Gary Lehmann - Author

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Is Poetry Therapy?

I’m going to turn a little dogmatic on you and lay out a rule about poetry. I call it Rule #1, because it is the first and, so far as I know, only rule that is absolute in poetry. I believe that poetry is always personal. What I believe is that regardless of the ostensible subject, a poem is always a statement about some aspect of the poet’s immediate life, even if the poet does not understand the true implication of the words on the page at the time.

In poetry, a tree is NOT just a tree. There are no poems about trees. Nothing described in poetry has meaning except as it relates to a human experience. That is, there is no other subject for poetry but life. A poem may contain a tree, but it is about the relationship between a tree and some human feeling or experience reflected in some aspect of the tree. Anything described in a poem must ultimately relate back to human enterprises and more specifically the human involvement of the poet. These may seem like extremely dogmatic statements, but I’m resolved to stick with them.

The “two roads” in a wood described by Frost only have meaning as poetry in so far as they relate to human indecision, and more specifically Frost’s indecision. Mere description for its own sake is insufficient in poetry. If Shakespeare says, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" he means I am comparing thee to a summers day, and it is as passing as thy beauty. Beyond that he is saying “Looking at you reminds me of my own mortality.” Poets write about themselves. There is always a human connection that leads right back to the poet.

Since poetry is always personal, it contains the stuff of therapy in it, but it has been cunningly disguised by the human mind of the poet. As the poet we are rarely capable of discerning what our poems really mean. Just because we have written the words does not mean that we are immediately prepared to understand what they are saying to us or others. Oddly enough, someone who is hearing our poem for the first time is more likely than we to understand its real center. This is a common experience for poets.

Many times, I’ve encountered a poem I wrote many years ago only to discover what it meant for the first time. Suddenly, the way I was seeing things makes perfect sense in terms of what was going on in my life at the time. It’s so blatantly obvious, I feel that I should have understood it years ago, even as I wrote it, but I didn’t. The human mind is so facile and clever that it can buy into the most transparent fiction. That is not to say that poetry is useless as personal therapy. Once we’ve moved on, we seem better able to move back.

To illustrate, let’s use Elizabeth Bishop and her poem “One Art.” She was first and foremost an extremely private person. Her background dictated that. She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911. When she was just eight months old, her father, a well-to-do builder from a wealthy New England family, died suddenly. Her mother lost her mental footing in grief and over the next five years suffered a series of mental break-downs that formed the chief memory of Elizabeth’s early childhood. Finally, when things reached a crisis stage, her mother was institutionalized in Halifax, Canada, and Elizabeth lost all contact with her forever.

Such a traumatic childhood is bound to create a fragile and uncertain child. Much of the time, Elizabeth spent her time being shuttled between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father’s family in New England. Shy and withdrawn, she spent most of her college years at Vassar in the background. Then in 1934 in her senior year, she took a daring gamble and arranged through a librarian friend to get herself introduced to the much-admired older poet, Marianne Moore. The meeting did not go smoothly. Two shy people are naturally at a loss for words. Finally, they agreed to attend the circus together. There they discovered they had a lot in common, aside from a love of snakes, tattoos, and elephants, and became lifelong friends.

As an adult, Elizabeth Bishop lived quietly and kept close contact with her few friends by writing hundreds of letters to them. Elizabeth Bishop used letter writing the way some poets use journals or diaries. Every day she wrote things down. Whatever came to mind was okay. Bishop’s letters are mostly recount mundane daily occurrences, but while the ink flowed once in a rare while, a great idea slipped from the tip of the pen to the face of the letter.

Bishop used her letter writing to pan for gold. That is how she found her nuggets. Events, images, feelings, relationships, fears, loves, hates, fun, frantic run-ins are all part of the record of daily life. In the years after college, from 1937 to 1951, she managed to live a vagabond existence out of residential hotels and a suitcase she managed to open in New York, Key West, Europe, Cape Cod and Maine. In 1951, he got violently ill while visiting in Rio and was offered sanctuary to recuperate in the home of a Brazilian aristocrat named Lota de Macedo Soares.

The two women fell in love and lived very happily together for the next 15 years. This was the only real period of stability in Elizabeth Bishop’s turbulent life. To remain in touch with her North American friends, Elizabeth had to become a prolific letter writer.

By contrast, she wrote poetry extremely slowly. During her lifetime, she only published 101 poems. She was so meticulous about her words that she gained a reputation as a poet’s poet. In fact, she worked on the short poem “One Art” for 15 years. Each time she had what she thought was a finished copy, she pinned it up on her wall. Everyday she scanned it revealed new ideas which generated changes. She penciled them in until the next time she typed up the corrections and posted the new version of the poem for extended contemplation.

So let’s look at “One Art” to see if we can discern 15 years of content in it. Was she just wasting her time?

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost
that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day.
Accept the flusterof lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:places, and names,
and where it was you meant to travel.
None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch.
And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.
And, vaster,some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gestureI love)
I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Well, you have to admit that it is a pretty good poem, but at first blush, I would wonder if that much revision was actually necessary. I’m tempted to wonder how many perfectly fine versions of this poem were discarded before this one arrived, and how many poems were repressed to give this one life. One assumes that other things crept into her agenda during that period and very likely some writing and other poetry as well. No one can live for 15 years with only one object in view.

The question still remains, “What could she have been up to for all those years to make these precious words worthwhile?” Perhaps these words had symbolic meaning for her. Her whole life was a contest between “master” and “disaster.” Just as the poem stanzas alternately end with these words, we sense that the outcome with her is likewise uncertain. She led a life of losing things and probably needed to consider the art of losing in order to determine what is worth fighting to retain, if anything. Perhaps the poem should be seen as a continuing argument for life over death.

But, truth is a moving target. What seems right at one time appears differently at another. We use different words to describe our special understanding of truth, because the challenges that face us one day are gone the next and something new needs sifting out. There are 17 distinct versions of this poem in the Bishop Collection at Vassar Library. “One Art,” like many of her other poems, reverberates with innuendos of undefined philosophical depth. Much of the repetition in the poem is required by her use of the villanelle* format. There is a dark, ironic quality in the poem as she skirts the ultimate admission that losing things is a disaster after all.

The poem is demanding and unsettling, with a kind of Emily Dickinson quality that is cool and detached. The voice of the poem is nostalgic, even romantic about all that has been lost, but there is a countervailing threat of cruelty as well. She seems always on the verge of revealing a new tragedy she has been unable to face.

Elizabeth Bishop may have been somewhat obsessive about this poem. She may have had a compulsive need to go back over the issue of losing, especially now that she had someone important in her life whose loss would be a real disaster. She may have struggling to find a philosophically sustainable basis for life. This poem may not be so much the accumulation of her thinking on the subject of loss as the culmination point of the process she needed to go through in order to help herself heal from a lifetime of losing.

Unfortunately, her relationship with Lota began to break down in the early 1960s and terminated when Lota committed suicide in New York in 1967 after straining herself too far on a giant parks project in Rio. Many people blamed Elizabeth for the death, which undoubtedly made the issue of loss even more significant to her.

Bishop returned to the United States and settled in Boston where she had to start life all over again. Though most of her poetry avoids the openly confessional style of her friend Robert Lowell, Bishop used images of the real world to reflect the deeply turbulent emotional world within. Ironically, though her last ten years were full of honors and prestigious teaching assignments, her poetic output declined to just one poem a year before her death in 1979 when she had just one thing left to lose.

1863 words

* The Villanelle is a 16th century French poetic form in imitation of an Italian folk song. It contains six stanzas [5 tercets and 1 quatrain] each with two rhymes in two lines repeated in a pattern.