The history of poetry seems littered with references to the biographical, the ways in which experience can influence the product of one’s writing, or even the impetus for that writing. With our interest in the dark and twisted sides of human personalities, it’s no wonder mental and emotional stress and instability has taken a prominent place in our understanding of writers’ personal lives. There are many writers who, for one reason or another, have experienced duress of this nature: T.S. Eliot checked into a facility for a mental break down, Alfred Tennyson suffered from lifelong bouts of depression, others still resorted to suicide (John Berryman and Sylvia Plath to name just a couple).
I had read somewhat recently (in a source I can no longer remember) that of all types of writers poets live the shortest lifespans (novelists rejoice!). This seems a strange statement to make, but when one focuses on such considerations as those mentioned above, it becomes easier to acknowledge. Is there some way the process of writing poetry (or prose for that matter) is therapeutic? Do writers find solace in composing their inner most thoughts and arranging their personal philosophies or approaches to life in words on the page?
When I was younger and first beginning to explore poetry, I gained the general impression, primarily from amateur writers and people who read some amount of poetry, that writing is often a kind of personal therapy, a way of exploring what one’s issues are and how these can or should be handled. As time went on, this explanation did not seem enough for me. Therapeutic writing became something less than desirable for me, almost as though such an activity was far too withdrawn and personal as to make the product of that writing interesting to anyone other than the person who created it. This was an early opinion before I began writing seriously myself.
I had written one or two “poems” (I call them poems in the flimsiest sense of the word) back in high school, primarily as school work. I found little fun in this at the time and for several years afterward I wrote nothing of a creative nature. It wasn’t until the death of a close friend (the first death I’d experienced close to me) that I attempted poetry again. I don’t believe I can adequately state why I suddenly began to write poems, nor did I know why an overwhelming urge came over me to reopen a relationship with them. The best I can do is reference some kind of inward navel gazing that sought to come to terms with the loss of a great friend. Poetry seemed a way to lay my thoughts, experiences and memories on the table for study, to make some sense of a period of chaos and uncertainty that, for a time, was difficult to cope with. Afterall, didn’t many of the great poets write of lost friends and family members, hard times and inner strife? Tennyson’s In Memoriam is perhaps one of the most accomplished of these and, having been exposed somewhat to this by my father (a lover of Tennyson), it was natural that my reading would come to focus there for some time.
Those early poems were no more than pathetic attempts at writing something of meaning. I had neither the writing skill or breadth of reading to produce anything worth saving, let alone something to show others. It was that sudden wish to fix how I felt, the therapy of it, that produced for me a strong bond with poetry and poured the foundation for what has turned out to be a love of the power of words. Poetry, I think, needs something to kick-start a relationship with you, whether it be a death, a loss, a moment of utter bliss or some personal or intellectual revelation. It can be difficult and hard to handle at times and to harness poetry’s wonder there needs to be a personal investment on the part of the poet, an honest and deep-felt engagement with an intricate and many faceted mode of expression that, once approached carefully, has benefits that can’t be seen beforehand.
Sure, poetry can be therapeutic to some extent. I no longer think of it in these terms, as I now write for other reasons that are equally difficult to articulate. Poetry has since become one of the most important parts of my life, one that serves as entertainment, hobby, and even contributes to my identity and understanding of self. The need for personal peace certainly can have its rewards.