‘I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy’. This remark of mine on an Observer ‘Q & A’ interview (30 May 2010 www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2010/may/30/sean-haldane-poet-neuroscientist ) has become an instant news item apparently, and is rushing across Twitter. Perhaps I should be looking over my shoulder at the NHS which employs me as a neuropsychologist and psychologist one of whose jobs is to supervise a psychotherapy service. But the NHS does not see psychotherapy as changing people: in no matter what mode (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy), psychotherapy in the NHS is fairly brief, and symptom-oriented, with measurable goals.
‘Changing people’ (the title of a 1930s book by Wilhem Reich, in whose methods I trained) is the language of radical psychoanalysis which was in vogue when I first practised in the 1970s and whose not so modest goal was ultimately social change. It is part of my personal history. As I told the Observer’s Tim Adams in what was for me more a thoughtful conversation than an interview, I had at one stage given up on poetry because I rejected its Keatsian passivity, as I impatiently saw it, and wanted to change the world. But I soon found that psychotherapy did not change people very much, let alone the world, and that poetry (which returned with a vengeance in a personal crisis: as my friend Martin Seymour-Smith said, ‘You may have given up on poetry, but poetry didn’t give up on you’) changed something in me. And I do now think that a poem can change a reader – at least his or her perspective and emotional relations to the world – at least as radically, and more quickly, than psychotherapy. Reading a certain poem at a certain time can be unforgettable and provide words for a lasting shift.
If I were doing a follow-up interview now I would ask myself, ‘What poems have changed you?’ I would have to answer first, ‘My own.’ As for poems by others, I think it would be banal to spell out how they have changed something in me, but here are a few examples:
‘Rose thou art sick,
The invisible worm
Has sought out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Doth thy life destroy.’
When I read this poem by Blake as an adolescent it suddenly made me aware of how my possessive lust for my then girlfriend was consuming her. I gave her more space – which she abused, but that is another story.
Donne’s Songs and Sonnets. Their excited multi-levelled ‘everything happens at once’ analysis of sex / love was something I came back to after some years of ‘one thing at a time’ psychological thinking, in a realisation, which has affected me ever since, that some human experience can be conveyed only in poetry.
Valentin Iremonger’s ‘The Invocation’ which begins:
Ten bloody years with this quill lying
Almost idle on my table, I have sourly watched
The narrow summers go, the winters ride over,
Awaiting always, seized in a cold silence,
The genetic word, the arrogant vaticinal line.
And each spring, unmoving by an open window,
The room ringing with emptiness like an unswung bell...
I read this when I was aged 19 and had written a handful of poems then dried up. The poems no longer came, yet I knew in my bones I was a poet. On the strength of Iremonger’s poem I resolved never to make an effort to write a poem. I would wait. Which I did for four years until poems returned. This waiting has become part of my life.
These are early examples. A much later one is Wilhelm Lehmann’s ‘Fahrt űber den Plöner See’ / ‘Journey on Plön Lake’, written in 1940. A stanza:
‘Our fingers slip through the water
Gurgling along the clinkers, on land
The banks go by like melodies,
And my hand seeks your hand...’
‘We journey through the terror of the times,
Together still, my love.’
Yes, Lehmann and his wife survived the terror of the times, but the poem (see my translation on www.seanhaldane.com) conveys that they are trapped going round and round on the lake and that they cannot escape the times. When I read this poem I gave up on a hope that one could, in fact, detach oneself from the times one was in.
Another poem which made me give up a hope for good is Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump.’ If you think there is any redeeming feature about dying in a war, read it: it will change your mind. It does, however, illustrate what Hardy called ‘the sustaining power of poetry’ (even in this case, possibly the most horrible poem ever written). You can go to poetry for this sustaining power a lot more cheaply than to a private psychotherapist....