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Thursday, 25 February 2010

Poetry as self-medication


pill bottles No one ever died from an overdose of poetry – Dr. Jack Leedy

There are things in this life that make all of us feel better if taken in moderation: chocolate, alcohol, sex, exercise. One could imagine music being added to that list but what about poetry? You can't really imagine your doctor prescribing a course of haiku to be taken three times a day with food. Or let's say you have a box of Milk Tray in one hand and a copy of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in the other. I mean, where's the choice? And after you've polished off the Milk Tray and you're feeling sick as a pig what're you going to do about it, take an Alka-Seltzer or write a limerick about how crappy you feel?

There's no denying that both reading and writing poetry can make you feel better. If it didn't why would any of us bother? But how many of us have considered poetry as treatment? Using a word like 'treatment' or 'therapy' puts a whole new spin on it: it formalises the process, we read or write with a specific intent.

Historically, the first Poetry Therapist on record was a Roman physician by the name of Soranus in the first century A.D., who prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed. It is not surprising that Apollo is the god of poetry, as well as medicine, since medicine and the arts were historically entwined.

dr benjamin rush For many centuries the link between poetry and medicine remained obscure. It is of interest to note that Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in the United States, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751, employed many ancillary treatments for their mental patients, including reading, writing and publishing of their writings. Dr. Benjamin Rush, called the "Father of American Psychiatry", introduced music and literature as effective ancillary treatments. Poem writing was an activity of the patients, who published their work in The Illuminator, their own newspaper. – A Brief Overview of Poetry Therapy

When we're ill, particularly when we're mentally ill, there is a tendency to feel that we are alone in our suffering. I know tens of thousands of people suffer from depression but no one has suffered from my depression. There are plenty of books that show that many people are much worse than me – I've never spent any time in a psychiatric hospital, for example – but these accounts are long and when I'm depressed, reading is especially hard, besides it really doesn't matter how many people out there are suffering more than me, I'm not responsible for them but I am for me; this is one of those times in ones life when one needs to be selfish.

When we read a poem the first thing we try and do is make sense of it. By that I don't necessarily mean intellectually appreciate it, rather we try it up against ourselves like a dress to see how it might look on. We may not look for intellectual meaning in the poem but we do look for an emotional meaning, for example, one of the poems suggested in Poetry Therapy: Theory and Practice by Nicholas Mazza for use with people with identity issues is 'We Wear the Mask' by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It's one I was unfamiliar with but it begins:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

The poem apparently describes "the harsh reality of the black race in America and how they hide their grief, sadness, and broken hearts under a mask for a survival strategy towards whites."[1] I didn't get that. Like all poems it stands or falls on its own merits and so the first question I asked, before I'd even finished the first stanza, is: In what way do I wear a mask? I could spend the rest of this blog discussing that but I'm not going to, besides by now all of you will have asked yourselves that selfsame question. The thing though is it's not a perfect fit. It's like an off-the-peg suit.

Needless to say I've written one or two poems about masks in the past, like this one:


The Batman would never
stand for this.

Batman_1940sThe Batman would never
have been caught like this.

Not The Batman.

We have a lot in common -
The Batman and I.

We both wear masks
but I don't have his strength.

25 March 1989

It was published years ago in Psychopoetica, a journal of psychological-based poetry. I should also point out that this was written during my previous marriage, a marriage that was coincidentally pretty much devoid of arguments or rows.

I should also also point out that my current psychotherapist has never read me a poem nor asked me to write any. The last one asked to see some of my poems but I didn't find talking about them especially helpful because I hadn't actually written about what was bothering me. I'm not actually sure how I'd react to the suggestion if it was made to me because very few of my poems are completely biographical. Although I frequently write about things in my life, it's rarely a kneejerk reaction; it took me years to write a poem about my mother after she died. They may well spring from biographical material but there's invariably a twist. When I was looking for 'mask' poems this one turned up in the search:


I couldn't warm to him.
His eyes were rheumy
the colour of phlegm,
his skin was pale,
worn and dusty like parchment.

He never smiled but then
that's not really true.
I simply didn't
care for his smiles.
I tried to avoid him, turned

mirrors to face the wall
and gave up shaving
but no mouthwash was
ever able
to mask that taste in his mouth,

the taste of youth gone off.

6 February 2008

There are biographical elements here: I frequently suffer from watery eyes and I do get patches of eczema occasionally; I'm not known for my beaming smiles but I probably spend more time looking in the mirror than our bird does and he loves his own reflection. I haven't shaved in about twenty years and I do use mouthwash daily but I don't see me when I read that poem, not the 'me' as I am krapp1 today, perhaps the 'me' I'll become in twenty-odd years when I finally turn into Krapp.

It is a poem about self image, no doubt about that, but it is also an exaggeration for effect. It's a poem about a truth, containing certain truths but ultimately it's also a lie. I have never found poetry a particularly effective vehicle for the conveyance of the truth. Prose is far better. My poems all wear masks. You can see the eyes and a lot of truths escape through them but not all.

Why have therapists found working with poetry particularly effective? I think one simple answer is that poetry is generally heavily metaphorical, even my own although if you want to see metaphor piled on top of metaphor to great effect look at the poetry of Dick Jones, either way poetry is talking about something by talking about something else. We talk about 'masks' but we're not talking about masks.

In the introduction to her work, The Therapy of Poetry, Molly Harrower, a pioneering clinical psychologist and published poet, has this to say:

The theme of this book is not so much that poetry can be used in formal therapy, but rather that poetry is "therapy" and is part and parcel of normal development. Poetry therapy is a newcomer. Long before there were therapists, there were poets, and from time immemorial man has struggled to cope with his inevitable inner turmoil. One way of so coping has been the ballad, the song, the poem. Once crystallised into words, all engulfing feelings become manageable, and once challenged into explicitness, the burden of the incommunicable becomes less heavy. The very act of creating is a self-sustaining experience, and in the poetic moment the self becomes both the ministering "therapist" and the comforted "patient."

I have expressed the opinion before that the writing process is more important to the poet than the resultant poem. I'm pleased to find I'm not alone in that opinion. In her article 'Conversations with Poems' Fiona Robyn writes:

Selima Hill once said to me that poems are just the by-product of being a poet, and she's right. Looking at the world as a poet means noticing things and wanting to share these things with others. Writing poetry is one way of doing this – I suppose others choose paintings as their "by-products", or music, or any other creative work that involves the communication of something more important. Writing poetry and more importantly being a poet keeps me on my toes.

One thing I don't find is that writing is cathartic - that it helps me to "off-load" my emotions. I'm sure some people do. But I keep this type of writing to my journal – simply because I've found that muddled or extreme emotion doesn't make for a good poem. Once I have some distance from an emotional experience, writing a poem about it can be the best form of "closure", especially if I can get really close to recording exactly what the event meant to me, the essence of what happened. Beware broken hearted poetry.

I get that. The key word in these two paragraphs for me is 'distance'. I've tried to produce poetry in the heat of an experience and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I end up either scrapping the piece or find it's not my best work as far as the poem being of use to others.. The idea of separating oneself physically from ones thoughts is something I've tackled before:


I write things down
so that I can stand apart from them

and look at them or go away and forget
or at least try to.

I can pretend they're no longer part of me.
We can all pretend.

Things look different from a distance,
smaller, or am I stating the obvious?

I can't remember anymore.

13 October 1997

To use an expression of Dr James Pennekaker (who'll I'll come back to), my problem is now "graspable," – literally, I can hold it in my hand, I can even tear it into little pieces. This is similar to what John Fox, a certified poetry therapist in California, said. He said that poetry therapy can "help a person to distil and condense a whole set of experiences and feelings into something that can be put on the page, be tangible, so the person can get hold of it and share it with others."[2]

I expressed this sentiment most graphically in this one:


I don't like reading
I don't much
        care for writing them either

        but then what's a man
        to do with
        all the shit inside of him?

I can't say why I
        have to
        lie in it
        or even play with the stuff.

It just feels good to.
So what
        are you all

You can't really believe this is art.

25 July 2004

It's not a pretty poem but then it's not meant to be. I think both these poems, 'The Reason' and 'Shit Poem' are very important poems for me because in them I'm managed to crystallise what's being going on in my head. By the time I got round to these poems I'd already written hundreds of poems but I was still questioning why. I could have simply contented myself and said, "Well, this is just what I do," but what kind of an answer is that?

The image of a child playing with its poo is not a pleasant one but think about that trauma you went through – we all have one or two traumas to choose from – and how you replayed it over and over again in your head, imagining and reliving rather than covering it over and forgetting about it.

But does all of this actually do any good? Apparently, yes:

James Pennebaker, PhD., a psychologist and researcher, has conducted studies that show enhancement in immune system functioning and emotional well being when research participants write about difficult or traumatic events in their lives. – The Healing Power of Therapeutic Writing and Poetry

I've let you read my poems, some of them anyway, but there are a few that I'll keep to myself if you don't mind. I have published a number of poems that people who know me would be able to jump on and go: "Aha! I know what that one's about," and bully for them but the majority of you know so little about my private life that looking at any poem of mine for scraps of the real me is really pointless. All my poems I write for me, solely for me and if I never published another one it still wouldn't stop me writing. I'm not so sure about all of Pennebaker's claims though:

When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them. – Writing to Heal

I tend to find writing a poem is like getting a hit for me; the effect is temporary, the rush that is. Cumulatively when I consider my canon I can say I'm pleased because I can see a progression. I understand myself better and, of course, as that happens I have less to explore but I expect there's enough to do me for the rest of my life at the rate I'm going. I'm not exactly prolific.

The question is: how long should I write? Pennebaker's thoughts on the matter:

I’m not convinced that having people write every day is a good idea. I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity.

But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important. – Writing to Heal

It's a thought. I tend to write when things flare up and years can go between them. I rarely find answers. Usually what I get are new perspectives. Like this one:


Boxes Unable to find words angry enough
yet still needing to write,
he resorted to scribbling wildly,
and ended doodling:
boxes within boxes.

4 March 1985

As a writer I tend to look to words for an answer. If only I can translate what's in my head into words then I'll feel better. This poem is a good example of the fact that words are not necessarily the answer. The image of being trapped, the 'boxes within boxes' that I came up with is. It's fiction though. I never did what's in the poem, imagining it was sufficient.

I'm not the first writer to realise that writing has its limits. This is a poem by Alan Michael Parker called 'Text':

It has taken me forty years to admit
emotions have no words.
I express and repress, scrawl
vowels on a placemat,

test my artistry
against a poor drawing of the Acropolis
Find me wanting.
Which is not to say that as a man

I am inarticulate by nature, or that the sunshine
moves through the sugar shaker
and then through me without stopping.
Or that even as someone who learns

in metaphor, I am much different from
the sparrow outside the Greek diner,
atop the crusted snow,
brainless with hunger.

On my walk back from town this morning,
I met a woman in her driveway,
one hand on a snow-blower. Weeping.
The enormous trumpet of the red machine

blew the powder into the air,
noise going nowhere as she wept.
They seemed to me as one,
she and her machine, and what could I do—

the placemat folded in my pocket
sang itself a pretty lie
What could I say? Sorry.
Then she realized I had stopped:

she smiled badly, wiped her nose,
and went back to tidying.
And I went back to trudging through
words, head down, humming out of tune.

parthenon-acropolis You know the way children will look at something we take for granted and make us see it in a completely different way, well I think long-in-the-tooth poets like myself can learn a thing or two by looking at how patients who are using poetry merely for therapeutic reason look at it. "One man compared the therapy process to '…using Listerine. You know it works but it tastes terrible.'"[3] We use metaphorical language all the time without thinking about it, poets and non-poets. It is a way we all use to explain the world. Formalising it, structuring it, calling it 'a poem' isn't such a leap.

When I look back at my very early poetry and compare it to some of the poems written by patients I can see one thing in common, the poetry isn't very good. Let me qualify that – the poetry isn't technically proficient. Is that a bad thing? Well, yes, if you expect to get the stuff published but when I first started writing I was just dumping my feelings on the page. Some effort was made to fiddle with them to make them look like a poem but that was about it. In the truest sense though every one of those was pure poetry, unrefined, raw.

Poetry is not something Stephen Rojcewicz, MD, uses with every patient, or even most patients, "but sometimes it seems to be the perfect therapeutic tool," he says. "What I like about poetry is the balance between raw emotion and some kind of governing structure," said Dr. Rojcewicz, a psychiatrist and president of NAPT. "There are some patients in which this clicks. Some patients can express raw emotion if they have a structure to work with." – Poetry as Healer (italics mine)

Over the years I've lost that. On one level I write better poetry because now I'm conscious of the possibility of a reader other than myself but refined, polished poetry is also unnatural when you think about it; we've trained our eyes to expect certain things from our poems.

We've got very used to pill-popping when we feel unwell. Sometimes it's easy to forget how much our body does naturally when we're unwell, for example:

bacteria White blood cells ingest invading pathogens (for example, bacteria) and use the pathogens' antigens to present to the body's immune system. B-lymphotcytes then start to produce their antibodies in large numbers and release these into the blood where they then adhere to the surface of the invading bacteria and cause the bacteria to clump together rendering them ineffective. Memory cells then remain in the blood after this to allow faster and more effective response if that particular pathogen invades again. –

I had to look that up and I really don't understand the answer nor do I have to. My body does that naturally. Is it so strange that for the last three years, while I've barely been able to function for two days in a row sometimes, I've been writing poetry consistently? What I'd love to be working on is my novel but what I clearly need to write is poetry. It's not all woe-is-me stuff either but some of it has dealt directly with what's been troubling me, for example my dire memory:

hands_dirty REMEMBER

Late every evening
the old man collects the
embers of that day

and tries to make something
out of them, something real.

He moulds and remoulds
with burnt and blackened hands
and a too-tired heart

but the ash refuses
to remember its shape.

Every day he sees
the fire burn and tries to
remember that shape.

There is a good reason
that shadows have no depth.

Thursday, 05 March 2009

Did the poem help? Not really, if by 'help' do you mean, did it help improve my memory? No, it didn't. I didn't even remember writing the poem. I knew I'd written about memory but I couldn't remember how any of the others went and this was the first to appear when I did a search for the word 'remember'. It'll do fine to illustrate my point.

faceless doctor My memory is getting better. I first realised this wasn't my usual bog-standard depression I was going through when I found myself walking out of a room and forgetting where I was going and what I was doing; I couldn't remember my doctor's name; I couldn't tell you what I saw on TV the night before. I'm a lot better now. This poem's purpose has now changed. I'm now a reader. I can remember that I used to forget but I'm starting to forget how I used to forget, the experience of memory slipping through my fingertips. Now poems like this serve as diary entries, aide-mémoires. A treatment is not necessarily a cure remember.

Let me leave you with a couple of poems written by patients, non-poets, the first, from 1969, is by a female adolescent suffering from depression:

Perhaps if I tried to communicate
To someone I don't know
Who wouldn't care
And wouldn't think of me
And would carry nothing of me away—
Or to something not committed to listen
Some object, some state of being
That couldn't feel . . .

I've only negative expressions
You would be listening only to the sound of no sound

In "you" or "I" there is nothing real
What is there in front of my eyes
Besides objects?

and this by Charlotte, an anorexic:


I'd like to be in this room
FractalI lie in—
Perfect and white.
I'd like to be the light
That shines in—
And clear.
I am the stain here
Not the room.
I only serve to break
The perfect pattern.

I'll leave you to decide how 'good' they are.

Further Reading

James W. Pennebaker, Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice

National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations, Poetry Therapy – includes a nice list of the goals of poetry therapy

The Institute of Poetic Medicine




[2] Deborah L. Shelton, 'Poetry as Healer', American Medical News, May 17, 1999

[3] Howard R. Pollio, 'Psychology and the Poetics of Growth: Figurative Language in Psychology'


willow said...

"the taste of youth gone off" jumped out and grabbed me. As always, excellent post, Jim.

Ann Elle Altman said...

Wow, you bring a some interesting point. I've never considered poetry as therapeutic probably because I've never understood it but you've caused me to see differently. I'm going to have to give some more thought to what you've said here.


Kass said...

I know reading and writing poetry makes me feel better, but it's not immediate. I usually discover in retrospect that my life feels richer, more complete. That sounded sappy, but it's true.

Your Remember poem really hit a chord for me. I didn't read it thinking the theme was about forgetfulness. I got very selfish about it and made it be about me. I think that's why we narcissists love poetry.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you liked that bit, Willow. It made a good punch line.

It doesn’t have to be just poetry, Ann. There are plenty of sites online where people write about the various traumas they’ve been through or may still be going through. Writing helps, without a doubt. I just can’t see my doctor telling to go home and write a couple of poems and I’ll feel better in the morning.

And, Kass, if you want the poem to be about you then that’s perfectly fine by me. You can adopt all my poems if you like as long as they have a good home. When I finish with a poem I’m truly finished with it. To be very honest if you want to print out a couple and tear them up then that’s fine by me. I write for me, the writing process is what I need. I’m not saying that I never read my own poems but they might as well be someone else’s by that time; all the thought and feeling that went into the piece has gone. I don’t remember writing ‘Remember’. When I read your comment I couldn’t remember which poem about memory I’d included in the article. Writing is an experience; a poem is a thing.

litrefs said...

The other side of the coin is "Writing as Addiction" - The person recognizes their excessive use of the substance, may have tried to reduce it but has been unable to do so ... Much of the person's time is spent in efforts to obtain the substance or recover from its effects ... Much of the person's time is spent in efforts to obtain the substance or recover from its effects ... the substance or behaviour tends to produce an initial affective state (euphoria) which is then followed by an opposing state (dysphoria). Then there are the risks of cross-addiction - music, films, etc. It's a tough life.

Jim Murdoch said...

All I have to say to that, litrefs, is I can quite any time I want to. Of course I can. I can stop right now if the mood took me, right in the middle of this sentence even . . . but it just so happens that I don't want to just now. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day. I have a lot to say. You can't rush these things. Besides, people need a reason to stop writing. Just because they can isn't a good reason. I could jump of a cliff. I could. But just because I can doesn't mean I should. I mean there's no reason why I should stop writing. Is there? Huh?

Sorlil said...

Anne Sexton is probably the most famous poet who started writing when her psychiatrist suggested it to her as a form of self-therapy. Despite turning into a successful and award winning poet she still committed suicide in the end...

I don't write for therapeutic reasons but writing does keep me sane and emotionally balanced. I'm not entirely sure why that is, but on top of that, the total high I get from writing a poem that I'm happy with is unbeatable!

Your book came in today, thankyou :) I read the dedication to your mother and was amazed at the emotional weight you managed to squeeze into those ten words, I thought about it all day.

Poet in Residence said...

There's a lot to take in here. But first reaction; like your SHIT poem. I reckon your old friend Bukowski would manage a wry smile. He'd be proud to have written that.

I think poetry as therapy is a proverbial two-edged sword. Yeah, Bukowski churned it out as a therapy. well and good.

But on the other hand we have inevitable disasters like Plath.

Elisabeth said...

Hey Jim, it's late and I've just reached this blog which I want to read thoroughly and honour with some thought.

Tomorrow I have a conference but after that I shall respond to yet another of your posts that looks to be 'right up my alley'.

McGuire said...

Interesting subject, lots of recovering alcoholics are encouraged to write to sort out their past, to overcome the carnage or waste of their 'dead' years. Some like 'life writing' i.e. not for literary success, but literally, to catalogue and record your life and its machinations.

Other examples, writers in prison, who work through the thoughts, and what crimes they committed and why.

Found this wee quote: 'Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those, who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear, which is inherent in a human condition.'

Then many might say, it's the maladay of the middle classes, to be so neurotic and navel gazing, hard to kick pretense and gamble with new frontiers - so we settle for the quiet life and regret it. Thus comes theraphy. Hmmm, not sure I made sense, some thoughts anyway...

Jim Murdoch said...

I guess no treatment is a cure-all, Sorlil. I find writing poetry very therapeutic. Not so much the prose. Prose takes too long. Poems have a very narrow focus. They deal with one problem, or part of a problem, at a time. Only occasionally do they “cure” anything. But a few have got under the skin and to the root of the problem. I remember when I wrote the ‘Drowning Man’ series of poems. The central image of a man drowning in emotions made so much sense to me. It didn’t solve my problems but it converted how I felt into words. It’s like being depressed – “depressed”, that single word, explains so much. Ask a kid how they are and they’ll say, “I don’t feel very well,” and that’s really not very helpful. Before I wrote the ‘Drowning Man’ poems all I knew what that I didn’t feel very well but that was it and I had no idea how to make myself feel better.

Glad you’ve got the book. Take your time over it. Did you compare the two dedications by the way? The next one will be, “To my wife – who has read everything I’ve ever written,” or something close to that.

Yeah, Poet in Residence, I think Bukowski might have appreciated that one. I don’t get angry very often but this poem is rooted in frustration because no matter how many poems I write, because of their nature, I never really solve anything. I treat one spot and others erupt elsewhere. I can see why Plath and Sexton did what they did. Not all treatment has to do with finding a cure though. I get a lot of back pain, much of it is muscular but some of it is “boneular” (our pet word for it). Rubbing brings me a lot of comfort but it’s not a cure. And the same with the poems. They make me feel better, if only for a wee while.

At your leisure, Elisabeth. No doubt by then you’ll have a few interesting comments to think about too. I got Words and Silk a couple of days ago and Carrie and I watched it yesterday. Most enjoyable. Now I need to work out how to extract a couple of clips for my next post on him. I’ve done it before but it was a while ago and I’ve forgotten how.

And, McGuire, I like the quote. I’ve wondered often what life must be like for people who don’t have a creative outlet. The mere thought of it makes me shudder. A lot of “life writing” is naval gazing but sometimes that’s all people are capable, looking at the obvious, stating the obvious. It’s only when you get bored with the obvious that you start to look under the skin. Where I began to improve as a poet was when I did my entire navel gazing off the page and only tried to write a poem when I had something worth saying. That’s when my output dropped dramatically but the quality improved immediately.

Kass said...

Jim - I would be very interested to read the 10 word dedication to your mother from the book you sent Sorlil (as my days have been filled with mother-thoughts).

Jim Murdoch said...

Kass, the dedications to my first two novels are as follows:

Living with the Truth:

For my father
despite the fact he never finished it

Stranger than Fiction:

For my mother
who never read a word I wrote

Art Durkee said...

In many ways I feel the opposite: my poetry always tells a lot of truth, while my prose tends to wear masks. For me prose is more about thinking, and poetry is more of a response to being. Perhaps that makes it more therapeutic, or at least cathartic and transformative. It is a tool, like other kinds of art I make, for finding out what exactly I'm thinking and feeling, and for expressing that to myself in a way that makes emotional if not always grammatical sense. I become less and less attached to the idea that my default response to life is, or must be, verbal and/or intellectual. Quite the opposite: somatic, sensual, aural.

Elisabeth said...

I don’t know about poetry, Jim, but certainly the idea of writing as having therapeutic value is commonly accepted these days. I tend to say that writing is not therapy, but writing can be therapeutic.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Lousie DeSalvo’s book, ‘Writing as a Way of Healing’. One of her opening quotes is from Mark Doty who writes in ‘Heaven’s Coast: ‘What is healing, but a shift in perspective?’

To my way of thinking, it is this shift in perspective that writing enables, both in poetry and in prose, and which brings about the therapeutic benefits.

Writing is enabling. It is, as you suggest, a way of getting out what’s inside of us, what torments us inside, onto the page where it changes. It offers us and our readers ‘a shift in perspective’.

Our perception may be distorted but given that no one, not even ourselves, can have access to that inner self in all its thinking and detail, then no one can write the truth about themselves except as a fiction. As Margaret Atwood in ‘Negotiating with the Dead’ argues ‘The mere act of writing splits the self in two’.

I think this creation of two and/or more personae is exhilarating and enabling for us as writers. To me this is the essence of the therapeutic. It brings about a change, however temporary, in our state of mind and we can build on that change if we’re lucky.

This is a terrific post, Jim and one that bears revisiting. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t think there are any rules, Art, it’s just whatever works for you. I think we do have to consider intent. Why do we write? That the effect might be therapeutic is one thing, a bi-product. I’ve never thought about any of my writing as a way to get better but I do see it as a way to understand better. If I was drawn to autobiographical prose it might be different but I’m not. I know a lot of me goes into the writing and I have gained some insight into myself from the four novels especially but that was not the reason for writing them.

You’re more comfortable with abstracts than I am. I want to translate everything into words even if those words are metaphors because there aren’t any words for what I’m trying to understand.

And, Elisabeth, I think the whole idea of a shift in perspective is an interesting way to look at healing although I’m not sure how well that would sit with a physical ailment. In many respects writing for me is something to do when there’s nothing to do. The link I sent you earlier has some interesting thoughts in a recent post talking about catharsis theory:

Emotions are at their core only bodily states of arousal, of readiness for fight or flight, etc. [...] The most controversial issue in catharsis theory is the attempt to answer the question of what to do with the energy and adrenaline that is aroused if you don’t fight or flee.

A lot of the time I write about stuff that I can’t do anything about, getting old, losing my memory – I can’t fight and flight’s not an option either. So I write.

I’ve read Negotiating with the Dead but I don’t remember much about it.

Dave King said...

I have always thought poetry to be in some sense therapeutic for the writer. I doubt that was always so, but I am sure that in modern times it is. Art and music may also be to some and to some extent, but poetry I think most definitely so. It seems to me that that is one reason why more people are writing it than reading it. It is the perfect medium for grappling with inner conflicts.

Your memory poem resonated with me and sent thoughts off on all kinds of tangents. I shall need to come back and read the post again - too much to take in in one go.

litrefs said...

It's a bit chicken-and-egg though.
Yes, writing can be therapeutic - e.g. "After being given either fiction or non-fiction from the New Yorker, those who read the fiction piece scored higher on a test of social reasoning" ("The Psychologist", V21 No12, p.1030-1).
But I think one might also claim that compared to the general reading public and even to other creative people, writers might have more need of these benefits - e.g. "Nancy Andreasen has tracked 30 students from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. 80% had mood disorders (30% is average amongst similar people who are non-writers). 43% had some degree of manic-depressive illness (10% is average). 2 committed suicide over the 15 years of the study" ("Psychology Today", April 1987).
Labelling oneself a writer can be a way to excuse one's social inadequacies - "Seizing on a traditional trope of the poet as exceptional individual, certain individuals receiving health-care who feel themselves to be exceptional apparently adopt poetic discourse as part of that role", (Fiona Sampson, in "Kicking Daffodils", 1997). has more refs.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Dave, I’ve always wondered how much poetry I would read if I never wrote the stuff because, quite honestly, most of the poetry I read is by people like your good self. I have rarely gone out of my way to buy books of poetry. I’ve looked at hundreds but very few ever make it all the way to the checkout. But writing it, ah, now that’s different.

Why poetry though? Why not just pick up a piece of paper and write down what’s bugging you without trying to be clever about it? I think it has to do with the essentially metaphorical nature of poetry. Even in my most stripped-down pieces there are metaphors at work. I honestly think that we could never think about higher matters without metaphors. Yes, there are millions of words, and new ones are being invented every day, but there are so many things for which there are no adequate words. When I wrote the ‘Drowning Man’ poems I was confused. I was going through a rough patch in my life. But ‘confused’ didn’t really cut it. I was emotionally drained. Yes, that’s a bit better. But it wasn’t until I write the first of those poems that the notion of drowning in emotions hit me. That made sense to me. I could have written thousands of words – I certainly spoke thousands of words to anyone who would listen to me but what I needed to do was distil those words into a handful that I could process and resolve. Hence the poems.

And, litrefs, no great surprises there. The more I read about writers the more I realise what a screwed up bunch we are. I know most people are screwed up these days but being screwed up seems to be a prerequisite for the job. What puzzles me if that I didn’t come to writing sooner. I’ve read of so many writers who literally started to write as soon as they were big enough to hold a pencil. Not me though.

“Exceptional,” you say? Most people would think that’s a good think – “an exceptional wine” – but really “exceptional” just means “deviating from the norm”. It’s normal not to write. Millions don’t. I know millions do or try to but we’re still a minority. In my day-to-day life I’m the only writer I’ve run across (bar one teacher) in fifty years! Now tell me that’s exceptional.

Ken Armstrong said...

Great read Jim. Your own material stands out in this piece - for God's sake don't ask me why, I dunno. :)

Looking at your box within box doodle, I wondered - have you ever considered your relationship to the 'Straight Line'. It is something you seem to use in a number of ways.

Knowing you, you've written a bloody treatise on it and, knowing me, I've read it. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Straight lines, eh, Ken? I have three poems that contain the words “straight line”, once talking about time, once about love and this one, which opens:

      The Gospel According to Sweet William

      What do you do when you've seen?

      Look again. See more. It pays to be sure.
      Of course, three time's the charm,
      three points make a straight line
      and we all know where they lead.

Yes, I know, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line but I had a maths teacher who said that it was better to have three – to be sure.

I also have one poem with parallel lines in it.

I do like straight lines. And right angles come to think of it.

Dick said...

Wonderfully discursive, but always en route as ever, Jim. I particularly liked 'Remember'. A very fine poem for this reader, even if it didn't self-medicate for the writer!

And thanks for the buzz.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yeah.Dick, ‘Remember’, now where did that one come from? It’s an evocative little piece, isn’t it? It’s always nice when you read something you’ve written and it still pleases you. Can’t believe it’s a year old already. And as for the plug, you’re very welcome.

Ken Armstrong said...

Now that's what I call a reply!

Thanks Jim. :)

jerry said...

love to see this discussion! It’s great to see you all working through the issues and also, it’s great to see recommendations for testing. In the end, it’s what your actual users do and prefer that should be your biggest driver in making these decisions.

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Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jerry. I always knew this would be a topic that would get people talking.

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