Psychology of a Poem

Poetic Psychology has nothing to do with psycho-analyzing a poem, nor must one assume that something need be fixed. Poetic Psychology can imply using poetry as psychotherapy, a kind of cathartic, symbol-penetrating process through our own more-than-conscious minds. In fact, I'd suggest that almost all creative writing has some element of self-exploration or self-understanding involved, whether the writers realize it or not.

          Poem as Person

In this instance though, I use the term "Poetic Psychology" to discuss a poem as a person, as a psyche or living entity. Its body is formed of letters, words and punctuation. Its mind is the meaning it engenders. It lives in a phenomenological sense, because it interacts with those who read or hear it. Sure, we're told that only we humans and other biotic life are "alive" but such assumptions ignore the agency and power of the rest of our universe. Who has not experienced the shaping impact of a well-written story, poem or speech? Who has not been changed or altered in some way by the force of words, whether spoken in love or hate? Thus, poems are "alive"--perhaps not biologically, but ecologically, yes.

Animistic peoples around the world imbue personhood to more than just humans. There are animal people, plant people, dream people, rock people, even words. Such an awareness forces us to look to the more-than-human as the whole of which we are a part, not exclusive human and "everything else." Poems as persons are agents of wholeness. Noel G. Charlton, in his analysis of anthropologist Gregory Bateson's work, writes about wholeness, art and the "more-than-conscious mind" (his term) in Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth:
A complementary aspect of "wholeness" is Bateson's understanding of mind as being largely unconscious. As we have seen, he thinks our conscious minds are secondary and potentially dangerous. What Freud called "primary process," which I prefer to label "more -than-conscious mind," is the much greater whole, containing evolutionary and somatic learning and in which artistic process is fully enabled. Because consciousness presents to us only a skewed sample of the total workings of mind it is always difficult for us to imagine or realize the tremendous integration of that wholeness. This is, teaches Bateson, one of the tasks of art: we can make iconic or symbolic representations of the greater wholes, which can give us access to that greatness. Such representations enable our access to a metaphorical or nonverbal understanding of wholeness. Whenever we engage with the aesthetic we are distancing ourselves from conscious literal understanding in order to see the larger whole. It follows from these considerations of wholeness that all definitions of beauty or aesthetic must refer to examples of the beautiful within their context. This will be necessarily true because the pattern connects all scales of experience: context is inescapable. (143-144)
Such is the power and place of poetry in our world. When we give birth to new poems we give birth to new beings, to new possible ways of being. Thus the writing process is a birth, the mother is "context" or more-than-conscious mind, while writer and editor act as midwife. This is not a task to undertake flippantly. It requires we nurture and coax, sometimes even "discipline" (fierce editing, oh fierce editing) in order to help the poem reach maturity.

Approaching each poem or written piece as an individual lifts the creative process from purposeless to meaningful, just as good poetry should lift our own minds or psyches beyond the reaches of normal habitual thought and perception.

          Poem as Psyche

Poetry as a psyche (or body-mind) acts as a bridge, a channel between our own psyches (body-minds) and the more-than-conscious psyche, that is, the body-mind of the earth itself. Heraclitus, perhaps one of the first Western psychologists, said that the psyche was boundless, with depths beyond our searching--"You could not find the ends of soul (psyche) though you traveled every way, so deep is its knowing (logos)." This is why I prefer the term "more-than-conscious" mind to the "unconscious" and "subconscious." As Noel Charlton pointed out, our minds are much bigger than just our consciousness. Unlike the traditional idea of "soul," I do not see psyche as separate from the body. That's why I call psyche a "body-mind" as it emphasizes the somatic, evolutionary wisdom ingrained in our very cells. Indeed, some psychology theorists have begun to equate the unconscious as our actual bodies. Thus, when we experience trauma or stress, joy and ecstasy--they are not just "mental" and "emotional" experiences, but physical, impacting our health and well-being.

          Putting Poetry as People into Practice

I came up with the idea of Feral Poetry after I began seeing my poems as people. It struck me how poetry can be just as neurotic, even psychotic, as ourselves. In our modern literate world, everyone seems to be a poet or writer. There is an inundation of creative output, all of it "valid" but often lacking the depth of practice (see this page) necessary to be responsible, mature and significant in its contribution to the greater Conversation. That's not to say that every poem must be a grandiose perfection, but art, if it is shared, should be conscious of its audience ... should be worth their time and energy to read/hear.

This is why it's so important to develop our own authentic voice in writing -- and more importantly, to allow each piece to develop its own voice and authenticity. That's why some poems feel "contrived" or as though they are imitating someone else. This is to be avoided if good poetry is our aim. And this is why I will argue that as writers and poets, as well as readers, we must learn to set aside our own egos and biases as much as possible, in order to engage with living words on their own terms, not just ours.

Likewise, poems themselves, like people, have egos that get in the way of their authentic truth. Others run around in circles, clouded by heavy metaphor and sensory description, unable to step back for a moment to understand. More commonly I've noticed poems obsessed with the Shadow side of the psyche--all monsters, death, murderers and sex-offenders. These have their place, but are not enough in and of themselves. Other poems are shallow bimbos, materialistic, clingy, too attached to their own appearance and sound to hold any real power. There are also "nice" poems--sunny side up but with no balancing shadow; in some ways they are the opposite of poems obsessed with Shadow. Instead they are fixated on "sweetness and light." And then there is Feral Poetry ... poetry that has broken free and allowed to follow its own way. Truly wild and untamed poetry is as endangered as any of our other ancient species, and it is just as important to our well being as humans and a planet as any other member of this planetary ecosystem.

With such an inundation of "words" around us all the time, poetry must learn how to be feral, how to ask the uncomfortable questions, how to shed its skin and be at home in its body, in essence--how to be a poem again.

          Avoiding Poetic Neurosis

One of the greatest obstacles to releasing poetry back into its wild nature is neurosis, in both ourselves and the poems themselves. When we are neurotic readers and writers, we try too hard, we place too much expectation or projection onto the poems -- we don't allow them to be themselves. This doesn't mean that there isn't a great deal of work involved. Excellency always requires skill or right action. Instead, I refer to our common ability to get in the way, giving rise to numerous misunderstandings and inaccurate ideas.

Neurotic poetry is poetry that likewise has become self-conscious and lost in a maze of meaningless metaphors. They speak but say nothing. They are ghosts of who they could be. What Jung said about his clients can also be applied to neurotic poetry: "I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life."* Poetry is neurotic when it ceases to be curious, when it becomes self-satisfied, narrow-minded and willfully ignorant. Good poetry concerns itself with seeking, with growing, with never becoming complacent or "arrived."

Even more telling though is neurotic poetry's inability to mature. It is stunted in complexity, depth and variety, for neurosis is defined as the "poor ability to adapt to one's environment, an inability to change one's life patterns, and the inability to develop a richer, more complex, more satisfying personality." ** Neurotic poetry is stuck in a rut ... it has writer's block ... stopped evolving, stopped contributing to that never-ending Conversation. This is poetry that needs to be transformed, awakened, to undergo the Hero(ine)'s Quest in order to claim its right to its Poetic Heritage. Feral poetry is not perfect by any means, but it has done just that.

And before you can write Feral Poetry, you have to learn how to do the same things, how to reclaim your humanity, your senses, your innate curiosity, wonder and place in the world. I suppose Feral Poetry then is a path. It's a path to becoming feral ourselves.

*Jung, C. G. [1961, 1989]. "Memories, Dreams, Reflections." New York, NY: Vantage Books.
** Boeree, Dr. C. George (2002). "A Bio-Social Theory of Neurosis."