Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Is Poetry Therapy?

Is Poetry Therapy?

Obviously Not

Today I had a conversation with several undergraduate students who are working with me as actors in a play about the nature of poetry and in particular, my favorite straw man, poetry slam. Ultimately the question came around to, “but isn’t there some validity to poetry as therapeutic for the writer?” Unfortunately, I feel that too much poetry is about therapy for the writer. In an era of reality tv in which everyone’s “life” or some version or construction of it is trotted out as entertainment, in which we have wall-to-wall coverage of the pain and suffering of every victim of the Virginia Tech tragedy, to be quickly replaced with whatever tragedy unfortunately comes along next week or next month, what is the role of poetry as a vehicle for someone to express their personal pain or grievances onstage? The immediate impulse might be to say “but oh, isn’t it cathartic? Doesn’t it help the person to purge all of that so they can move on?”

Obviously not.

The shooter in the Virginia Tech case took creative writing classes, with Nikki Giovanni no less, one of the great living poets of our time. He “expressed himself” and obviously that was not enough to cure his demons.

The role model for all depressed young women who want to write poetry and are between the ages of 13 and 30 is Sylvia Plath. And if you’re really hardcore, you move on to Anne Sexton. Was poetry therapeutic for these women?

Obviously not.

It’s one of the clich├ęs that hits the open mic circuit periodically. The depressed Sylvia Plath wannabe shouting look at my pain. It’s not therapy. It’s a cry for therapy. It’s the sign and not the thing itself.

I’m not saying that there is not a place for people—all people, but especially young people who are working out some vision of the world and their place in it—to execute these explorations in the space of writing. Everyone who knows me or has read a single word I’ve ever written knows that I believe in the power of imagination. But true imagination involves getting over yourself. How can you find your place in the world when you only know about yourself and not the world? Art as therapy or self-expression may tell the world about your pain, but it does nothing to help you empathize with others. It carries you further and further into yourself and out of the world. The best poetry comes from people who can look outward, look at the world around them. The romantic notion of the artist as one who suffers carries with it a nearly Christian idea of martyrdom. Or perhaps something shamanistic. The martyred suffering sensitive artist will take on all of our pain for us, will look deep within and show us his naked tortured soul through which we will all be healed.

Obviously not.

This is not to criticize Nikki Giovanni or the creative writing program at VT. From what I read, she too, said that Cho’s work was a rant and had nothing of the qualities of poetry, which she also described as outward looking. But among the many ideas that we lay to rest each time something like this happens, we as writers have a unique opportunity to take a look at one of our most cherished assumptions about ourselves. Our mediatized world is becoming increasingly solipsistic. We watch other people’s pain and measure our own against it. Or we crave the opportunity to display our own pain, to gain the world’s sympathy for our own unfortunately all-too-common plights. Could our overemphasis on bearing our own wounds to the world even actually be a contributing factor—one among many—in the increasing neuroticization of the world and even inadvertently to situations like this.

I know. Now I sound like a Republican. Help me.

I was set to teach a poetry workshop to high school students last fall, which lasted about a day or two. I made the mistake of tipping my hand and telling them that we were going to delve into some experimental and Dadaistic work and they wanted no part of that. But I was struck by one of the girls who kept saying over and over to people “just write what you feel.” Is that what high school kids are being taught by English teachers that don’t know how they are supposed to teach concepts like “creativity” and “self-expression”? “Just write what you feel.” It was like a mantra and she said it over and over again. Cho, the VT shooter wrote what he felt. And it came out in angry rants. His plays were wish fulfillments about people that wronged him. Did this serve him in any palpable way?

I tried to jump in, to make a subtle amendment. “Write what you see,” I told my short-lived poetry class. I sent the students off on a sort of scavenger hunt throughout the building to write down descriptions of what they saw. Colors, textures, cars, sky, walls, tables, murals. Description. When I shared my own newly-written piece with the group, the “write what you feel” student was surprised. “You wrote that just now?” she asked, wide-eyed?

What if our hurt, angry, self-obsessed shooter were with us now, forced to write what he saw inside of a classroom full of dead bodies, blood and bullets mixed among chalk and the first smells of spring coming in through an open window? What if he had found a way, or been led to a way, to get outside of himself, outside of his own head, to look at the students around him? By the time he got to Virginia Tech it was obviously too late. The teachers who worked with him and his fellow students report being unable to get past his self-imposed silence.

I have no idea what things happened to this young man in his life. He obviously needed actual therapy and I’m not in any way suggesting that poetry could have saved him. But neither can we look at this instance and continue to insist that poetry is therapy, that adding one more layer of solipsistic self-absorption to the saturated simulacrum of our pain-obsessed society, is helping any of us or moving any of us forward.


Lyle Daggett said...

Actually, I think (and it seems to me that you more or less say this also somewhere here) that poetry can be therapeutic, sometimes and under some circumstances. (For much intelligent insight on the connections between poetry, therapy, and much else, see the book The Moon and the Virgin by Jungian analyst Nor Hall.)

There is, however, a limit to how effective a therapy it can be. And yes, of course, poetry isn't merely or solely self-expression. For that matter, therapy isn't either. That's why therapy is done with the aid of a therapist. (In ancient Greece, the attendants who assisted the oracle priestesses were known as "therapeutes.")

In the case of Plath or Sexton -- one might also name John Berryman -- it's likely that writing poetry did, for a time, help to hold off or slow the forces, internal and external, that led to their suicides. But, as you said, poetry isn't therapy. Not by itself anyway. Not always.

PoetNessa said...

There is the National Association for Poetry Therapy and the National Federation for BiblioPoetry Therapy, which is the certifying body for poetry therapists. Trained, certified poetry therapists can work with poetry in a therapeutic manner. Teachers/professors are not necessarily trained in this therapeutic manner.

You might want to check out or for more information. And basically, I should say that no, poetry isn't always therapy, but with a trained facilitator, therapeutic benefits are definitely possible.

I hope this is a little helpful to you!