Nachmanovitch on Poetry Therapy

“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”

 — Novalis

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.

Poetry As Survival

“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s”
-William Blake, “Jerusalem”

What can I say about this book? It has been a life raft for me. I resonated with Orr’s sentiments from the very first page, and have unfolded in this book a beautiful articulation of what I have been experiencing lately in my relationship to art. Orr speaks with the authority of one who has observed himself keenly in the process of living and writing. He draws equally on research, insight, and experience to illuminate the transformative power of poetry. In the first half he lays out his theories, in the second he traces connections through Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, and Wilfred Owen.

Where I was once scoffingly skeptical of the notion of “art therapy”, I now have a renewed understanding of the purpose and power of poetry. To the commenter on the Books, Inq. blog who hopes, “the simple stuff by humans does survive, and continues to reach people,” I can say that Orr illustrates a key facet of the power and importance of this “simple stuff by humans” — the power to heal not only the author but to communicate a more fully integrated experience of life to the reader as well. As long as we will be struggling with order and disorder, trauma and hope, we will continue to make meaningful art. Thanks to Sarah for nudging me toward this book. It is a gem.

A Crisis of the Personal in Poetry?

I’ve been following some of Ron Silliman’s recent posts about the effect he and Gabe Gudding have been tracing of “McPoem” — cookie-cutter work based on personal experience churned out through the business of MFA programs — on the course of poetry in the past thirty years. Ron’s musings on Gudding seem to imply a strong connection between, “self-expression as a means of growth” and poems expressed badly. I don’t know the inner workings of the multitude of MFA programs available today, but from personal experience as a modern writer navigating the straits between sentimentalism and just mentalism, I can relate to and speak to the notion that poetry should be personal.

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