Poetry and Psychoanalysis 

February 3-5, 2023

“…that strange being, the Creative Writer.”
-S. Freud in Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1908)

The enormous creativity of the unconscious mind is the raw material of both poetry and psychoanalysis.  Ever since Freud began to publish his startling new ideas about the existence and the powerful influence of the unconscious mind, psychoanalysis has been closely connected with poetry, and poetry has been fascinated by psychoanalysis. Literary modernism and psychoanalysis grew up alongside each other, and the history of early twentieth century poetry is intertwined with Freud’s developing theories. H.D., Bertolt Brecht, D.H. Lawrence, Muriel Rukeyser, and many other writers undertook the talking cure. Freud, himself, loved poetry and admired poets.  His work is full of poetic allusions, and he often credited poets with the original discovery of the unconscious, the lynchpin of psychoanalysis.  “The poets were there before I was,” he said.

In a wonderful little book of our time, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, poet Edward Hirsch’s description of how poems communicate could also serve as an explanation of how a good therapy operates:

Poems communicate before they are understood, and the structure operates on or inside the reader even as the words infiltrate the consciousness.  The form is like the shape of the poems’ understanding, its way of being in the world, and it is the form that structures our experience.    (p.27)

The form of a psychoanalysis is a repeating, closed-frame form within which two people meet regularly to do nothing more than talk (sometimes) and listen (incessantly).  Within that frame, over time, the inchoate mass of a particular person’s psyche can undergo a process of change (revision) that we can regard as a kind of text.  If poetry writing can result in a text-based aesthetic product we call a poem, likewise a psychoanalysis carries the possibility of producing language-based realizations about the self that we call insight.  It is also true that both the writing of poetry and psychoanalysis (as analyst or analysand) depend upon an individual’s ability to undertake the self-willed destruction of internalized beliefs, habits, and ways of thinking, speaking, writing, and imagining that have become counterproductive in life or in art.  Both endeavors require psychological fortitude, access to one’s imagination, and the willingness to take risks.  The processes of poetry and psychoanalysis, then, are remarkably similar, and both are deeply creative acts.

During this weekend conference, we will explore the convergences and commonalities of poetry and psychoanalysis. Our starting point will be language, their common denominator: language that is spoken aloud or written down; language that is not spoken aloud, but that is thought; and language that manifests mysteriously as both sound and silence on the page and in the consulting room.  We will also look at some of the ways in which the habits and practices of poets and analysts both resemble and differ from each other.  

Coordinators: Kate Daniels, M.A., M.F.A.

GUEST FACULTY:

Major Jackson is a poet, editor, and critic.  He is the author of six volumes of poetry, the poetry editor of the Harvard Review, and the recipient of numerous awards for his work, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard, the Whiting Award, NAACP Image Award, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Cave Canem Prize, the Pew Fellowship, among others. He is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University where he directs the creative writing program.  His most recent collection, The Absurd Man, is a reworking of Albert Camus’ iconic work, The Myth of Sisyphus.    It is a psychologically bracing re-envisioning of the poet as an “absurd hero” for our times. The existentialist questions the collection engages with poetically and psychologically are situated at the center of our contemporary moment: why are we here, and what gives meaning to life in these times?

Didi Jackson is a poet and assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt University.  Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, et al. Her first collection of poetry, Moon Jar, explores the catastrophic trauma of losing a spouse to suicide.  She is particularly interested in poetry’s capacity for processing trauma and for creating empathy in readers, as well as in poetry’s therapeutic applications. Her background in the visual arts manifests in poetry as an interest in the healing convergences of image, metaphor, and myth in poetry and psychotherapy.