“Some Thoughts on the Relationship Between Poetry and Psychology” by Richard Brostoff

Richard Brostoff


Blake, in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, embraces an inversion of our conventional beliefs: “It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devil’s account is that the Messiah fell & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.” What poetry may refer to as the abyss, our wilderness or wild, psychology more likely refers to as the unconscious. Poetry offers psychology its own perspective on the reaches of this realm, a unique repository not only of energy, but also of imagery, metaphor, paradox, inversion, contradiction, and often enough, beauty. Rather than a territory to be conquered, poetry valorizes and embraces the resources of the unconscious; it celebrates rather than subdues its creative genius. The poem invites our fascinated commerce with our deep world beneath the world; it invites us to linger in the sensory experience of its inhabiting. Stay awhile, it says.

Often enough, having entered an underworld, the poem suggests: you were here once, lived here, knew this, and the sense of discovery is a bit like walking into that odd, half-ruined city below the city in Rome—sitting there all the time waiting to be recovered, entered and explored in all its strangeness. At other times our underground world opens like a brief visitation. As Jane Hirshfield has written: “There are openings in our lives/ of which we know nothing./ Through them/ the belled herds travel at will,/ long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.” (Hirshfield, 3)

The psychological view comes to us from Freud, who believed the unconscious was a realm to be journeyed to, conquered and tamed. If Freud’s early ambition was to be a military general, he found, ironically, not an external front but an internal frontier to be subdued. For Freud, the domain of aggressive and libidinal impulses was largely instinctual, and unconscious energies were, at best, to be sublimated. If psychoanalysis’ methods allowed entrance to this unseen world, it was not to linger and bring back its wisdom, but, through insight, to make conscious and therefore colonize its foreignness and potentially dangerous energy: “the therapeutic effort of psycho-analysis…is to strengthen the ego, to widen its field of vision, and so to extend its organization so that it can take over new portions of the id. Where id was, there shall be ego.” (Freud, 80) Freud’s extraordinary discovery of an alternate, secret world inside each of us is often underappreciated, the idea having become integrated into our cultural ideology. Yet, while disturbances of the psyche, a kind of overflow of the “id,” can lead to dis-ease, excess or psychosis, Freud may have nonetheless undervalued the unique resources of the void or abyss, of chaos, of strangeness itself.

Of course the terrain of poetry is not one of unstructured wilderness; it insists, much like psychology, on the ordering, structuring principle of craft (in some ways analogous to the ego or analyst), which holds, with form, in dynamic tension the disorder and storm force of the abyss. In the vessel of language, irreducible metaphor and structure, poetry holds in suspension contradiction and paradox, our conflicts and wild energies; it achieves a dynamic balance between the visible and invisible worlds, surface and depth, valorizing neither at the expense of the other.

On the surface of things, of course, the mediating presence of language is the essential medium of psychotherapy as well as poetry. If one wants to understand the life of another realm, another country, and communicate with those who live there, one must become conversant in their language. Poetry offers a less abstract, more sensory, Anglo-Saxon directness—a language of the body, as opposed to a more conceptual, Latinate language. At worst, the intellectual language of psychoanalysis serves as an obstacle course to feeling. When I return to my psychotherapy office in the afternoon, after writing a poem in the morning, my mind is more fluent and at ease with trope. As is true for our dream life, image and metaphor suggest an older, primal means of understanding and representing the world, a language in themselves. The practice of writing facilitates the metaphormaking facility of imagination (that sixth sense, as Emerson suggested), which has its roots planted in the unconscious. Like a traveler in a foreign country, one becomes immersed in its odd expressions and syntax, conversant with the illogical logic of its ways, entranced with its strange linguistic fauna and flora. Falling into the rabbit hole of imagination, into my shadow world certain mornings, warms up my ability to speak the dialect of the place, and therefore aids me as a therapist in speaking more directly to another’s wilderness, to the precincts of the heart. It aids in piercing the elaborate web of resistances and defenses on the borders of the deep life, in piercing the veil of our everyday lives.

Still, poetry is entranced not only with the strangeness and signification of our deep life’s language, but with the materiality of verbal surfaces, texture and tone, sonic life—the music of its making. I believe the psychologist is enlivened, steadied in his or her joint journey with a client by this simultaneous appreciation for the surface—the “manifest content” of the patient’s associations as well as its “latent content,” to use the language Freud used to discuss the interpretation of dreams. Close attention to verbal construction, to rhythm and the orchestrations of sound—to the aesthetic surfaces of a patient’s “productions”—energizes the journey, and, often enough, offers a portal to the interiors. Curiosity, deep attention, appreciation for the forms of our expressions—these are crucial values of the poet no less than the therapist. Fascination with the surface draws us in, invites us to “know the world more magnificently,” as Jane Hirshfield has said of poetry, and is the hook that draws us into depth.

Yet if a fascination with “surfaces” remains an energizing value of poetry, and a potential source of illumination for psychology, no less important is poetry’s comfort with uncertainty. Poetry, like the unconscious, is a domain of “ands” rather than “ors,” tolerates and even valorizes contradiction, drift and counter drift; it multiplies its meanings, embraces difference, remains comfortable with its elusiveness, its mystery. “Do I contradict myself, very well, then I contradict myself,” as Whitman wrote. How much room there is for multiple truths, for the slipperiness of truth, its fragmentary nature, its penchant toward inversion. Poetry is as likely to gesture toward or deconstruct its own assertions as to finally insist on them. Psychology interprets; poetry leans into its truths. It “tells it slant,” as Emily Dickinson said. Poetry is less likely to offer an overarching interpretation of its images and associations. The poet surrenders to his or her journey of discovery, without restless hankering after final truths; he practices, as Keats called it, “negative capability.” Poetry therefore keeps one humble as a therapist, suspicious of too much didacticism, definitive or final truth—suspicious of the one who, finally, knows. It’s not that the therapist or analyst wants to deconstruct him or herself, or fail to offer guidance and interpretation, or surrender the authority at best earned through study and experience, but rather to be wary, and to allow some of the values of poetry to penetrate the inevitable fault lines of his or her psychological and conceptual terrain.

One central aspect of that psychotherapeutic terrain and its framework remains Freud’s suggestion that the therapist be a kind of blank slate onto which the patient might project pieces of him or herself or his or her past. Analysts have therefore traditionally attempted to remain reasonably silent. Elsewhere Freud advises the analyst to have the objectivity and distance of a surgeon. The risk is in becoming absent, a kind of absentee landlord of the patient’s psychic real estate. When I attended my first analytic conference in medical school in the late seventies, I was surprised to find the central discovery of several papers presented that afternoon was that the analyst’s real presence mattered, that there were in fact two people in the room.

Poetry has served as a kind of model for me in this regard, because one of its central impulses is toward presence: it seeks to embody itself in the moment of its activation as it is read, to embody and unfold itself in voice, breath, and rhythm, and in the particularity of the world. Rather than beginning with an overarching interpretive frame as psychology does, poetry begins in specificity. It feeds the phenomenal world through the eye of its needle, takes up residence, and seeks to waken itself. While it searches out “insight” as well, it does so as a flowering on the taproot and stalk of its inhabiting presence. Poetry reminds me to lean into my inhabiting presence as a therapist, as well as to keep building toward understanding from the ground up, from specificity, from “the thing itself ” as Williams said; it reminds me not to be overly attached to what Nietzsche calls a “reification” of our ideas and interpretive frame. “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove,” the therapeutic hour, like the poem, “must ride on its own melting,” as Frost would have it, finding its own pathway and “law” as it goes.

Of course one might equally well outline the multiple ways psychology illuminates, even nurtures the poet and the poem. Certainly, psychology’s conceptual framework and methods, its lens, can be extraordinarily helpful in interpreting image and metaphor, the “associations” of an early draft, and therefore help the author find a poem’s “focus.” It can be terrifically helpful for writer’s block, or helping the poem “come out,” to say all it needs to say, or to understand and overcome, or perhaps embrace its resistances, or to understand the poem’s “transference” to an audience. But I mean only to be suggestive here. These ideas are for another essay.

A larger question remains: To what extent can poetry and psychotherapy mutually illuminate the shadows of the other? In a dialogue between poet and psychologist, how often might one attempt to dominate or colonize the conceptual or artistic domain of the other, or is it possible for each to engage in mutual, concentrated listening, allowing the brightness of the other to expand the realm of his or her awareness? What remains critical is to find a mutually empowering manner of relating in which neither dominates, but nudges one another toward their distinct, sometimes mysterious selves. At best they might throw one another into relief, clarify their respective resources, their particular “genius.” Science has taught us when two ecosystems meet and overlap, land and ocean for instance, sudden fresh pockets of life appear, new niches where life might be nurtured. Similarly, when two disciplines meet, such as poetry and psychology, one might hope they settle into a long-lasting relationship in which the vital contribution of each creates new forms of understanding, as well as the rich unfolding of the other.



Hirshfield, Jane. “The Envoy,” Given Sugar, Given Salt (Perennial, 2002).

Freud, Sigmund. “Lecture 31,” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Standard Edition of the Complete Works of SigmundFreud (Hogarth Press, 1932).


Richard Brostoff is a psychiatrist and has worked in the mental health field for over 25 years. He studied literature at Bennington College and Brandeis, and medicine at Duke and Harvard. His literary work has appeared in Texas Review, Atlanta Review, Gulf Stream, Confrontation, Permafrost, Wisconsin Review, Magma (London), Verse Daily, and many other journals. His chapbook, Momentum, was published by La Vita Poetica. In 2000, Brostoff was awarded the grand prize at the AEI International Poetry Festival, and in 2003 was editor’s choice for the Robert Penn Warren Award. He also received an international publication award from the Atlanta Review and was a finalist for the Iowa Review Poetry Prize in 2010.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010

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