Psychosis and the Creation of Poetry

Good poetry results from cognitive creation not primarily unconcious upsurges.

Posted Oct 22, 2016

Schizophrenic Patient-Verbatim Transcript :

I've never been confused as much as I have been  recently. Confusion was nothing to me.It was fun. I loved art, I loved to have my hands in every single thing I could get them in. And when I'm here I don't have the facilities to dig in the garden and put my feet in the mud and I just can't stand that ...feeling. I, I need to be free like most of us do, because I feel like a bird when I'm up in the air for any length. I feel like a bird when I'm skiing, I feel like I could fly if I really tried but I wouldn't try because-hee, hee-it's beyond my power. Maybe someday they'll perfect it so that a person can fly without ... walking. But they better hurry up!  Because there's too many guys on the road right now. "

 There is no doubt about it: people suffering from schizophrenia say the darndest things. As a matter of fact, people suffering from schizophrenia, even when on medication, often say or write things that are intriguing, ambiguous, even metaphorical. Seemingly poetic, profound, and meaningful words and ideas virtually pour out at times. Also, it has been true that very good poets, even great ones, are sometimes quite disturbed.  Does this mean we have to take sides? Despite what I have written previously about the specific nonpsychotic janusian, homospatial, and sep-con articulation processes in creativity, do we have to assume that there may be some affinity between the poetic imagination and mental illness especially schizophrenia? Or, should we take up lance and charge St. George-like against monstrous intimations about the poets and the poetry we love? Worse still, do we claim that schizophrenia and related conditions are valid states of being in a crazy world and that the suffering of the severely disturbed person is yet a noble and necessary concomitant of greatness, poetic vision, and true morality? None of these assertions are valid with respect to poetry or to any other field of creativity. Asserting that a poet is schizophrenic or that a poem grew in part from schizophrenic thought processes should not be a value judgment about the poet or the poem; poetry and people are judged by their effects, not by illness or any other forces that made them the way they are. Rather, ill people are judged by what they do about their illnesses.

 The payoff in considering the relationship between schizophrenia and poetry comes from a quarter other than the time-worn arena in which heroic assertions are fought out. It has often been alleged in recent times by poets, teachers, and mental health professionals that poetry is-or should be-a direct outpouring of unconscious processes, a precept derived from the erroneous mystique alleging unconscious sources of all creativity. As a result, some teaching of poetry writing, both at the adult and college level, emphasizes helping students to "free up," become unstifled, or to get in touch with their basic feelings and conflicts. Refraining from direct criticisms of their students' poetry, teachers-as often as not, teachers who are themselves poets-focus on students themselves and talk with them about their lives, their experiences, and their problems. Now, the schizophrenic psychotic condition happens to be the natural testing ground for the kind of position these quasi-therapist teachers take. In a technical sense, direct outpouring of unconscious processes is the sine qua non of schizophrenia because persons suffering from this condition are unable to marshal the defenses and other adaptive forms of mastery which keep these processes under wraps for most of us. If poetry were really the result of a direct outpouring of unconscious processes, schizophrenia and poetic creativity would be equivalent. But there is no need to invoke such an easily rejected straw man to justify a consideration of poetry and schizophrenia or, more specifically poetry composed by persons with schizophrenia; teaching poetry writing is complicated enough, and despite the weakness of their theory, some teachers may help students with a understanding approach. As a matter of fact, teaching poetry writing to schizophrenic students is dazzlingly difficult, but it highlights problems of the broadly available poetry classroom on the one hand and, in addition to focusing on important literary issues on the other, corrections of poetic structure and meaning potentially aid schizophrenic patients with the cognitive déficits of their condition. Also, much of these students' writing can turn out to be good.

Here is a poem by a person suffering from schizophrenia :

time for some concern for her wishes, hopes;      

 time for cry for the pain he caused.

time to be at peace with my disappointments.        

time for the good-bye embracement I never had.     

time for my wander soul to be reborn into something better than the past….                          

fragrant lesbians walk by                         

chrome and spark plugs ignite explosive thoughts  

sometimes I wonder where my                       

father is but know his sanity                         

is on vacation with him.                              

my anorexic girlfriend                             

vomits in her hatred of me.                           

my mother tells me to paint                          

on her canvas but has blown off                        

my hands with the shotgun that                       

she holds cocked in her hands                      

aimed at my legs which are quivering                

with fear of my long awaited journey  to Jerusalem.

 Is the arresting image of the mother with the gun in her hand too strong or overdramatic for the rest of the poem, or is it the best part of the poem and requires more prior development and coherence with the other images used? Here, a therapist’s question comes to the fore: is the student so motivated to communicate his difficulties to a sympathetic listener that the thought about his mother intrudes to disrupt the instances of tight and exciting poetic language and structures of the stanza, "fragrant lesbians walk by"; "spark plugs ignite explosive thoughts"; "his sanity is on vacation with him"?

Make no mistake about it, the therapeutic question about this section of the poem is a creative writing teacher's question as well. Should the teacher try to help this student with the poem by entering into a discussion of the thoughts and feelings alluded to in these lines in the hope that further revelation and/or resolution of those feelings will make for better poetry (and incidentally be therapeutic for him as well)? No, that seems to be the wrong tack. Year after year in numerous teaching settings, such an approach has been tried, and the result has been that neither the writer nor the poetry gets any better. There are complex reasons that this should be so, but the essential matter is the nature of the creative writing enterprise: the student is consciously attempting to write poetry, not engaging in psychotherapy. A teacher's focusing on the communication of problems reinforces rather than alleviates a disruptive tendency in his poetry writing and, in the end, frustrates him. There are many ways around this difficulty. One of the ways good creative writing teachers (and therapists) have found to be meaningful is to emphasize the goal of poetic unity. To illustrate this approach:

TEACHER :The last stanza is, I think, quite exciting. There are many vivid images, and the emotional impact is strong. But let's look at some of the images to see what's going on:

--fragrant lesbians walk by

--ignite explosive thoughts                           

--his sanity is on vacation with him

Sanity on vacation Used with permission
Source: Sanity on vacation Used with permission

-vomits in her hatred of me  

--paint on her canvas                                 

--blown off my hands                                  

--my long awaited journey to jerusalem-

Do you see any difficulty here? No? Well, sure, taking something in poetry out of context always distorts it, but let's forget about that for the moment and see if we can understand something about what seems not to work in the poem. You can't? Well, here's the question: do all these images fit together? The phrases "fragrant lesbians walk by,» "chrome and spark plugs ignite explosive thoughts," "his sanity is on vacation with him," and "my long awaited journey to jerusalem" all seem related to each other and to the context of the poem. You, the poetic speaker are sitting and waiting; these images all relate to some content or action, for example, people walking by, cars passing, going on vacation, taking a journey. Oh yes, there's another theme: you move from lesbians to your girlfriend to your mother. And, of course, the shotgun aimed at your legs has a good deal to do with your waiting, your journey, and perhaps even your father's sanity being on vacation with him. So what? Well, how does the anorexic vomiting fit in, or, interesting and evocative as it is, how does your mother telling you to "paint on her canvas" sound in relation to these other ideas and images? What should you do? Work on the poem more, we think. The images we talked about, some of them, are very telling and poetic: the sanity on vacation, the shotgun aimed at your legs, and perhaps even the fragrant lesbians. See what more you can do with it all.

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