“Poetry has a way of helping poets and readers of poetry make meaning of their experience, and this helps us gain perspective, wisdom and clarity so we can move forward more freely, less encumbered by what Robert Bly calls the long invisible bag of the unconscious we drag behind us” Elizabeth Sullivan
This week my blog post is coming to you from a writer’s retreat in Lake Tahoe: I’m at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I’m writing with an amazing group of poets, and hearing lectures on translation and poetry from some of the most talented writers I know. It’s heaven.
So naturally I’ve been thinking about poets and therapists and the connections between us (and for some of us, we are the same people). Of course, there are many obvious ways in which therapists and poets work in similar territory: the unconscious, memory, dreams. In my experience, therapists love to point this out and poets aren’t as interested.
On the other hand many, many poets I know have worked hard in therapy—hoping to have awesome relationships and to give their own kids happy childhoods—in addition to being creative geniuses. So many poets also value emotional health and growth. Very few anymore would argue that therapy would take away some essential artistic spark, and most I know would say it helps writing to be more aware and awake.
So what are the connections between therapy and poetry? There is a whole wonderful world of “poetry therapy”, but I am thinking of the separate disciplines. “Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious,” wrote Freud. Elsewhere he said, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” How do poetry and therapy work together or work differently?
At Squaw Valley, the set-up is that each day for seven days all sixty of us here try to write a new poem, and then we meet each morning to talk them over and encourage ourselves to keep going. It’s such a gift to be writing so much, trying to be in the zone of creativity day and night—I can feel my brain and my soul stretching. The poems are very raw; they often contain deep material that the poet herself isn’t sure about.
Listening to all of these newborn poems each morning I am struck by how often we poets are seeking for a kind of self-understanding, so similar to therapeutic work. Although poets write in many different kinds of ways, confessionally, abstractly, experimentally, even the densest poems I have heard here have some element of making meaning of the self in the world.
The more I think about it, the more I see poetry and therapy, (or other art-making and therapy), as one of the most effective combinations of effort we can possibly bring to bear on our perplexing, muddled and difficult human lives. Therapy brings up the memories, the unconscious, the dreams, the material, and the work is to accept this material—make it conscious and stop letting it run our lives. But with poetry or other art, the material can also be turned into art that goes out into the world.
Often I am asked by clients, “Why should I dredge all that childhood stuff up? I just want to move on and focus on the positive. Can’t you just give me tools to stop feeling so bad?” I can understand why this would be said by so many people, after all, who wants to face down our worst memories, our worst sufferings? And I really don’t think it’s necessary to speak directly about the past; it all emerges from the present-moment material anyway. But even still it is a question worth answering. And maybe especially because I feel I am glimpsing a bit of the answer here among these raw new poems. The answer must be something like what Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Poetry has a way of helping poets and readers of poetry make meaning of their experience, and this helps us gain perspective, wisdom and clarity so we can move forward more freely, less encumbered by what Robert Bly calls the long invisible bag of the unconscious we drag behind us.
So why not try to write a poem today? Robert Hass, a poet teaching here, offered us two prompts for getting started, one was, “That summer I…” and the other was, “In the dream…” Who knows what you will find out about yourself and the world if you can begin.