, and Nouwen, who did.
I dig Suzuki (Zen Mind...), St. Denis
(Cloud of...), and Spinoza. Jeffers, I
dig--Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky. I dig Rumi
an Goethke: what's not to dig? I dig
O'Connor (Frank and Flannery both).
I dig Horace and the Beowulf cat,
Tolstoy, Cervantes. Let's leave it at that.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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