Teaching Poetry to Adolescents With Schizophrenia

Facilitating the capacity of the mentally ill to create poetry.

Posted May 26, 2020

Adolescence is often a fruitful a time for writing poetry. Teaching poetry writing to adolescents suffering from schizophrenia is difficult, but it highlights some problems of the everyday classroom because so much of these students’ writing seems good. The teaching exercise here illustrates some of the issues in  transformations between schizophrenia and poetic creativity.

The unleashed unconscious processes coming to the surface in schizophrenia undoubtedly account in part for some of the startling and vivid combinations of words and images in speech and in writing. In other words, the patient's problems have disrupted his poetry; his thought travels along lines dictated by his anxiety and his dependency on some ideal reader to understand him rather than along the lines of the categories dictated by the poetry itself.

Cardinal among the difficulties in schizophrenic thinking is such difficulty in developing and using categories pertaining to the external world. Words, thoughts, and objects are brought together on the basis of superficial (or internally meaningful) resemblances rather than on logical, useful, or aesthetic grounds. Consequently, schizophrenic thinking often produces disjunctive, new, and idiosyncratic combinations, some of which are vivid, poetic, or dazzlingly abstract. But the indiscriminate violation of external categories produces disunity in ordinary discourse, sometimes actual incoherence and disunity in poetry as well.

A student, very caught up with alliteration—the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words—produced a poem with some typical forms of word coinages or neologisms:

yellow kanabaris

 squared rambrewfully

 words written in tears

 elaborating on boxes

 tomorrow and today

 light up your cigarettes

 frantic f**kers filling space

 time warons ticking

 remembering he who's lost

 insulting impenetrable virgins

 bangers of the brain

 tall walls crumble cumbersomely

 as metallic metaphors are slaves to all.

In another poem, he pushed alliteration further:

majestic marmalade man

 what's that sparkle in your eye

 sadly lost souls sink

 while collaborating caucuses condemn

 peel off paper past

 repent remorse regret

 mainlining memories maim

 as crystallizing cages conceal all


 hopeless healing hickeys

 mordacious morbid mothering myth

 demoralized dimensions diluted by tears

 sorry yesterday

 try and forget your loneliness.

In these poems, the words "rambrewfully" and "warons" are clear examples of word condensation or combinations based on some problematic and internally meaningful resemblance. In context, they are not equally problematic: "rambrewfully" seems to convey some concrete aspect of the drug experience of the poem, while "warons" is totally incomprehensible. Working with this student, we wouldn't necessarily pay much attention to these words, except for letting him know we didn't understand "warons" at all (is it from "wears on?"). But we would be concerned with the alliteration in both poems because it is here that the poet seems to lose hold of a category that is potentially quite powerful.

Linking words and thoughts on the basis of alliteration comes very easily in schizophrenia; it is a cardinal characteristic of the process of paying attention to superficial resemblances. But alliteration in poetry is far more than that. Therefore, we would approach the alliterative sequences in the following way: first by repeating back to the student the monotonous rhythms, particularly of the penultimate lines in the second poem depending on the "m" and "d" alliteration, and asking if they related well to the rhythms before and after them; then by breaking down the alliterative sequence and asking about such combinations as "demoralized dimensions" and "dimensions diluted" to see if the poet really felt they fit together.

The fruits of such labors are rewarding because the student learns that sound and alliteration is not arbitrary and that such connections as "tall" and the "tall" of "metallic" do not justify the use of the forced and intrusive last line of the first poem. Poetic categories of sound, rhythm, and imagery are just as real as any other category in the external world.

It turns out, then, that the attempt to help the schizophrenic poet to organize his original images, words, sounds, and metaphors into a poetically meaningful unity is directed at a basic thinking problem and is therefore therapeutically as well as artistically sound. But let's not be antiseptically formalistic about it; the things the poet is saying bear scrutiny as well. And here we run into very tricky complications, complications that in the end may only be resolved by taste, intuition, and other imponderables. For, despite what I say about the intrusion of the student-patient's problems into his writing, poetry should be personal, introspective, and arresting. The line between the pathological and the powerful or the poignant is often very fine, and when confronted with a decision in a particular case, there is a great temptation to withdraw and be laissez-faire, if not helping, at least doing no harm.

I think the key to resolving the issue lies in an assessment of the emotional burden the poet is placing on the reader. Clearly, I am not now referring to the degree of difficulty in understanding a poem or resonating with it, but the feeling that the poet is primarily hanging out his dirty linen, asking the reader to do something for him, respond to him as a person rather than to the poem or the world of the poem. Poetry, like all good literature, is both emotionally and intellectually meaningful.