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Poetry and Psychotherapy: Kinships and Contrasts

Both poetry and psychotherapy engender psychological freedom.

Key points

  • The poet is motivated by psychological conflict and initial ideas and inspirations represent the conflict.
  • Both poetry writing and psychotherapy involve working through of conflict and attainment of psychological freedom.
  • Therapy and poetry end with attainment of psychological freedom.

Among the many parallels between the poetic and psychotherapeutic processes, there is the greatest similarity and convergence with respect to psychological freedom.

On a superficial level, this freedom is manifest in the fact that both processes are ended by the central character. The poet decides that her/his poem is finished and the patient decides that s/he has had enough treatment. These decisions are highly subjective and probably always will be so because they are based, in both cases, on the person's own satisfaction with him/herself and his/her products.

In the case of poetry, some editors may insist that a poem requires more work and finally refuse it for publication, but the basic right of the poet to be the final arbiter is always recognized. Indeed, the history of art demonstrates over and over again that poets are not only entitled to this right, but by the standard of later recognition of rejected works, they have almost invariably turned out to be the best judges.

What are the factors that determine the proper endpoint for both poetry and psychodynamic psychotherapy? I believe that the primary factors pertain to psychological freedom, freedom on a deeper level than simply the free decision of when to stop.

In good, explorative psychotherapy, the patient learns about and works through those features of her/his current difficulties produced by antecedent experiences; s/he comes to feel the enslaving and distorting effect of his/her past. S/he becomes free of the need to repeat behavior in the present that is a response to past events.

In the course of good therapy, there is always a range of patient behavior and thought that the therapist knows s/he must not influence but instead must sit back, listen, and allow the patient to handle and develop in her/his own way. This range of behavior and thought comes from the patient's own uniqueness, individual means of creating her/himself, and life on the basis of free or relatively free choice. The successful therapy ends when this type of thought and behavior becomes predominant, when the patient has arrived at or has come close to her/his maximum of psychological freedom and uniqueness.

The patient says this—although may not use these terms, more often s/he will refer to symptoms and say s/he feels better—and the therapist senses that s/he is right and agrees to termination. The decision is truly the patient's, but the therapist provides the kind of feedback that helps the patient feel surer about the course.

I should emphasize that the patient is not ever in a state of perfect calm and repose at the end of therapy. This is not only because s/he is still afraid to leave the therapist at that time, but because s/he suffers from the anxiety which is intrinsically associated with freedom—freedom to choose, freedom to live out a life which inevitably leads to death.

Furthermore, the patient may end therapy at a point when confronting new conflicts. Some of these may still be based on past distortions, but s/he faces them with a new sense of choice and responsibility.

The poetic process also involves a movement toward psychological freedom. The poet is motivated by personal conflict during the writing of a poem, and initial ideas and inspirations are metaphorical expressions of those conflicts. The poetic process involves some degree of working through conflicts and achieving insight. Consequently, there is usually some degree of resolution and a freeing up from the past. The psychological freedom achieved from this aspect of the poetic process is similar to the freedom achieved in psychotherapy and has a similar significance and outcome.

The poetic process differs from psychotherapy in that it is more particularly a stimulation and unearthing of conflict and unconscious material per se. Threatening and anxiety-provoking personal issues unearthed during the inception of a poem and during inspirational experiences are generally not worked through as thoroughly in therapy.

Personal insight occurs in the form of discovery, but these insights are characteristically only a realization that the problem of the poem is one's own. Some therapeutic work on the problem itself may then occur, but it is abortive and usually delayed. A new poem is begun later, and the personal issue often reappears in slightly altered form.

Lest I be misunderstood at this point, let me say immediately that the poet's unearthing of conflict and unconscious material is itself a movement toward psychological freedom. Although accompanied by anxiety, the process of unearthing can provide the poet with some relief from past distortion and excessive repression and suppression. If not overwhelmed, s/he can resolve some of the anxiety during the writing of the poem or eventually find a way to deal with the conflict.

Of course, the process of unearthing conflicts and achieving insight may be going on in life experiences outside of the poetry writing itself. The poem could primarily reflect a process that is more actively carried out elsewhere such as, for example, when a poet is directly undergoing psychotherapy and/or continuing to work on insights.

The actual process of working on a poem, however, with its focus on structure among other things, invites the unearthing and resolution of conflicts and moves the poet toward freedom. Moreover, the poet differs from the patient qua patient alone in not only developing capacity for personal choice, experience, and freedom but also the personal choice, experience, and freedom of the reader. Unlike the patient vis-a-vis the therapist, the poet not only documents her/his own problems and means of working them out in poems, but s/he (often unknowingly) also tries to touch the reader's problems and start the reader on the process of working them out.

This, then, is the role of psychological freedom in the poetic process: the poet struggles with her-his own psyche, manages to unearth some of its deeper and more obscure aspects, and, in doing so, can achieve some relief and resolution of problems as well as a degree of freedom. The good reader of the finished poem empathizes with the poet's struggle for freedom and vicariously experiences some of the poet's relief and resolution.

The reader also experiences wonder and anxiety about the actual unconscious processes revealed. On the one hand, the reader is relieved and reassured to see processes in the poet that are somewhat like her/his own and on the other hand, threatened—all great art is anxiety-provoking to some degree, and s/he may be stimulated to work on or think about conflicts and problems in oneself. When working on these problems after reading the poem or at a much later date, s/he also progresses toward greater psychological freedom.

In sum, the inception of a poem is the beginning of a movement toward psychological freedom. The movement begins with the poet; it stops at some point along the way and it is continued by another person, the reader.

I must emphasize that I am referring only to a particular aspect of the psychological transaction between poet and reader in the writing of a poem; I am not attempting to present here a comprehensive theory of the psychology of aesthetic appreciation or poetic creation. It is an important aspect of the transaction, however, and it does account, in part, for that highly perplexing phenomenon, the poet's decision that a poem is finished.

I am suggesting that the poet arrives at this decision when the forces of struggle and resolution and the anxiety-provoking aspects of the poem are in some kind of balance. Unable to finish until the poem writing provides some relief of tension, and this relief is often reflected in poetic structure e.g., cadence resolution, emphasis, final statement. But s/he also expects and wants to feel that the finished poem is arousing and, although not usually thinking of this explicitly, that the poem is anxiety-provoking and propels both her/him and a reader toward greater psychological freedom.

I do not think the psychotherapist experiences the push toward freedom at the end of therapy in the same way as the reader of a completed poem. The therapist may vicariously experience the patient's movement toward freedom and may appropriately feel s/he has learned something which applies to her/his own life and own uniqueness as well as to further patients. If the patient makes new and meaningful personal choices with a new sense of freedom, these choices may enlarge the therapist's vistas, too.

I think, however, that the therapist primarily re-experiences her/his own struggle toward independence with each patient treated and does not necessarily move toward greater personal freedom. In good therapy, s/he has developed a unique interaction with a unique person and, in that sense, both have developed and undergone something approaching poetic experience. Therapy ends because the freed patient says so.