The space we occupy and the space where others reside:Empathy in the poetry of Seamus Heaney

The text of this paper is faithful to the spoken version presented at the APAS conference

on 9 August 2014.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney visited friends in North Carolina. They had a rainstick. A rainstick is made from a cactus stalk. Seeds are placed inside its hollow chamber and both ends are sealed. Historians believe the Incas used rainsticks in ceremonies to control to weather. When Seamus Heaney held and moved the rainstick he was enthralled by the sound and he wrote this poem.

The Rain Stick  


Up-end the rain stick and what happens next

Is a music that you never would have known

To listen for. In a cactus stalk


Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash

Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe

Being played by water, you shake it again lightly


And diminuendo runs through all its scales

Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes

A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,


Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;

Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.

Up-end the stick again. What happens next


Is undiminished for having happened once,

Twice, ten, a thousand times before.

Who cares if the music that transpires


Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?

You are like a rich man entering heaven

Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.



The time is 7.00am


Two people walk into a room. One lies on a couch, the other sits in a chair. The person on the couch, a man, talks. The person in the chair listens. The same routine has continued five days a week for a year. But today something unusual is about to happen. After ten minutes the person on the couch falls silent. Fifteen minutes pass. Nothing is said. The person in the chair is puzzled, tries to listen, quietly, but new events are always hard to handle, and soon the person in the chair is back in time, to being a patient, to those times when words seemed useless things, where any intelligible utterance was far away and the few clumsy words within reach, were, by some invisible, godlike presence, forbidden. Maybe something should be said.

Some thing, like patience, wins out. Nothing is said.

Ten more minutes pass. The person on the couch stirs and speaks. ‘I’ve just realised something. For the past year I have been talking over myself. I have never stopped and really listened, ever, really listened to myself.’ There was a long pause. ‘It’s true. I have done it all my life.’


Limbo by Seamus Heaney

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I'm sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ's palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there. 



The time is 8.15am

Two people walk into a room. One lies on a couch, the other sits in a chair. They have met like this five times a week for some years. Today the appointed time was 8.00am. The person on the couch, a woman, speaks:

‘Sorry, late again.”

What the person in the chair said, in response to those three words requires some background briefing.

Words like this had been spoken many times; as lateness had crept in apologies were frequent. Sorry had been said many times, with varying degrees of contriteness, frustration, anger – in fact a whole array of emotions.  A variety of explanations were offered: the traffic was appalling; my husband really needed to talk to me; my son was upset when I took him to pre-school.

But this time the person in the chair heard something else. What was heard was like a lone flute or a piccolo inside an orchestra.

The person in the chair said.

‘The sound of this “sorry” is different from anything I have heard before. I’m sitting here and I’m slowing down what I heard. I heard you say sorry to me. You and I had arranged to meet at 8.00am I waited for you. You came late. You told me you were sorry.’

 But, there is another part to this story. When the words, “late again” were spoken, another sound was heard, a discordant note. A voice off-key.

What the person in the chair added will make this clearer.

“But I have to add that when you said, ‘late again,’ you made reference to an unknown number of other times when you were late. I think you stopped yourself listening to that single word you spoke to me. So, it seems to me that as soon as you expressed sorrow, you took it back again.’


Heaney grew up in a household with his father, mother and Aunt Mary, his father’s sister. He was the first of 9 children. He wrote what was one of his favourite poems and one of his best, Mossbawn- Sunlight, about Mary. Mary was one of the crucial relationships in his life and in the formation of his poetry. In other words Mary’s spirit filled him. I find her all over the place in his poems. Let me read for you what he says about her.

 “Mary had white hair and a fair rosy face; she stood still and straight while her hands did all the work….There was something in our relationship, whatever it was, that stood still. [In the 1970’s when I would visit from Glanmore I would greet everyone else in the house, then] go to Mary and sit with her. Not a lot getting said or needing to be said. Just a deep, unpathetic stillness and wordlessness. A mixture of lacrimae rerum and Deo gratias. Something in me reverted to the child I’d been in Mossbawn. Something in her just remained constant, like the past gazing at you calmly, without blame. She was a tower of emotional strength. For much of her adulthood, she was surrounded by the unconditional love of children and gave it back without stint. She had a hard early life and a secure old age and both showed in her gaze. In the end, she could have sat for Rembrandt.”


Mossbawn-Sunlight by Seamus Heaney

There was a sunlit absence. 
The helmeted pump in the yard 
heated its iron, 
water honeyed 

in the slung bucket 
and the sun stood 
like a griddle cooling 
against the wall 

of each long afternoon. 
So, her hands scuffled 
over the bakeboard, 
the reddening stove 

sent its plaque of heat 
against her where she stood 
in a floury apron 
by the window 

Now she dusts the board 
with a goose's wing, 
now sits, broad-lapped, 
with whitened nails 

and measling shins: 
here is a space 
again, the scone rising 
to the tick of two clocks. 

And here is love 
like a tinsmith's scoop 
sunk past its gleam 
in the meal-bin. 




I postulate two things:

1.      The man who came in at 7.00am and got to talk about what was heard in the silence, while on the couch, had a sense of being in the presence of someone like Aunt Mary.

Something in her just remained constant, like the past gazing at you calmly, without blame.


2.   The woman who said sorry, was, at the moment of speaking, taken back into the world of Limbo. The woman in that poem, by having an illegitimate child was an outcast. Under the sign of her cross, she had been placed in a world of inner badness.


In the story of the poem she first of all stood in the shallows. Then she waded in. In my reading, after she had drowned her infant, she then drowned herself. Her sense of inner badness was multiplied by her action and she annihilated herself.

To say sorry is to engage in an intimate way with another. If all your experience of intimacy is destructive, any step in that direction is fraught with dangers. One step forward; two steps back.


Aunt Mary was like a second mother to Seamus while his mother had 8 more children. In his teenage years he re-found his actual mother and re-established closeness. When she died he wrote 8 sonnets under the heading Clearances. In one he wrote about the felling of a favourite tree and said,

Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,

A soul ramifying and forever

Silent, beyond silence listened for.

One of the things the fall of the tree referred to was his mother falling. When she was on her deathbed he and his father and brothers and sisters stood around her. When she died he described the scene with these words,


The space we stood around had been emptied

Into us to keep, it penetrated

Clearances that suddenly stood open,

High cries were felled and a pure change happened.


Today I am not just talking about Heaney as a poet showing a great capacity for empathy and compassion. What I have been trying to do is to invite you into the mind of the poet, the mind of the poem maker. Not Heaney’s mind; not my mind. It’s you stepping into that space. 

And if you accept that invitation you’ll find, that words are things to play with, a sentence can be like an orchestral or string quartet piece, words and phrases and punctuation have size and weight and sound and colour. A word can be visceral, send a shiver down your spine, make your hair stand on edge, make you goosefleshy. You will find words and phrases and punctuation and sentences are not just conveyors of meaning. They are presences. 

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash


And diminuendo runs through all its scales

Like a gutter stopping trickling.

And that presence can be conveyed imaginatively. In a poem like Mossbawn-Sunlight, Heaney is like a Rembrandt with words. Witness how clearly he paints Mary in her kitchen.

 The Irish novelist and short story writer John McGahern once said: I write because I need to write. I write to see. Through words I see.

 I think over use of certain words causes them to harden. It is one of the tasks of poetry to sometimes take a word and give it a good shake. The poet is free to take a word as you would take a plant that has become root-bound out of a pot, pull it apart or give it a belt against a tree or a wall.

We all need to give ourselves a shake. A day like today is a good occasion to do that. Conferences are good for that purpose. 

When Heaney talked about writing The Rainstick he said he was giving himself a good shake. He said, [‘I wrote it as much for himself as for the reader. It’s] as much about middle age as about a rain stick. The instruction to listen was directed more to myself than to the reader, a reminder to keep the lyric faith, …The Rain Stick is about being irrigated by delicious sound, about water music being created by the driest of elements – desiccated seeds falling through a cactus stalk.’

I think a poem is the most useless and useful thing in the world.

It is worth nothing and it’s worth everything. Learn to think about a poem; you will be able to think about anything. To step into a poem is to step into a unique space, a space we can occupy and a space where others reside. 

 On August 30 of last year Seamus Heaney himself was felled. The week after his death I wrote a poem called Engrafting New. I will finish by reading it. Before reading let me explain a few things and give you the broader context in which I wrote the poem.

The title is partially borrowed from Shakespeare. In Sonnet 15 he wrote:

When I consider every thing that grows

Holds in perfection but a little moment,

and ends with

And all in war with Time for love of you,

As he takes from you, I engraft you new. 

The sentiment Shakespeare voices is that the writing of a poem defies Time.

I engrafted lines from the Heaney poems I have read and also from his poem Postscript. In that poem he described being in a car on an open road on a windy day. Strong winds hit the car from the side. When you receive the blow of an emotional shock it is like being hit from the side. You can’t stop to take it in. You have to let yourself be carried along by it.

The lines are,

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open. 


The word “ceis” appears in the poem. A ceis is a Gaelic word. It means a small wicker bridge.

I mentioned John McGahern. McGahern who was a friend of Heaney’s who died a few years ago. McGahern’s writings, his novels and short stories have been very important to me.

There were a lot of eulogies and obituaries in the papers and online in early September last year. I resisted rushing to them. You will see why.

A final point – in rural Ireland when a person dies neighbours call to the house to express condolences. When the grieving family have had visitors enough they put up a sign on the door or the gate saying, “House Private”.


I will read this poem and finish.


Engrafting New


So far I’ve avoided the obituaries,

The great eulogies. Later perhaps.

For now, mourning is quiet; house private.

I have him all to myself.


His passing was a great blow.

Sure we were only getting used to

McGahern going when this fellow

Heaney ups and leaves, for good.


Is there anyone else to turn to?

Hold on! It is as he’d foretold it’d be:

Big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

Catch the heart off guard…blow it open.


A spring dawn enters the room.

His poems enter my heart,

Crisp as a silvered frost,

Fresh as a first reading.


And when I speak them loudly,

His deep-planted words flow leisurely.

There’s a new step in my voice.

I’m hearing things I’ve never heard.


The light that is his shadow shines,

Shows new paths, ceises, crossings,

Stepping stones, stairways to

Richer, deeper, greener, inner lands.


The space he has vacated is for us,

Luminous emptiness.

A warp and waver of light.

Sunlit absence.


The heft and hush of him is now

A bright nowhere,

A soul ramifying and forever

Silent, beyond silence listened for.