Nachmanovitch on Poetry Therapy

“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”

Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play is one of the best books on the inner game of art I have ever read (Mastery and The War of Art being others). So when I came across a transcript of the lecture he gave to the National Association of Poetry Therapy in 2000–available on his web site–I was keen to read it.

He relates to the therapeutic power of poetry, through theories of Gregory Bateson, as a kind of anti-solipsism and anti-myopia. That is, “there is a pathology inherent in all conscious thinking, and that pathology comes from taking a small linear segment of a circle of causation and taking it to be the whole thing,” which is, “related to our illusory notion of the self–to our view of taking that which we are able to consciously scan, in our own processes, in our own thoughts, our own feelings, our own memories … to be the whole.” Furthermore, he says activities like poetry “help us to perceive that the self is a provisional, illusory construct that’s useful for certain limited kinds of activity–but it’s not the whole Self.”

He later points out that cathartic or therapeutic poetry does not necessarily make for lasting or meaningful art. I would go further in pointing out that not all contemporary poetry necessarily strives, even unconsciously, for some awareness of the Self. Yet, at the same time, I still think one of the highest potentials of the form is this quality of encompassing. After all, one of the most fundamental properties of poetry is its ability to encompass qualities of perception and “truth” unavailable in the linear thought patterns of prose. Therefore both the reading and writing of poetry is an exercise in plumbing some nonlinear depth (or transcendental height) and is, by definition, this reconnection to a larger circle of consciousness, a less segmented, fragmented truth. And, as I have said before, such truths matter now more than ever.