Empathy

Author

Stallings, A.E.

Genre

Poetry

Overview

The winner of many awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, American poet and translator A.E. Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and Oxford, U.K. In 1999 she emigrated to Athens, Greece, where she lives with her husband, journalist John Psaropoulos, and their two children. She has published several critically acclaimed collections of original verse and translations of ancient Greek writers, including Lucretius and Hesiod. Stallings, who has said that literary translation is “about crossing borders,” attempts in “Empathy” to cross the imaginative border between her own comparatively safe, secure existence and the experience of strangers risking their lives to reach that safety. The poem invites us to question the values we live by, our motives for responding to others in need, and our sense of what empathy means and can do.

Full Text*

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Source

Literary Matters 9:1

Type

Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.

Themes

Exclusion and BelongingHealth and HealingLove and CompassionMotives and ValuesPoverty and Need

Big Questions

How do we respond to strangers?How do we respond to the suffering of others? How would we like others to respond to our own?How do we define love? How do we show love?How does a person learn compassion?What does empathy look like?Can selfish motives result in positive action?What motivates us to act in the world?How should we respond to people and communities in need?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. The speaker starts out by expressing gratitude. What are some of the things she is grateful for?
  2. Could this poem be called “Gratitude” instead of “Empathy”? How are gratitude and empathy similar or different?
  3. Who is being addressed in “Empathy”? How would the poem’s impact be different if the poet had instead addressed one of the displaced families?
  4. Which details make the perilous voyage described in the poem most vivid?
  5. What is the effect of all the negatives in the poem—that the bed isn’t a raft, that the “we” in the poem didn’t wake the kids, hand over cash, buy cheap life jackets, etc.? What do you make of the negatives in the final lines (“not being nice”… “not to be those”)?
  6. What does Stallings mean when she says, “Empathy isn’t generous, / It’s selfish”? Do you agree?
  7. Did you feel empathy (as you define it) in reading this poem?
  8. How is empathy related to action? Does it have to spur some kind of action to be genuine?
  9. Does it matter to your reading of the poem whether the poet’s empathy resulted in action? Why or why not?
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