Gina Mercer responds to Seamus Heaney

The brief is as follows:
Please respond to the quotation in your own way. You are invited to agree or disagree with it, interpret it and explore. It can be an agreement/extension or a disagreement/argument or both. It can relate to your own work and processes or the work of others you admire in what they have said on poetry. But I don’t want an essay on others, rather on what YOU think and believe about poetry in relation to the issues raised in the quotation given.

Gina Mercer
Gina Mercer

Our first poet Gina Mercer, loves words and revels in being a writer, teacher, and editor . She has published ten books (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction). Gina’s two latest books are: The Sky Falls Down: An Anthology of Loss (co-edited with Terry Whitebeach, Ginninderra Press, 2019) and The Dictionary of Water (Wild Element Press, 2019;

Gina Mercer’s poems are a delectable feast. Roll her words on your tongue. Savour their sound, the delicious and satisfying feel of them in your mouth.
Lyn Reeves, poet, publisher.

Bringing poetry out into the everyday world is a passion of Gina’s. Australian, Tasmanian, she has performed at over 45 writers’ festivals and literary events in Australia, Ireland and Canada, where her work has been acclaimed as ‘accessible’ and ‘clear’, ‘witty’ and ‘engaging’. Parachute Silk, her novel was published in 2001. Dr Mercer has published two academic books, including a critical analysis of New Zealand writer Janet Frame: Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions (UQP, 1994). She’s taught creative writing and literature in universities and communities for nearly 30 years. She was the Editor of the Australian literary journal, Island Magazine, from 2006-2010.

The Poet in Prose: on ʻVoiceʼ.

Our first extract comes from Seamus Heaney in his lecture to the Royal Society of Literature, October 1074, titled ʻFeeling into wordsʼ and published in Finders Keepers. Selected Prose 1971-2001, (Faber and Faber, London, 2002).

Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poetʼs natural voice, the voice that he (sic) hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up.

How, then, do you find it? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else, you hear something in another writerʼs sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ʻAh, I wish I had said that, in that particular way.ʼ This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognise instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, the in-fluence.


A yellow lamp suffuses the room. A mother and child nestle safe within the white cocoon of a mosquito net. The child is curled against her motherʼs thigh. The mother is reading ʻThe Diverting Tale of John Gilpinʼ by William Cowper. The child is only two years old. Cowperʼs comic ballad makes no sense to her. Does she even know what wine is, or a wig? Yet she loves this poem. Asks her mother to read it to her night after soothing night. The rhythm and ʻsound flows in through [her] … ear and enters the echo chamber of [her] … head and delights [her] … whole nervous systemʼ. She adds Cowperʼs rhythms to the knowledge of rhythms she already carries in her body: the noisy plumbing rhythms of her motherʼs pulse and peristalsis as the child lay nestled in the womb; the clacky rhythms of her motherʼs typewriter as the child plays under and around her motherʼs desk; the rhythms of her motherʼs legs and bicycle as they wheel around town, the child snug in a basket on the back. These are the rhythms of her world. These patterns of sound and energy enter the echo-chamber of her head and heart, delighting her whole nervous system.

Her mother is a busy woman. She is a woman with four children to raise and a weekly newspaper to produce. Her husbandʼs fatal car accident has beached her on an island of gruelling deadlines and debts and no transport. She lives two miles from town. There are many miles to bike-ride and no luxuries. Yet every night she creates an oasis under the mosquito net. Every night she makes time to read her youngest child to sleep. She reads William Cowper, Ogden Nash, James Thurber. She reads into her childʼs skin her love of words. She reads her love into the childʼs sleep-drifting breath. The child learns her motherʼs love through the rhythmic words, through her motherʼs love of words. A few years on, the childʼs most treasured birthday present is a dictionary all of her very own.

Heaney speaks of the poet finding voice through the reading of other poets: I know that delicious satisfaction when I read a poem and feel its ʻrightnessʼ. It may not speak ʻof aspects of myself and my experienceʼ as Heaney argues. Rather, it may teach me of anotherʼs world, give me insight into unfamiliar experience; that is part of its joy. When I feel that satisfaction, I know the poem to be ʻa true soundingʼ (Heaneyʼs term) of that poetʼs world. Heaney elsewhere in this lecture makes an interesting distinction between craft and technique. He uses the image of a person drawing water from a well. A poet who has craft can learn how to wind ʻthe bucket halfway down the shaft and wind… up a taking of airʼ. It is not until ʻyou have dipped into the waters …. Broken the skin on the pool of yourselfʼ that you have acquired technique, says Heaney [p 19]. I would add that until you have made that kind of ʻtrue soundingʼ and ʻbroken that skinʼ you will also struggle to find voice.

Voice is a slippery concept. In certain poets, no matter how diverse their chosen styles or topics, a certain something thrums through each poem as a constant. It is a marker as distinctive as an actual voice. Heaney suggests that ʻa poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poetʼs natural voice.ʼ I want to delete his ʻprobablyʼ and say an emphatic ʻyesʼ to this proposition. Voice is born of the body, borne by the body, manifested through the body until it is heard by a receiving body – and there it resonates with its own distinctive vibrations across the cilia of the receptive listener.

The child with the very busy mother was sent to the neighbourʼs to play – often. He was a lonely old man and needed company – often. The mother was busy and needed interruption-free hours – often. The old manʼs desires were as extreme and relentless as the motherʼs schedules. He took the child under his house and committed unspeakable acts upon her wordless body – often.

She treasured her dictionary and all its certain, well-defined words. She escaped from her body and his pernicious rhythms by running away into her head. There she could pretend she didnʼt have a body. She became an academic. People in academia like to pretend they donʼt have a body. It is de rigeur. She fitted in nicely in that disembodied world of the mind. Then she became a poet and this mutilating disavowal no longer felt right.

Heaney quotes Robert Frost: ʻA poem begins as a lump in the throat …. It finds the thought and the thought finds the wordsʼ. Isabel Allende says: ʻOften… when I write the first sentence, I donʼt know what Iʼm going to write about because it has not made the trip from the belly to the mindʼ.

Many writers still prefer to use pen and paper when writing their first draft because, as Sue Woolfe writes, it is ʻmore closely connected to the beating of my heart than any other wayʼ.

So the writing originates, for these writers, in the throat, the belly, the heart. Are they speaking metaphorically only? Remember Heaney, speaking about a poetʼs voice: ʻI believe it may not even be a metaphorʼ?

Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neurology at Iowa University, speaks of a brain which is ʻbody-mindedʼ: ʻthe mind arises from or in a brain situated within a body-proper with which it interacts … due to the mediation of the brain, the mind is grounded in the body-properʼ. That sounds so apparently simple: our minds are part of our bodies. Of course. Damasio goes further though, suggesting that we have thought-centres spread throughout our bodies. Before reading any neuroscience, it is clear that many poets intuitively feel as if they write from various sites in their bodies.

Why then does so much poetry feel so disembodied? Why does it speak with desiccated voice? As Woolfe writes: ʻThe body is so lonely. But we forget it, we donʼt hear its criesʼ. Why do so many poets write as if they have forgotten or are ashamed of their bodies?

Did you know that when you view an object which is distasteful to you the shape of your pupil changes compared to when you view an object which pleases you aesthetically? Our responses to poetry are bodily as well as intellectual as you will know if youʼve been to a successful poetry reading. Your heart rate changes, your eyes leak, your neck horripilates, your chest contracts, your blood flow slows – all within fifteen minutes – all because of a few potent words strung together by a poet. This will only happen if they have been shameless, have eschewed the mutilating disavowal of the ʻtalking headʼ performance, have dared to break open the pool of the self and are singing deep from the well-shaft. It takes courage and practice and strength to sing from these places of vulnerable skin and tender joints. It is worth following Heaneyʼs advice however, in order to find that potent voice that is yours alone. That voice which will brush the cilia of another and through each wordʼs caress on those tiny hairs, through each thrum of vibration on the drum skin of your listenerʼs ears, can bring about the delight of change in their ʻwhole nervous systemʼ.

It is no easy thing to ʻfind a voiceʼ as a poet. But looking for it solely in the constrained and disembodied world of theory and criticism is unlikely to bring you to voice, or to bring voice to you. Perhaps we should try shimmying down Heaneyʼs deep well-shaft to break ʻthe skin on the pool of selfʼ? Or we could try standing in that cool well shaft to hear how our voices might ring out, energised with all the rhythms our bodies know and have known since our first bedding in loud and nurturing flesh. Then, and perhaps only then, will we find voice, make our language dance and burst until it ʻgives [our readers] … aural gooseflesh.ʼ [Heaney, p 18]

I long to hear more shameless poems. Poems with lusty voices. Poems which take soundings from all the thought-centres we carry throughout our bodies. Poems which remember the rhythms of a noisy womb; the clatter of the fork in the mixing bowl as you make breakfast; the sounds you and your lover toss into the velvet dark; the satisfied burps of your child as you pat her back at midnight; all the fricatives and spiky consonants of your last verbal clash; all the chaotic or smooth sounds and rhythms and smells and sights of your daily life. Heaney writes of one of his first successful poems ʻDiggingʼ: ʻI felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt I had let down a shaft into real lifeʼ. Yes, and again yes. Let there be fewer mere clever ʻarrangements of wordsʼ. Let there be more shafts. Shafts of lust and tranquillity, revenge and hope.


Allende, Isabel, Writers Dreaming, N Epel (ed), Bookman Press, 1993, p 6
Woolfe, Sue, The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady, UWA Press, 2007, p 3
Damasio, Antonio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, Harcourt, 2003, p 206 Woolfe, ibid, p 48

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1 thought on “Gina Mercer responds to Seamus Heaney”

  1. There is a power in Gina’s words that feels like permission, exhortation maybe, to live out loud. It is exhilarating. With appreciation to you both.

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