The Intersection Between Poetry and Therapy: Poetry As Map

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“Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows..”  Edmond Burke

Humans create.  The desire to create has been hardwired into our brains.  That desire shows itself in a creative act such as a painting, a score of music, a cake, a flower arrangement, a dance or a poem.  When we create, some have described the experience as an out of body experience.  For those moments, we may lose ourselves into the creation we are working on and time seems to stop, or we forget about it for awhile.  It is also part of the human condition to want to climb out of our bodies and go somewhere else when we aren’t feeling well, and dwell in another world, perhaps the spirit world or the world of the imagination.  At that moment, if we are writing, there exists only ourselves and the page.  It is like therapy in the sense that there is only the therapist and the client to make sense out of a complicated life, a complicated world and to “Dwell in Possibility” as Emily Dickinson so eloquently put it.

Why is it that using an art form, such as poetry, to express our thoughts can be an effective treatment modality, as well as a form of communication that will lead to a unique source of productivity?

To begin with, it an incomplete analogy that the page is to the poet as the therapist is to the client. The former is a meeting between a page that is blank and a writer that is full. The paper functions as a mirror. In the therapeutic relationship, both are human and are full. Except in classic psychoanalysis where the therapist remains passive, both the therapist and the client have an active role in the relationship where thoughts become voiced and exchanged, and where ideas from the client are provoked by the therapist for clarification. The therapist is not merely a mirror but a light. Both generate energy as ideas are exchanged. Nonsummativity is involved. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

However, we have much to learn from psychoanalysts and I don’t want to dismiss them.   Carl Jung gave psychology and other fields many gifts.  The one I am thinking of is the gift of embracing the shadow as a means to discover the light.  He said that to confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light.  One becomes enlightened by making the darkness conscious.  In psychotherapy, one must dive into a dark pool to see what is down there, to explore the unknown.  Sometimes one has a map and sometimes one does not.  Writing can be a journey into the unconscious as well. I think of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” as an example of a poem that dives to explore and clarify the unknown.  In this specific case, the unknown was a past relationship.  The map did not become clear until the end.  When a client has an intake or a therapist does an intake, the process in uncomfortable, as if all the client’s dirty laundry becomes exposed for examination. The experience, negative in the beginning becomes positive after some sense is made of all this “stuff’ that is brought to light. It is important to keep a positive perspective during what is an examination partly to find a diagnosis the insurance company will pay for.

Exploring the psyche is at the forefront of therapy, whichever way the clinician wishes to proceed, and the primary tool of treatment is verbal talk therapy, although nonverbals are even more important in direct human communication. Writing in general, and poetry specifically is also a verbal communication modality, although silently done.  When a person writes, they often write for clarification.  It is doubtful that a writer sits down with the express purpose of becoming more confused after writing, although this can certainly occur temporarily. It is convenient to have a verbal modality that can done alone and be preserved to read later. There are those among us who teach journaling with the express purpose of purging the brain of cobwebs that exist within us.  Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way” calls these morning pages. These have a specific purpose of making the rest of the day more clear and focused, which will help the creative process in general, but often these pages themselves become of some value in the creative process. Freezing a moment of self discovery can be later reworked into an art form. When one writes as an art form, the writer practices the craft of sculpting the work with the vision he or she has for the purpose of the work.  Vision, which is more important and harder to teach is the purpose of the writing process. Craft is the chiseling which occurs after the first creative dump has been finished.

Why should poetry specifically be used as a therapeutic tool?  It offers a direct language based modality which is not required to be linear in organization.  Dream life, metaphor with musical spatial heartspeak language has its own strong appeal.  It is the difference between making an outline and clustering to get ideas flowing.  The idea of producing anything which may turn into art has a very validating appeal, especially in a field where dysfunction is so often over-emphasized. Producing art is a positive, productive self validating effort.  We practice in America, where productivity is synonymous with success.  One may be mentally ill in India and there be perceived as a spiritual being, mystical, touched by God, etc., but not here in the pragmatic USA.  Poetry invites the self to know more magnificently, or as Jane Hirschfield put it, “poetry is the hook that draws us into depth.”  These ideas are helpful to both the poet and the therapist. Poetry can also be the hook that draws us back out into clarity.

Finally, poetry allows us to be comfortable with not always knowing where we are going.  The comfort with uncertainty, “telling it slant” as Emily Dickinson says, or the idea of Keats “negative capability” allows any of us writing poetry to be comfortable with uncertainty for a period of time.  Anyone who has lost touch with reality, even for a brief time, knows what that is like, and it can be frightening.  Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the “Unquiet Mind” and “Touched by Fire” cites a positive correlation between manic depressive illness and the artistic temperament.  Jamison, being both a psychiatrist and a manic-depressive, is also a gifted writer and makes a convincing argument.  But whether this is true or not, it is not hard to understand that someone with mental illness or even every day confusion might enjoy writing poetry.

Poetry requires a kind of presence, of being fully in the moment, “being engaged with” as a colleague of mine playfully once put it, “both the right brain and the left brain at once.” Poetry begins with a simple thought, a simple object, a specificity in voice, breath and rhythm, or phanapoea,(image and form) melapoea (music or sound) and logipoea (idea or sense) . Poetry ends with a finished piece of art.

How does poetry illuminate therapy and vica-versa?  It is important to find a mutual empowering manner of presenting both in an atmosphere where neither one dominates but both are present.  I have taught poetry in three different mental health agencies and I plan to do it again. Although I provided some structure found in poetic forms or “suggested maps” for the client to use, the rest was up to them.  Freud believed that the unconscious was a realm to be visited, conquered and tamed.  He may have undervalued the unique resources of the void, abyss, chaos and strangeness.  Like meditation, embracing “what thoughts will come and lingering with them” is the beginning of a visit to a generating spring.  This realm is also often unsettling to most people, much like going to a foreign country without a map. But journey eventually reveals the writer’s own truths, those grey areas clarified by the delicate pruning which occurs in the editing process. The clients ultimately created their own maps to follow. My clients could then publish their work in the clubhouse newsletter.  The process of writing started as cathartic and ended with an entirely different purpose; a polished product which provided a sense of direction and accomplishment for everyone involved.

Writing poetry and mental health therapy are two similar but separate disciplines. When combined, they both pave the way for mutual concentrated awareness. Science teaches us of the richness of life in places where two ecosystems intersect, such as Brevard County, Florida.  These edge zones or ecotones allow for the discovery of new content and fertility.  It is my belief that combining poetry and therapy produces a vital understanding of the two and the creation of an entity entirely new and unique.

~ by dianeklammer on February 27, 2013.

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