On the Psychotherapeutics of Poetry: two questions on some remarks by Sean Haldane

In an interview that resurfaced from the collective unconscious of the internet’s servers, Sean Haldane, poet and clinical thneuropsychologist, makes two remarks that raise some questions for me.

Reflecting on his lifelong psychotherapeutic practice, Haldane says he thinks “poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy. If you read a poem and it gets to you, it can shift your perspective in quite a big way, and writing a poem, even more so.” Does this—can this—reflection hold for poetry that radically suspends reference or defamiliarizes the language? I can see it holding for Dante’s Commedia, but does it for Bruce AndrewsLip Service or the work of Nick Piombino, a practising psychoanalyst associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school? The aesthetic ideology that underwrites Haldane’s use of ‘perspective’ here is perhaps crucial in this matter.

Haldane sums up some of his findings on poetry’s workings on the brain thus:  “Neuropsychology can help to explain poetry, to demystify the impulse. There has been work done on why poetry can send shivers down our spine. The poem activates the same parts of the brain that react when a child is separated from its mother. A deep sense of separation and longing.” Anyone engaged with Theory in the Twentieth Century must wonder what Freud or Lacan would have to say about that “deep sense of separation and longing” and its consequences for reading if not writing poetry!

I pose these questions as sincere—not merely rhetorical—questions:  they open doors for speculation and research and perhaps even tentative conclusions I haven’t time to pursue here and now.

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