Witnessing, voicing, and exploration

This follows a previously posted article about poetry and how it can be an exploration of ourselves. I intend to concentrate on what things a poem brought to therapy might show. Though I use published poems as examples, whatever is said here applies as much to poems written by clients.

Being also a published poet, I’m fascinated by how many therapists are interested in poetry. A greater proportion than I have encountered with other professions, though I know of city firms that invite poets to do residencies for their employees. This all attests to the power of poetry to express things.

So, what is a poem?

Inevitably, there are many answers not all from poets. One I often hear is that a poem 'must rhyme'. We all know examples of rhyming poetry, even if it’s only a nursery rhyme, but many poems don’t rhyme. In fact, rhyme is one effect that can be used in a poem perhaps to make it sound more musical, or to add to emotional impact. A poem may rhyme, or it may not.

The broadest definition I can think of goes to the roots of the words 'poem', 'poetry', and 'poet', which have roots in Classical Greek which means to make or to do, and to sing. Poems contain words that are focused or shaped. This definition fits well for all types of poem, including rhyming ones such as sonnets, ballads, and the terza rima that Dante used. It also works well also for non-rhyming forms, haiku, prose poems (yes, they do exist!), and poems shaped like a drawing on a page - sometimes called concrete poetry.

What is a possible overlap between poetry and therapy?

Three things I would say most therapists and clients do are;

  • witnessing and observing
  • voicing what might be termed 'life scripts'
  • exploration and transformation

This can be important if a person is to move on from a current situation that might be painful. Poems can do this.

Neville Symington’s book In-Gratitude and Other Poems contains a number of his own poems and reflections on the poetic process. In one reflection, Symington suggests the poetic process allows for expressions of things that are not otherwise possible.

His title poem (too long to reproduce here) is a case in point. It’s a long poem about his mother that acknowledges both the difficulties he had with her as well as the unconditional support she gave him, and what wins through is his gratitude to her. Readers conversant with psychoanalytic theories will recognise this as being consistent with Kleinian ideas about mother. In Jungian terms, it fits with the 'mother' archetype, which has both loving and terrifying aspects. Yet at the same time, the poem makes the whole mother/son interplay more human and embodied.

There isn’t space to explore this rich poem more. I will, however, look at another poem in the book, where Symington witnesses one of his clients with the title The Bear Cub;

My mother left me up a tree
And walked away forever
The horizon was an empty space
And friendless light bore into me.

Symington does not record if he presented this poem to his client. But whether he did or not, it does bear witness to a sense of isolation, shame, and abandonment that possibly was felt by his client. This is the terrifying mother which the therapist may have picked up on, which the words bear witness to.

There are also poems in the 'literary world' that equally witness feelings. An example of this is Robert Bly’s Winter Poem, which includes the following lines;

What caused us each to remain hidden?
A wound, the wind, a word, a parent.
Sometimes we wait in a helpless way,
awkwardly, not whole and not healed.
When we hid the wound, we fell back
from a human to a shelled life.

I have often found the words about hiding the wound really hit the mark with clients. It’s as if the poem embodies one of Freud’s discoveries about how recovery of repressed memories can be healing. I have even seen some break into tears, and the realisation helps them to move on. Bly is interested in the ideas of Freud and Jung. There is an intellectual influence here, but the poem was written from a difficult time in Bly’s life, and maybe this adds an authenticity to the words that hits the mark.

Poems can also express life scripts that we seem to follow. Those who have read Eric Berne’s famous book Games People Play will already have an idea how this might work. RD Laing, in his book Knots, features many examples of scripts people follow laid out as poetry. Here is part of one of the poems he wrote;

My mother loves me
I feel good
I feel good because she loves me

In the above poem by Laing, there is an example of this. Perhaps the person voicing the script can only feel good if they have their mother’s approval. In Gestalt therapy there is a technique for turning scripts round and finding new ones. It works like this in the style of a 'knot' as above;

If I can say something,
I can choose to say it,
which means I can choose not to say it.
I thus write my own scripts.

This type of turn is also a poetic process, Perhaps it’s no surprise, as Gestalt psychologys' most famous exponent, Fritz Perls, also wrote poetry. A poem can do more than just express - it also can transform the way we look at ourselves. Clients might even write their own scripts.

This process is there in Mary Oliver’s famous poem Wild Geese, which is often read at personal development workshops. I sometimes read it to my clients, because it takes readers into the process of what I called exploration above, which is about re-imagining one’s life and exploring possibilities. These first three lines might even be an old life script ripe for transformation;

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

I might find this out by asking a client to read out those lines, changing the word 'you' to 'I'. I can often tell, just from the tone of voice, if this rings true for the client. I have often observed that speaking a truth often makes an unacknowledged thought concrete, which is empowering because it also creates the possibility of change. This is what Oliver does here. She offers a new way of living. Instead of feeling ashamed, she suggests 'you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves'.

This is a transformation - one that implies compassion for oneself. But she is not content to rest with that. The rest of the poem takes readers out on a journey into nature which she embodies with descriptions of 'soft pebbles of rain' and, of course, the wild geese.

There is a dictum about poetry that should 'show, not tell'. Though there is some telling in the poem also, Oliver more than earns her right to do this because she shows much in the details she describes culminating with the wild geese. In doing this, it enters also the area of exploration I mentioned above. The poem moves into another dimension in which even our sufferings are a part of when she ends it, saying;

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I find it fascinating that Oliver ends with finding a place in the 'family of things'. This is the visionary centre that is in many of her poems.

As I read back over the examples, I notice something else. My therapeutic training is in the integrative-transpersonal tradition, which attempts to address several levels of our being. In one of his essays, Robert Bly suggested poems might reflect what has been called the reptile, mammal, and higher brains. This will give you an idea of how this works. We have in ourselves an instinctual level of existence, as well as an (inter)personal one, but equally there is a higher level, sometimes called the transpersonal. Mary Oliver’s poem here addresses all those levels, and it takes readers into them. This, I would suggest, is why so many people find it so healing and inspirational.

Of course there are many other ways of looking at poems. A poem can provide a snapshot of what is going on inside a person at a given moment. This can happen at several levels: the emotional, the interpersonal, and our meaning in life. All important aspects of living which come into therapy as much as the rest of life. Poetry is about living at all levels of our being.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W2 & SE1
Written by Graham Mummery, Dip Psych, MUKCP
London W2 & SE1

I am a transpersonal psychologist working in London in Private Practice. One of my specialisms is working with the creative imagination, though I also do person centered talking therapy and Gestalt. My book of poems "Meeting My Inners" (Pindrop Press) appeared in 2015 and is available through Amazon.

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