Psychoanalyzing Poetry

                 Remember the last time you were in a bookstore and picked up a book that looked interesting, and, since it was used or on sale, you went ahead and added it to the two or three other books you were already juggling.  I did this recently while in Franklin, NC at Books Unlimited (as I was on my way to yet another favorite bookstore, City Lights, in Sylva, NC) and I found a gem.  I was introduced to the British child psychotherapist, literary critic, and essayist, Adam Phillips.  The book is Promises, Promises—Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis.  In his essay, “On Eating, and Preferring Not To,” Phillips compares Melville’s “Bartebly, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” to anorexia, and makes an argument for the overriding metaphor of this short story being one of “hunger and compulsions” (282).  While I found this essay fascinating, I also was moved by his initial one, “Poetry and Psychoanalysis.”  In “Poetry and Psychoanalysis,” Phillips examines Sigmund Freud’s fascination with and elevation of the poet, comparing what the poet does to what the psychoanalyst does.  In short, the poet or creative writer has the ability to “redescrib[e] what the patient finds unacceptable, with a view to making it at least tolerable, if not also pleasurable” (9).  To this statement, I say amen.  How many of us have written or read a poem that is able to take something terribly painful and transform it into an acceptable experience, even if the subject matter is, in any other fashion, taboo?  Good poetry has the ability to hand a new lens to the reader – enabling the reader to see a situation, either familiar or not, in a new way.  I would argue that good poetry, if not addressing an experience to which the reader can relate, instead gives birth to empathy on the reader’s part.  I’ve never thought of poetry in these ways, and it was eye-opening, while simultaneously making me proud to be a poet.  Life has plenty of suffering, and any alleviation of that suffering is welcome – especially with something as powerful yet as simple as words. 

                Phillips goes on to say that “The privileging of poetry and poets is a counter-force to the fear that language and meaning don’t work” (6).  I would say that this is true for all great literature, not just poetry.  We wouldn’t have the classics if language and meaning didn’t “work.”  But what the poet does, that the philosopher does not, that the novelist does not, is to distill a moment or emotion that moved someone (whether good, bad, ugly, or transcendent) into just a few lines –maybe just as few as fourteen.  The ability to use the best words in the best order (Emerson) is a skill that the psychoanalyst strives to use too, in order for the subject on the couch or in the chair to be able to view him or herself in an acceptable, understandable or empathetic fashion.  What a gift, on both sides.  So raise a glass to the good poets and psychoanalysts, and keep writing.


2 thoughts on “Psychoanalyzing Poetry

  1. Rosemary, I am always interested in connections, such as the one you found between psychoanalysis and poetry. It seems to me that the latter does a better job than the former in the use of the “best words in the best order”!
    You have firm basis for the comparison yourself, with your passion for poetry and your own introspection. Thank you for sharing your recent discovery.


  2. Rosemary, thanks again for an delicately insightful interlude to daily life. I would call this not a poem, not an essay, but a “poemsay.” Is a bit long for a poem, a bit short for an essay, yet holding the best of both.


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