A certain person in my house is taking a class on poetry as therapy. It is easy for me to imagine how the act of writing might be therapeutic, and I suppose one of the ways I tend to interpret poetry is as a wrestling with or even exorcism of the poet’s demons. On the other hand, the practitioners of poetry are not the best advertisement for its mental-health benefits; the famous poets of my parents’ generation either killed themselves (Berryman, Plath, Sexton, Schwartz) or were in and out of mental institutions (Lowell), unless they were among the lucky ones who merely fought a lifelong battle with addiction (Bishop and who knows how many others). On the third hand, I’m not sure anyone ever made Freud demonstrate that his theories had scientifically demonstrable benefits, so that’s expecting rather a lot.
The class in question is, at any rate, not about writing but about reading (and talking about reading, which is perhaps where the real therapy is), so I’ve been thinking about how reading poetry might be considered therapy. I’ve decided that I don’t know how to tell if something is therapy, but I know people find solace in poetry just as they do in song, and I think the reasons are similar, the combination of language and rhythm. Rhythm touches us at a very basic level–I believe that it is processed in an older part of the brain than melody, and certainly than language, and that it gives us a pleasure that depends little on conscious analysis.
Rhythm also takes me back to the sense of poetry as a wrestling with demons, because putting our pain and fear into order, into a regular and repeated frame, gives us the (perhaps delusory) hope that the scary world might be manageable too.
Here is a poem that I hope will bring this out…as is usual with metrical poems, it works a lot better if you read it aloud:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —
This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —
Emily Dickinson is dealing with a very harsh reality here, unleavened by the sort of Christian consolation that most people in her culture would have leaned on and would have expected to find in any poem about grief. What she can offer is the consolation of understanding how the experience feels, and also the comfort of rhythm, in the meter, in rhyme, and in alliteration (wooden way, regardless grown, etc.). I’d also like you to notice how she imposes slowness and effort on the reader with the piled-up stresses in the first stanza (“great pain,” “nerves sit cer-,” “stiff heart quest-“). In English, it is hard to say consecutive stressed syllables quickly, especially if the word-boundaries create awkward consonant clusters.
The risk of such an intensely patterned poem is monotony; in this case, even that can serve to enact the tedium of the wodden way that we tread in the hour of lead. But ED also relieves the repetition by varying her line lengths, starting and ending with long 5-beat lines but switching in the middle to the shorter lines that are her more usual medium.
I hope this explanation hasn’t itself grown tedious. These things are hard to talk about in an interesting way, and really, and of course their effect is ideally not conscious, so feel free to forget about meter and such when you go back and read the poem, but I do think it’s important to know what goes into creating the experience of reading a poem and why it doesn’t feel the same as prose.
In another direction, I’d also like to mention something very slant about the last stanza: if you are still freezing, you proabably don’t “recollect” the snow, you feel it now. The person who recollects the snow after the final “letting go” is the frozen person (this certainly wouldn’t be the only Dickinson poem that adopts the perspective of the grave). Outliving grief, letting go, is itself a kind of death, so we need all the magic we can find to make it survivable.
I recognize that what I have said applies much less to the kinds of modern poetry that find obvious order untrustworthy and unusable, which is to say 90% of serious modern poetry. I do not, in all honesty, know if anyone finds solace in the work of Charles Bernstein or Lyn Hejinian or flart poems made out of Google search results pages. Maybe they have other pleasures to offer.