In New Jersey even bridges are named after poets. Extending over the Delaware River, the Walt Whitman Bridge connects two distinct cultural communities. To the north is Philadelphia, the proud American town where Thomas Jefferson laboured over the Declaration of Independence and Betsy Ross stitched up a national flag. To the south are the suburban communities of New Jersey, family oriented beach towns, and Atlantic City with its gaudiness, glitter, gambling, prostitution and crime. ‘Only a bridge named after a poet could manage to unite such diverse idioms of life’, so wrote psychoanalyst and poet, Salman Akhtar in his essay, ‘The poet who became a bridge‘, which has inspired this post.
Each of us harbours within our minds two distinct personalities; the logical, rational, sensible self that keeps to the rules and tries to do what is best and the spontaneous, emotional, intuitive self that just reacts to situations and doesn’t always see the consequences. When we are functioning well, these two aspects of self work together, the intuitive side sees the opportunities and the rational side works out the strategy; the logical side sets the boundaries for the fun-loving side to experience the joys of life; the emotional side senses the danger while the sensible side draws on knowledge and experience to work out the solution. It’s when these two seemingly divergent aspects get out of balance and cease to function in synchrony that we get ill.
Emotional upset and illness, even illness like IBS, can arise from failure to resolve conflicts over what has happened our lives. So when we let our irritation get to us and dominate our actions; when we feel so hopeless, we cannot function; when greed overwhelms good nutrition, desire good sense, or when we stick too much to the sensible and cannot let ourselves respond to our needs and desires; such imbalance creates emotional tension which may beget illness.
Poetry bridges these two states of mind to re-establish a sense of coherence and unity. It blends connotation and prosody, the meaning and the phonetic to get to the heart of what has happened. Like in a dream, it expresses emotion that lies too deep for words blending it with scenario to create a meaningful narrative. Poetry informs us about our innermost feelings by bringing them to mind. It links the different natures of culture: the ‘paternal’, emphasising instruction, search, autonomy and mastery and the maternal, valuing emotion, affirmation, soothing and relatedness.
Poetry, like the brain, works by association and uses metaphor and meaning. It requires an optimal balance of emotion and logic; too much of the former renders it sentimental and idiosyncratic; too much of the latter and it becomes didactic and sermon-like. Like other art forms, the meaning of poetry has to be accessible; too self absorbed and abstract and it loses its effect.
Read the following few lines from Emily Dickinson. Say them to yourself – then again – more slowly and with emphasis.
Pain – so utter
It swallows the substance up,
And then covers the abyss with a trance.
Consider the sound of the words: the harsh, hard sound of utter, the softer, seductive alliteration of substance, abyss and trance. Look at the isolation of ‘Pain’. Think of the connotations. The worst psychic pain anyone experiences is the loss of someone or something so fundamental that it represents loss of a major part of themselves. This is the pain that swallows up the essence of oneself leaving a dreadful empty, sinking feeling in the stomach. For survival’s sake, this may then be suppressed by a process of dissociation, blotting out the memory and leaving a dreadful sensation of physical pain.
The component devices of poetry: metre, rhyme, alliteration, simile, metaphor, the music of the words, where the lines break, evokes the schism only to overcome it.
The healing power of poetry encourages a creative kindling of the right and left brain. The prosody and imagery of the right brain are enlisted by the linguistic power of the left to rework the memory, creating a cognitive state of harmony that silences the reactive centres in the brain stem and their connections with the body. Like play, faith and love, poetry resides in the ‘intermediate area of experience’. Neither fact nor hallucination, it brings reality and imagination together, accommodating both with metaphor and meaning. Going to the heart of the matter, it heals the dichotomies of life that underpin anxiety, despair, envy, greed with recognition and meaning, using words to darn the hole left by trauma in ‘the sleeve of care’ and re-establishing continuity.
Read two lines three times a day with water.
This post was inspired by a seminar delivered by Salman Akhtar at The Freud Museum, London on November 20th and his recent volume of poetry, Between Hours: A Collection of Poems by Psychoanalysts.