Ars Poetica and the Talking Cure: Poetry, Therapy, & the Quest to Create
Lisa C. Krueger | October/November 2014
Across the span of postmodern history, multiple disciplines, from the hard sciences to the humanities, have claimed a relationship with the social science known as psychology. The tenets of psychology have found their way into biology, chemistry, and physics. Researchers analyze neurochemistry as both cause and effect of behavior or theorize implications for phenomena such as Schrödinger’s Cat, whereby an observer can alter the molecular composition of what she sees. Psychology has refined the terrain of economics, most economists having rebranded themselves as behavioral economists. Psychology is employed to analyze opera or jazz or rock; literary critics tackle the Kleinian or Winnecotian perspective on Anna Karenina or Infinite Jest. Psychology holds ubiquitous presence in our culture—the psych mash-up abounds.
For some poets, the parallels between psychology and our own work seem undeniable. In her poem “Twenty-one Love Poems,” Adrienne Rich asks, “What kind of beast would turn its life into words? / What atonement is this all about?”1 The quest to create, to form a world in words, drives both poetry and therapy. Indeed, psychology tradition views the language of therapy as fundamental to both insight and change—the benchmarks of therapeutic success. Similarly, poetry asks language to invoke change, to press against the known and assumed to release new perception, new awareness. William Butler Yeats wrote:
The friends that have it I do wrong
When ever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.2
For me, the golden vein of poetry runs through psychology just as the golden vein of psychology runs through poetry. I have written poems since childhood and maintained a therapy practice as a clinical psychologist for twenty-five years. Both of these endeavors hold power as clarifying, enlightening, and transformative processes. Close examination of a poet’s work and a therapist’s work reveals parallels in form and methodology, practice, and outcome. In the healing process and in poetry’s creation we find opportunities to travel undiscovered terrain toward new ways of being, perhaps transformation.
The linguistic origins of both poetry and therapy suggest a shared threshold to these arts. The English psychiatrist Walter Cooper Denby first introduced the term psycho-therapeia in 1853, based on the Greek word therapeia, meaning healing, or the treatment of disease by a curative process. Looking more closely, the etymology of healing is literally “to make whole.” The word poetry stems from the Greek poiema, something composed or created—from the verb poiein, to make. In one sense, both therapy and poetry are named as forms of making, of construction. Furthermore, the ancient Greeks viewed healing (iaomai) as a supernatural act that brought attention to God as the ultimate physician or healer. Healing, like poetry, intended a larger vision, an awareness beyond the immediate. Both comprise acts of making, acts of transformation. Of course, most of us therapists have been told, on occasion by those less enamored of our profession, the true linguistic implications of our nomenclature (the rapist).
If we examine the overall construction of poetry and therapy, we notice fundamental features to each art that might, without closer examination, seem integral only to poetry. Both therapy and poetry develop meaning through form, metaphor, diction, syntax, rhythm, tone. The therapist commences her work with a client by establishing what we might call rules of engagement, office policies, as it were, related to patient consent: timing of sessions, limits of confidentiality, expectations and goals for the course of treatment. Similarly, the poet offers a title and general layout of a poem so that a reader’s expectations may unfold. We may begin our encounter with a sonnet differently than with a prose poem, or a haiku, or a ghazal. The therapy room is, in some regards, like the “room” of a stanza: both therapist and client enter its space knowing that there are “walls,” or confines, we may choose to push against or take comfort in.
Within the structure of these endeavors there are similar movements of progression, a turning and returning to points of departure. A poem may require repetition, a restoration of words, of themes; therapy may require a return to the past, repeating and rewriting words that have been spoken, weaving history into new language. Like a sonnet, therapy aims toward a turning point, a volta-like moment of awareness, new understanding of material “in the room.”
W.S. Merwin’s poem “My Hand” mirrors the therapeutic movement:
See how the past is finished
here in the present
it is awake the whole time
it is my hand now but not what I held
it is what I remember
but it never seems quite the same
no one else remembers it
a house long gone into air
the flutter of tires over a brick road
cool light in a vanished bedroom
the flash of the oriole
between one life and another
the river a child watched 3
In this poem, vivid images float in sentence fragments. Merwin suspends not just grammatical construction but a sense of universal order. We become unanchored within the confines of his poem, drifting back and forth between a past and a present—“it is my hand now… it is not my hand… it is what I remember.” Merwin may win us over to his argument that the past is not finished but is alive, flitting like an oriole between the lives we construct for ourselves. The poem ends with an image of something that never ends: rivers, metaphorically, flow forever. We leave the room of this poem, like the room of therapy, holding onto the possibility of more: more memory, more clarity. We are not empty handed.
The past as a house, a flutter of tires, a hand, a light, a bird: metaphor presides over our experience of this poem. Metaphor is essential to most poetry—perhaps inextricable from it. Stephen Dobyns in his book next word, better word points out that most Proto-Indo-European words derive from metaphor—in fact the word “word” stems from an expression for breaking or biting off something. Jane Hirshfield has said, “Both the reading and writing of poems explore one thing by means of another; each draws on a fundamentally metaphorical mind in order to reach toward the new. We turn to Shakespeare’s sonnets to learn not about Shakespeare’s life but about our own…. The writing of poetry, too, is a metaphorical endeavor.”4 Indeed, most poets rely on metaphor almost as alchemy, believing wholeheartedly in its ability to transform.
Similarly, metaphor is integral and necessary to therapy. Metaphor serves, for most of us, as a linguistic ligament between therapist and client, strengthening personal bonds and enhancing therapeutic insight. The psychologist Richard Kopp has written extensively about metaphor and asserts, “Metaphor is the pattern that connects in the domain of the mind and in the domain of nature. In fact, mind and nature are unified under this single principle.”5 Therapists listen for metaphor to share a language with clients. People in therapy describe themselves as raw with hurt, inflamed with rage, stuck in reverse, paralyzed, trapped. A woman abused as a child envisions herself as a tea cup with a thin but long crack; soon she will break. Can the vessel of self grow stronger, able to withstand the crack? How might she make repairs? Metaphor can change our lives. “What we see / is what the poem says,” Eavan Boland writes: “evening coming—cattle, cattle-shadows— / and whin bushes and a change of weather / about to change them all: what we see is how / the place and the torment of the place are / for this moment free of one another.”6 What we see: we mean imagery, of course, which is fundamental to poetry and therapy. Since its inception, psychotherapy has looked to imagery as a guidepost to anchor conceptual material.
Indeed, research in cognitive neuroscience has reinforced the primal role of imagination and imagery in human consciousness. No wonder, then, that people in therapy work with metaphors—no wonder that so many respond to poetry. The National Association of Poetry Therapy supports chapters across the country focused specifically on the healing powers of poetry. Some poems, like Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” become banners of self-declaration: “…the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”7 Oliver saturates her poem with injunctions rich in imagery; there are webpages devoted to this poem. Oliver’s natural world asks us to be ourselves: people hunger for this world.
Other aspects of poetic and therapeutic form bear likeness. Like the poet, the therapist considers diction, syntax, and point of view. By tailoring her vocabulary to mirror that of a client, she builds a common language that promotes rapport and therapeutic attachment. Much as a poet arranges words on the page, a therapist consciously manipulates sentence structure, utilizing open-ended questions, avoiding second-person statements that render opinion as fact, exerting precision in first-person observation. “The way we talk,” Merwin writes, “is that really the way / we talk the rest of the time / how can we ever be sure of it / once we start listening to ourselves as we do / when we talk in front of you….”8 Like a poet, a therapist understands that the speaker is not necessarily the person behind the voice; we seldom self-disclose, relying instead on what we call “reflective listening” and strategic interpretation to validate and advance the work at hand.
The rhythm of a therapy may vary in much the same way as that of a poem. Sessions may proceed at a fast pace, fluid with a rush of language, or stop and start with reticence or discomfort or anger. Therapy, like poetry, may sound gentle and meditative, mellifluous with soft alliteration of long lines, or jagged and raw with hard consonance and short declarations. Pauses in therapeutic exchange, much like line-breaks, become openings, thresholds to ideas, feelings, awareness. “I fear this silence, / this inarticulate life,”9 Adrienne Rich writes in “Twenty-one Love Poems.” The silence of space concerns both therapist and poet. What is omitted? What withheld, or given latitude? Therapeutic silence mirrors space around a poem’s words. In “Cartographies of Silence” Rich writes:
Silence can be a plan
The blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence10
The tension of silence, of space, provides opportunity. A poet may cover a page with words, a therapist may crowd a room with speech. A poet may elongate or whittle a poem toward spareness, a therapist may offer silence as white space, as air to breathe. Space, for poets and therapists, is a force.
These identifying features of poetry and therapy serve to create a framework, a scaffolding for these endeavors—but they do not define them. The process of poetry, like the process of therapy, is larger than any vessel that carries its tonic. Perhaps what both poets and therapists engage in remains beyond categorization. Their greatest power may be their mystery. Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.”11 Seamus Heaney envisioned poetry as an archaeological dig. Other poets describe an opening of boundaries, a fluidity of being. By excavating the buried life, the veiled world of self, poetry, like therapy, becomes a new entry point to reality. Wallace Stevens wrote, “Pure poetry is both mystical and irrational.”12 Rimbaud wrote, “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and unreasoned unruliness of the senses…. He attains the unknown.”13
Perhaps herein lies the strongest link between the poet and the therapist: their reverence for the unknown, their passion to explore and experience that which is foreign or uncertain or strange. Keats’s notion of negative capability—“being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—”14 is fundamental to poet and therapist. Both seek to explore new, uncertain terrain through philosophical confusion, aesthetic disruption, psychological disequilibrium. In “A Note From the Cimmerians,” Merwin writes, “We can make nothing of it / but questions or else it makes / us turn out to be only / questions…. is it real…. is it a question itself / or the back of a question….”15 Poetic assignment of category, of meaning, can turn on us. Louise Glück asserts that the unknown, the incomplete, is what allows our art: “In the broken thing… human agency is implied: breakage, whatever its cause, is the dark complement to the act of making….”16 Far better for us to embrace the dark domain of ambiguity, to try, as Rilke said, to love the questions themselves, “like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”17
For most poets and therapists, a place of “unknowing” connects to a larger construct of the unconscious. By excavating what Jung called “the unfathomably dark recesses”18 of our minds, we may glean inspiration, information, connection to self, connection to meaning. In his essay, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” Wallace Stevens made specific claims for the unconscious:
That the unknown as the source of knowledge, as the object of thought, is part of the dynamics of the known does not permit denial…. We accept the unknown even when we are most skeptical. We may resent the consi-deration of it by any except the most lucid minds, but when so considered, it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known.19
That which is unfamiliar or obscure in us may seem to carry almost overwhelming force; yet when we open ourselves to its influence, the effect may be transformative. May Swenson wrote, “The best poetry has its roots in the unconscious…. reliance on instinct more than learning and method…. is necessary to the making of a poem.”20 Yet poets, like therapists, fear the unconscious for its dangers. Milosz asserted, “In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: / a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us… / That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion…”21 Vision carries with it a personal vulnerability. When we assume views of reality beyond the normal or every day, we risk our hold on life as we know it. We psychologists delineate with care the boundary between the psychological life and external reality. Submersion in dreams, fantasy, or exploration of the unconscious may loosen a person’s hold on external reality. Therapists evaluate a client’s ego strength, their ability to tolerate real-world stressors, before embarking on dream and fantasy analysis, since some people lack resilience to distinguish these realms. The danger is real: poorly defined boundaries invariably comprise delusions and hallucinations, which are primary to psychosis.
I admire Adrienne Rich greatly for her brave exploration of the unconscious in her work, how she channels the psychic energy of multitudes, from political figures to drag queens to rapists to slaves. In “An Atlas of the Difficult World” she asks, “Where are we moored? What / are the bindings? What behooves us?”22 Through fluidity of self-as-speaker Rich brings into question not just personal identity but world identity. What is the place we inhabit; what is our place within the place? In “The Spirit of Place” she writes, “…in these painful motions / of staying cognizant: some part of us / always out beyond ourselves.”23 Her loosened boundaries push us, enlarging our vision.
Perhaps the darkness of the unknown steers both poet and therapist toward one of the most compelling phenomena of these arts, the process of resistance. Poetry, like therapy, asks participants to take risks: to reconsider perceptions, beliefs, emotions; to assume new ways of being. Poetry, like therapy, creates a crossroad. We may change. We may resist. Resistance in poetry, like resistance in therapy, serves as a form of self-protection, allowing us to avoid what we are afraid to see, what we feel not strong enough to endure. Resistance manifests itself in many forms, from linguistic obscurity or formality to overwrought or abrupt transitions and closure.
Merwin’s poem “West Wall” articulates beautifully how breaking through a resistance can alter one’s life. The apricots that Merwin comes to observe in this fourteen-line poem seem rich in metaphoric gold, offering the fullness of lucidity, or insight—“Ripeness of the lucid air”—and the touch and taste of love—“the apricots in your skin…. in your mouth the sun in the apricots.” Merwin tells us that he almost missed awareness of such treasures: “Whatever was there / I never saw those apricots swaying in the light / I might have stood in orchards forever / without beholding the day in apricots.”24 The speaker’s view was blocked—he was unable to see the vast beauty of the world.
What enables him to alter his view? The first line of the poem tells us everything: “In the unmade light I can see the world… now that the branches vanish I see the apricots.” What is unmade light? One could speculate it is light that hasn’t happened yet. Or perhaps, more literally, it is light that is not created, or made, but just is. Perhaps, by letting go of the need to make light—to shed light on the world—his vision becomes clear. The obstacles—the branches—simply fall away in unmade light, which allows the speaker to see. This letting go exemplifies the working through of resistance, whereby a person may give into the unmade, the simple truth of what is, that opens vision. Like a therapeutic insight, this small poems gathers words from a place of vision and understanding and applies them to a place of resistance, or stasis (“I might have stood in orchards forever / without beholding”) so that there is an opening, a widening of view and experience. The air is lucid, the sun everywhere.
Light, enlightenment, then, seems born of darkness or a place of unknowing, uncertainty, a place that for most of us is not comfortable. This returns us to Keats’s negative capability. In his book Ambition and Survival, Christian Wiman references John Ruskin:
the more beautiful the art, the more it is essentially the work of people who feel themselves wrong—who are striving for the fulfillment of a law, and the grasp of a loveliness, which they have not yet attained, which they feel even farther and farther from attaining the more they strive for it.25
Wiman then asserts, “There is a sense in which all art arises out of injury or absence, out of the artist’s sense that there is something missing in him, something awry or disrupted.”26 Mary Ruefle expounds on this disruption: “…very real anxiety and irritability over mystery and doubt enables the poet—no, propels him—into the world of the eye… So that the poet paralyzed with fear lying in a hammock on a beautiful day—unhappy man in a happy world…. does not cease to suffer, he only ceases to try to understand.”27 The parallels to therapy seem obvious. Only when both therapist and client become acquainted with the psyche’s night—when we move beyond mere observation of the shadow world and feel it, taste it, become one with it, may we attain some semblance of awareness. Louise Glück, who once stated “Analysis was what I did with my time and with my mind,”28 has said, “what succeeds the void or the desert is not the primary gift of the world but the essential secondary gift of knowledge, a sense of the significance of the original gift, the scale of our privilege.”29
Is this kind of awareness worth the bother? Neither poetry nor therapy, it seems, is for the weak of heart. For some, however, the endeavor is necessary. Anne Sexton believed, for a time, that her poems saved her from deep despair and suicidal obsession. Gregory Orr argued that Wilfred Owen’s poems about World War One rescued him not only from the depths of post-traumatic stress disorder but from “the jabbering propagandists and patriots, who glorified and falsified (war) for their own purposes.”30 In other words, writing poems gave Owen power over his own life experience. His poems were creations that could not be refuted—born of him, they belonged to him.
Perhaps, finally, here is the most fundamental tie between therapist and poet. Poema: something made. Therapeia—something made whole. We poets and we therapists are makers. What we bring into the world—a poem, a therapy—becomes an object we relate to that is of us but is not us. For both poets and therapists, our creation offers respite, what Robert Frost called “a momentary stay against confusion;”31 a form against formlessness, a salvation against despair. Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “I don’t believe that poetry can save the world. I do believe that the forces in us wish to share something of our experience by turning it into something and giving it to somebody: that is poetry.”32 That also, I believe, is therapy. Rukeyser further said, “That is some kind of saving thing, and as far as my life is concerned, poetry has saved me again and again.”33
Perhaps these endeavors are a form of salvation. Perhaps they are no more than a kind of bearing witness, a small creation that claims a stake in the world through word. Bertha Poppenheim, one of Freud’s earliest patients, coined the phrase “the talking cure” to describe the transformative exchange she experienced in analysis. Freud found the expression so apt that he claimed it as his own. Osip Mandelstam said, “The word is flesh and bread, the word hovers freely, like a soul around a body that has been abandoned but not forgotten.”34 Words are powerful nourishment. In her poem “Calibrations” Adrienne Rich wrote, “And this is not theoretical: / A poem with calipers to hold a heart / so it will want to go on beating.”35
Like Rukeyser, poetry has saved me again and again. And so has therapy. I carry with me my first therapy training session when a Vietnam vet at the Brentwood VA told me Agent Orange had caused bugs to crawl all over him, night and day. I carry with me the hours with my very first private practice client, a woman whose four-year-old son was dying. She had read an article I wrote about pediatric pain and thought I would understand. Being with her, I understood nothing. I was in the place of unknowing, of uncertainty, of utter, obliterating mystery. I felt so helpless. Looking back, I believe I helped her. I carry with me my client Tamara, who came to my office ten years ago as six different women. She had heard I was both a poet and a psychologist. Tamara wanted to write poetry. She also wanted to die. The voices felt unbearable. We talked about line breaks and how to show, not tell. We talked about reasons to go on living and argued about the benefits of mood stabilizers. Tamara’s personalities wrote poems; sometimes when she read them to me, she dissociated. Today Tamara and I still talk about poetry and reasons to go on living, but she doesn’t want to die, and her people, as she called them, have grown quiet. She is battling pancreatic cancer—every day is a struggle with physical pain. Here is what amazes me: every day Tamara writes poetry. She says that it gives her purpose; her poetry helps her feel that life still has meaning.
Perhaps poetry and therapy offer a momentary, singular magnificence, an experience of solace before what William James called the blooming buzzing confusion.36 We remember the time when we stood alone, when to be, as Wallace Stevens said, and to delight to be seemed to be one, before the colors deepened and grew small.37 Something, in both poetry and therapy, is forged, revised, refined, completed. We leave therapy as we leave a poem: while we let it go, we find a place in us for some part of it to reside. I return to Yeats: It is myself that I remake. We inhabit our creations—our creations inhabit us. It is ourselves that we remake.
Lisa C. Krueger is a clinical psychologist. She has published three poetry collections with Red Hen Press, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals. She has published articles and interactive journals related to psychology and creativity, and she maintains a psychotherapy practice in Pasadena.
- Rich, Adrienne, The Dream of a Common Language (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1978), p. 28.
- Finneran, Richard J. (Ed.), The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume I• The Poems (New York: Scribner, 1998), p. 557.
- Merwin, W.S., The Shadow of Sirius (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2009), p. 74.
- Hirshfield, Jane, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 35.
- Kopp, Rich, Metaphor Therapy: Using Client-Generated Metaphor (New York: Bruner/Mazel, 1995), p. xxiv.
- Boland, Eavan, Against Love Poetry (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2001), p. 49.
- Oliver, Mary, Dreamwork (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1986), p. 14.
- Merwin, W.S., Present Company (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), p. 113
- Rich, Adrienne, The Dream of a Common Language (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1978), p.29.
- Ibid, p. 16
- Milosz, Czeslaw, Selected Poems 1931-2004 (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p 88.
- Gibbons, Reginald (Ed.), The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of Their Art (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 34.
- Ibid, P. 57.
- Melani, Lilia, “John Keats,” Academic Brooklyn Cuny (August 16 2014), http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs61/keatsltr.html
- Merwin, W.S., The Shadow of Sirius (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2009), p. 36.
- Glück, Louise, Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1994), p. 75.
- Rilke, Rainer Maria, Poems and Exerpts (New York: Everyman’s Library, Alfred Knopf, 1996), p 225.
- Jung, Carl, Dreams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 90. 19.
- Gibbons, Reginald (Ed.), The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the Origins and Practice of Their Art (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 57.
- “May Swenson,” Academy of American Poets (August 20, 2014), http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/may-swenson
- Milosz, Czeslaw, Selected Poems 1931-2004 (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 88.
- Rich, Adrienne, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2013), p. 221.
- Ibid, p.103.
- Merwin, W.S., Migration: New and Selected Poems (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), p. 265
- Wiman, Christian, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), p. 79.
- Ruefle, Mary, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2012), p. 123.
- Gluck, Louise, Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell: The Ecco Press, 1994), p. 12.
- Ibid, p. 134.
- Orr, Gregory, Poetry As Survival (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press,2002), p. 188.
- Richardson, Mark (Ed.), The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 131.
- Orr, Gregory, Poetry As Survival (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2002), p. 83.
- Mandelstam, Osip, and Harris, Jane G. (Ed.), Critical Prose and Letters (New York: The Overlook Press, 1995), p. 19.
- Rich, Adrienne, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2013), p. 413.
- Goodman, Russell, “William James,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward Zalta (Ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/james/.
- Stevens, Wallace, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), p. 149.