Seamus Heaney and Psychotherapy

by Colm O’Doherty

I carry a memory from 1978: I had applied to study at The Menninger Institute in the USA, and was asked to go for interview to Jack Sutherland of The Scottish Institute of Human Relations in Edinburgh. In the course of the interview he asked what I had read on marriage, to which I replied that I was very taken by the piece on marriage by Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet (Gibran, 1926: 16-19). Not a very clever answer to give to a man who had been the Director of the Tavistock Clinic! And I wonder if I have learned anything in almost 40 years since that interview when I think that, if I were asked today if I had read anything interesting on psychotherapy, I would enthusiastically answer: “the writings of Seamus Heaney”! So, on what grounds could I make such a claim, since, as far as I know, the word ‘psychotherapy’ never appears in any of his writing? But what he has written, and written about, is of course poetry. My own practice of psychotherapy is strongly informed by the Object Relations perspective, and in this article I would like to consider what Heaney says, when he both reflects on and practises his craft, and how this is so apt to, and goes to the heart of, my understanding of psychotherapy.

“A glimpsed alternative” (Heaney, 1995: 4)
In the preface to his book, The Redress of Poetry, a series of 10 lectures delivered as Professor of Poetry at Oxford between 1989 and 1994, Heaney writes: “Poetry brings human existence into a fuller life” (Heaney, 1995: xvii). It does so, he suggests, by offering, “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances” (Heaney, 1995: 4). If one were to sum up in one sentence the nature and purpose of psychotherapy, could this sentence be bettered – offering a glimpsed alternative where potential has been threatened by circumstances? Poetry can achieve this because, as Heaney writes in “The Settle Bed”,

…whatever is given
Can always be reimagined, however four-square,
Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time
It happens to be…
(Heaney, 1991: 28) 55

Whatever is given / can always be reimagined” (Heaney, 1991: 28). Is this the act of hope and faith also of the psychotherapist, and of the client; otherwise why would either be sitting with each other, week after week? That is not to imply that such a belief is always readily available to the client and psychotherapist, but some deep-down motivational force can bring the client back to the therapy room despite, at times, the apparent hopelessness of their situation and of their spirit. There remains some sliver of hope, or even desire for hope, which in itself is hope,

…however four-square,
Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of time
It happens to be…
(Heaney, 1991: 28)

For Heaney every poem is an act of hope in an effort to “disobey the force of gravity” (Heaney, 1995: 4). Reflecting on the work of Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace (Weil, 1952), Heaney writes:

And in the activity of poetry too, there is a tendency to place a counter- reality in the scales – a reality which may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can therefore hold its own and balance out against the historical situation.
(Heaney, 1995: 3, 4)

How familiar is this struggle to the client in the course of psychotherapy – “the gravitational pull of the actual” (Heaney, 1995: 3) – be it all the years of abuse, the poverty of both presence and attention from parents, or the effect of bullying and the crushing of any strength of self-esteem? How such a client has to struggle, collapse, and struggle further, particularly during the early stages of psychotherapy, in order to eke out any purchase against what can feel like the inevitable overwhelm and ultimate defeat as a result of the burden of “the historical situation” (Heaney, 1995: 4).

The therapeutic relationship
And what is the “counter-reality in the scales” (Heaney, 1995: 3) offered in psychotherapy? While there is no simple answer to this core question, it is generally agreed that the relational dynamic between client and psychotherapist is of prime importance in facilitating the counter-reality, in keeping alive some sense of hope and in enabling the client to reimagine. It is in the context of this therapeutic relationship that the client can now revisit early trauma, face into the depths of emotional pain that had to be hidden for the sake of survival, and meet that pain, still with great anxiety, but now enabled and sustained by the compassionate caring of the psychotherapist. In such a process the early gravitational pull of imagined inevitable destruction can now be reimagined as survivable, even if only just, but enough for it now to have a weight which can counter-balance the old scales, which could only imagine defeat and possibly destruction.

The almost paralysing fear of the historical situation no longer carries the same threat. While the emotional pain does not disappear, a new perspective can emerge that is essentially towards life rather than towards death. It is an emotional pain that can now be carried with an understanding of the blameless vulnerability of the child that once was, and with a sense of self- compassion for the hurt that has been suffered by the client as a result of such early pain.

Much has been written about this relationship between psychotherapist and client. As to the nature of this relationship, most believe that it is to do with the quality of presence that the psychotherapist brings to the relationship. Heaney wrote with such sensitivity about the delicate nature of intimate presence, never more tenderly than when he thought about his mother in a series of poems called “Clearances”. He recalled their Sunday morning practice of sitting together over a bucket of clean water, peeling potatoes:

I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
                                                                              (Heaney, 1987: 27) 57

We are familiar with the core conditions of Rogers: empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. But what about the rich insights we can glean from Heaney’s poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”, if we read the story as a metaphor for the therapeutic relationship: St. Kevin is kneeling in his narrow cell, his arms outstretched, with one upturned palm out through the window, when a blackbird comes to rest on it.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity; now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown….
(Heaney, 1996: 20)

The quiet, patient, open-handed presence of the one in the cell, a small room, and without much sign of personal belongings; and it is a narrow space, a boundaried space. The monk leaves himself available for whatever might happen, to be used in ways that draw on reserves of physical and emotional strength because the new arrival must be enabled to settle and eventually nest. The smallest stirrings of potential new life touch the monk, who is moved by the possibility of hope, not just in the present setting and moment, but drawing on a belief about life and its meaning, in a mystery that has engaged the human race since the beginning of time. In his compassion, he is committed to staying with the task through thick and thin, and for whatever length of time it takes for the new life to emerge, and then to support this vulnerable, shaky new-born so that it can grow in confidence, enough for it to take leave in its own time. The story, the legend, the poem is so much more eloquent about the nature of compassionate presence than any theoretical understanding of the therapeutic relationship.

“Living in two places at one time” (Heaney, 1995: 190)
It is in story, his own story, that Heaney provides us with another metaphor that offers rich reflection for psychotherapists. He often spoke about the importance for him of living in between – between the silence of his father and the speech of his mother, between Catholic Bellaghy and Protestant Castledawson, and of himself as the owner of an Irish passport and a British passport at the one time. He spoke of northern poets as being able to “take the strain of being in two places at once, and of needing to accommodate two opposing conditions of truthfulness simultaneously” (Heaney, 1985), and he says elsewhere that “there is nothing extraordinary about the challenge to be in two minds” (Heaney, 1995: 202). But it is in story and in poetry, for instance in “Terminus”, that he speaks most graphically of such self-division:

When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.

And then remembering further in-betweens of his early years: seeing the factory and the mountain, hearing the train shunting and the horse trotting.

Is it any wonder when I thought
I would have second thoughts?….

Two buckets were easier carried than one.
I grew up in between…
(Heaney, 1987: 4)

I suggest that this ability to inhabit transitional space (pace Winnicott) – to be in two places, in two minds – is essential for the psychotherapist, to be in the here-and-now of the client and, at the same time, to be listening for resonances of the client’s past, often transmitted through the dynamic of transference on the part of the client. So often there are two conversations taking place, one between client and psychotherapist in real time, and the other between client and the psychotherapist who is representing some important figure in the past. The past and the present, intertwined, are active for both psychotherapist and client at the one time, for the former in a thoughtful, reflective manner, for the latter usually unconsciously.

Closely aligned to this is the way the psychotherapist has a dual focus, “bi- focal vision” (Heaney, 1995: 198). This enables the psychotherapist to be present and attentive to the client, while at the same time attending to what is happening within him or herself, with a curiosity about what is being triggered by way of thought or feeling. This awareness in the psychotherapist facilitates an understanding and an appreciation of the client’s situation through the dynamic of counter-transference.

Heaney writes about the ability not only to inhabit two places at the one time, “the ability to survive amphibiously” as he puts it in “Government of the Tongue” (Heaney, 1988: xx), but also about the importance of being able to move between the two places, where “the frontier…is there for the crossing” (Heaney, 1995: 203). This is an ability and agility that is required of the psychotherapist. The psychotherapist passes over and back between the present and the past, between the client and self, and between feeling and understanding, in the service of helping the client search out the wider and deeper ground of his or her own existence. So often clients cannot do this by themselves – they do not have the energy right now to carry “two buckets” (Heaney, 1987: 4). Their one bucket is full to overflowing, be it with pain, guilt, regret or confusion. It is taking all their time and energy to stay in the one place, the present. By being able to stay close to clients with their one bucket-full, while at the same time remaining open to some further possibility, the psychotherapist is able “to be true to the negative nature of the evidence and at the same time to show an affirming flame” (Heaney, 1995: 193), even if that “flame” is only a tiny flicker of hope, or some hoped-for-hope.

The psychotherapist, crossing over and back between two places, can enable the client to reach for some different perspective, some alternative glimpse, some reimagined possibility. Such movement is often marked by a move away from the paralysis of guilt or fear, and by an openness to compassion, not primarily compassion from the therapist but rather from the client and towards the client. That can be transformative, not necessarily in any dramatic way, but in a way that can be sustaining and gentling for the client, “” (Heaney, 1995: 9).

I return to that imagined question at the beginning of this article: “Have you read anything interesting about psychotherapy?” After answering, “the writings of Seamus Heaney,” I might simply read, “Lightenings viii”. It is a story, a legend, a poem, about a marvellous encounter between two people who cross over into each other’s world. The monks of Clonmacnoise, gathered at prayer in their oratory, are aware of a ship in the air above them. The ship’s anchor catches in the altar rails and the ship is stuck.

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
(Heaney, 1991: 62)

This is a poem rich in imagery and which emerges from the depths of the imagination of both those who created the legend, and then of Heaney who brought it to poetry. With this in mind, after answering, “the writings of Seamus Heaney,” I might be emboldened to suggest that those in psychotherapy training – not to speak of practising psychotherapists – would do well to spend time with the poetry of Seamus Heaney because of its power to stimulate, nourish and enliven the faculty of imagination. And if it is when “the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure [that poetry is] strong enough to help” (Heaney, 1995:8, 9), then, I suggest that the same is true for psychotherapy. In the partnership between the client and the psychotherapist, the co-ordinates of the world we live in and endure can come to correspond to that which we dare to imagine. In such a setting psychotherapy is strong enough to help.

Colm O’Doherty enjoys the luxury of working part-time. He is an accredited psychotherapist and supervisor with IAHIP, and is in private practice in Monkstown, Co. Dublin and in Ballina, Co. Tipperary. Email address:

Gibran, K. (1926). The prophet. London: William Heinemann.

Heaney, S. (1985). Place and displacement. The Agni Review 22, 158-177. Boston: Boston University.

Heaney, S. (1987). The haw lantern. London: Faber and Faber.

Heaney, S. (1988). The government of the tongue. London: Faber and Faber.

Heaney, S. (1991). Seeing things. London: Faber and Faber.

Heaney, S. (1995). The Redress of Poetry. London: Faber and Faber.

Heaney, S. (1996). The spirit level. London: Faber and Faber.

Weil, S. (1952). Gravity and grace. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.