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Poetry Monday: September 2, 2019

Dropped on:September 2, 2019
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Good morning, everyone.  Here in the U.S., it’s Labor Day weekend – traditionally a time of rest and celebration with friends and family.  With the world and weather as they are  at present, however, the best we may be able to do is to get together for comfort and hope.

Instead of a new poet today, I want to share something that those of you who are both poets and psychoanalysts may recall – my response to Caston’s famous article, “Poetic Closure.”

Both articles appeared in APA, longer ago than I thought. My response was in 2007. Back then, although I had already published much prose, I had only two published collections of poetry.  Since that time, however, I have continued as a “working poet” – to the extent that the list has grown to five, plus an anthology, Climate of Opinion: Sigmund Freud in Poetry (IPBooks, 2017).  If you take a look at some of the humorous poems in that one, you’ll be reminded that none of us can take ourselves too seriously.

Irene Willis
Poetry Editor

A Working Poet Comments on Caston’s “Poetic Closure, Psychoanalytic Termination, and Death” by Irene Willis(2007). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55(1):43-45.

A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
—Paul Valéry

Why is a poem abandoned? Not because to end it would feel like death, but because there is no such thing as real closure in poetry. We may declare a poem “finished,” meaning that is the best we can do with it for now, and send it out into the world that way. Twenty years later we may do something more with it, revise it in some way, even after publication. Sometimes we abandon a poem because the conflict in it has not been resolved. A good poem often contains contradictions, emotions that seem to cancel each other out. The resolution of the irreconcilable may be the objective of the poem, and the music and imagery of the poem play with that.

The problems that the poet attempts to resolve, however, are aesthetic, not personal. The poet is not at the mercy of or manipulated by the images used in the poem; rather, she may be drawing upon the materials of the self, much as a visual artist or sculptor would use clay or stone or paint to create forms and compositions. Poetry, even at its most “confessional,” is not psychoanalysis; nor, even at its most cathartic and therapeutic for the poet, is it psychotherapy. It is art, and its concerns are those of every artist: rhythm, form, structure, image—the music of words, achieved through the manipulation of black type on white space. Words are what we are talking about when we speak of poetry—words as they move through space, making their own music, both as individual words and as phrases, lines, stanzas. The content of the poet’s life and the meanings he makes of that content in the context of the poem are to serve the poem, not the task of self-understanding. In fact, understanding too much may undermine the poet’s task, however contradictory that may seem to the reader unfamiliar with the language and techniques of poetry. Just as the fifty-minute hour of the analyst or therapist is private, inaccessible to voyeurs, so are the depths of the poet’s psyche, regardless of what appears in the poem. The poet who writes a poem that works (i.e., a successful poem) is not parading her wounds unconsciously for the world to view. Rather, she has created metaphors to serve the end of the poem. It is disrespectful to assume otherwise.

This is why I must disagree with the basic premise of Joseph Caston’s paper, which is that poetic closure is akin to termination in psychoanalysis and that both are approached, like death, with dread. Termination of analysis may—and probably does—have a “poetic” kind of closure, in the sense a layperson would use the term to mean ambiguous and also ambivalent, relieved of tension, but sad. In calling this kind of ending akin to death, Caston may be thinking of the petit mort familiar to us from descriptions of orgasm. Even so, I must question the analogy. Without further research I don’t know whether the petit mort response is more typical of men than of women. I have only my own experience to report, which is a rush of excitement followed by pleasurable release. This is exactly how I feel when I sense that a first draft of a poem will have a satisfying last line. Once I know that, I can go back and work on the rest of the poem. The click at the end, like the lid of a box snapping shut, is what tells me the poem is there—not finished, but there. For me, this does not in the least resemble dread.

Yet, all of this is not to say that Caston is not on to something, and here is what I think it is. The patient and the analyst have been on a long journey together. Neither participant in a successful analyst-patient dyad really wants the journey to end; it has been too rewarding for both. Therefore, they delay it. It feels like death because it is death, the death of a relationship. It must end with a kind of dying fall—“poetic closure,” one might call it, as Caston has. The feeling the patient and analyst have of not wanting the journey to end is more akin to that of the reader of a really good novel. (I am thinking of Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright, but it could be any novel equally long and so wonderfully rich and real in the details of its secondary world that you have come to be at home in it.) Reading such a novel, we feel a tremendous ambivalence as we come to the last chapters. We would know they were the last chapters even if we could not see how few pages we have left, because the expectations aroused at the beginning have been almost completely fulfilled. On the one hand, we want to turn the pages faster, to speed things up so we can get to the end; on the other hand, we want to slow down, to prolong the pleasure. (I know, I know; this sounds like sex, too!)

We close the book with regret, but we are glad to have had the experience. We feel enlarged by it, better able to go on our way without it—without its physical presence, but with the essence of it internalized and with us always. Isn’t this the way the analysand feels when he leaves the analyst’s office for the last time? Doesn’t this sense of poetic closure move with him into the elevator and stay with him as he moves into a street bustling with life?

In this scenario the analyst’s position might be analogous to that of the author of such a novel. When he comes to the end he no longer has it, so it’s a kind of death, but with the possibility of rebirth. Many writers of prose, whether fiction or nonfiction, deal with this by beginning a new work before the old one is finished. Thus, I would imagine, does the analyst open her door to the next patient.

To recapitulate, and perhaps to amend somewhat: that which is “poetic” is not necessarily poetry. The analyst and analysand are, in my view, more analogous to the reader and writer of book-length prose than to the reader and writer of poetry.

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