News & Views » Headcase

Poetic Medicine

John Fox teaches the healing power of verse


A few months ago, the online magazine published a story about poet Sylvia Plath's psychiatrist, Ruth Barnhouse. Plath killed herself in 1963, 10 years after an earlier suicide attempt that led to her initial meeting of Barnhouse.

The author of the Salon piece, Karen Maroda, interviewed Barnhouse, who died not long afterward. In her article, Maroda basically argues that psychoanalysis prolonged Plath's life. But she also questions how appropriate Barnhouse's relationship with Plath was, since she sometimes overstepped the boundaries normally governing therapeutic relationships. There is even the hint of lesbian attachment in Maroda's piece and the general implication that had Barnhouse followed the rules more carefully, Plath might have lived even longer.

I found Maroda's contention that psychoanalysis prolonged Plath's life dubious and reductive. I wrote a letter to Salon contending that it was poetry, not psychoanalysis, that kept her alive. It was clear, even in Maroda's piece, that Barnhouse acted to stimulate and support Plath's imagination. It struck me as profoundly odd that in an essay that is largely about the therapeutic relationship, it never occurred to Maroda to ask Barnhouse what she might have learned about the psyche from Plath, whose poetry is, as I put it in my letter, "full of images capable of both destabilizing and stabilizing the psyche. One reads them and feels how every imagination contains the worlds of Bosch and Monet."

I got a lot of e-mail from psychotherapists all over the country after Salon published my letter, most of them curious how I could make the claim that poetry can heal the psyche. That revealed to me again how censored education in psychology has become as its practical application, therapy, is treated more and more like an empirical science. That was never Freud's intention. He told an Italian interviewer in 1934, "I am a scientist by necessity, and not by vocation. I am really by nature an artist." He explained that psychoanalysis had been better understood by writers and artists than by doctors and that his work was mostly indebted to literary masters, especially the poet Goethe.

Carl Jung, Freud's intellectual heir who also became his competitor, issued similar statements toward the end of his life. He explained that, like Freud, to be taken seriously he had to present himself as a scientist but that he'd come to realize that much of what he did was actually artistic.

You have the opportunity this weekend to experience the power of poetry when John Fox presents a workshop at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Atlanta (1447 Church St., Decatur) on Sat., April 30, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Fox, a leader in the poetry therapy movement, is author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. (Call 404-370-9650 to register.)

I interviewed Fox about five years ago and we agreed that poetry heals because, unlike much psychotherapy, it is not reductive. While most therapy tends to bring people constantly back to their personal biography, always stressing the literal, poetry employs metaphors that evoke the imagination and helps us open to the greater story we are part of. Poetry also tends to focus on the strangeness and oddity of experience, celebrating it, whereas much psychotherapy is undertaken with an agenda of normalization.

Thus, Fox's workshop on Saturday is themed "Edges, Risks and Connections: How Poetry Can Help You Stay Balanced and Compassionate in a Crazy World." Fox says, "If a person lives in a way that stands for justice, tolerance and tenderness, that commitment may mean that he or she is called to step outside their comfort zone, rise above the popular status quo, reach beyond personal limitation and sometimes, walk a path others may not validate."

In my own work, I approach the psychological through images and thus as an aesthetic subject. I often hear clients protest that the imaginal is not "real" and that to absorb oneself in it is escapist. But the reality is that we are all living in the world of the imagination all of the time. It is a fact that the earth circles the sun, for example, but the notion is absurd to the imagination. Thus we speak of the rising and setting sun, just as the Greeks depicted the sun as Apollo's chariot moving across the sky, even when they knew the scientific facts. The imagination gives expression to our experience and thus is as real as what we call empirical reality. Freud provides an excellent example. He describes a kiss as contact "between the mucous membrane of the lips of the two people concerned." But, as author and depth psychologist Robert Romanyshyn observes, "As a fact that is correct. But whoever kisses with such an attitude will, indeed, never wholly kiss you."

Poetry, as any reader of Valentine's Day cards knows, is especially powerful at expressing the world as it is experienced by the heart, classically regarded as the organ of the imagination. When we give voice to our hearts, as Fox urges us to do, we can anchor ourselves in what we imagine rather than in the things that would make us crazy.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

Add a comment