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.
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." 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:
MARITAL ROW NO. 693
The Batman would never
stand for this.
The 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
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 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."
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
lie in it
or even play with the stuff.
It just feels good to.
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:
UNTITLED DOODLE (4.3.85)
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.
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.
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.'" 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:
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. – Answers.com
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:
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.
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
and this by Charlotte, an anorexic:
THE PERFECT PATTERN
I'd like to be in this room
I lie in—
Perfect and white.
I'd like to be the light
That shines in—
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.
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
 Howard R. Pollio, 'Psychology and the Poetics of Growth: Figurative Language in Psychology'