Poetics in Practice: Cyclical Poetics, Psychotherapy and Recovery


I use Merrill Moore’s sonnet as a case study to examine the relationship between poetic practice and recovery models in evidence-based therapy.

Katherine Franco


Katherine Franco is an incoming MSt student at the University of Oxford in English with interests in subjectivity, epistemology, theories of reading, and philosophy of medicine. She has written this guest blog for the Talking as Cure Research Network at CRASSH.

 



To the Sick in Winter

Merrill Moore
 

You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better
When the spring comes, you’ll feel better when the
Spring comes, you’ll feel better when the spring comes,
You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better
When the spring comes, you’ll feel better when the
Spring comes, you’ll feel better when the spring comes,

You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better
When the spring comes, you’ll feel better when the
Spring comes, you’ll feel better when the spring comes,

You’ll feel better when the spring comes, you’ll feel
Better when the spring comes, you’ll feel better


 

I first read this poem in March 2020, in a workshop led by poet Alice Oswald. Oswald offered the poem as a kind of preemptive poetic medicament as she briefly spoke of a virus running through Italy. I set the poem in my bag. Two days later, I left the University of Oxford and returned to New York where I would stay for the next ten months.

Oswald’s photocopy of the poem sat on my desk, wrinkled, from March 2020 until May 2021. The pleasure of Moore’s poem ultimately comes from – or at least, for me – the inability to know to which spring the poem refers, what constitutes ‘better,’ that one never knows they need to be ‘better’ until one suddenly does, the fact Moore’s ‘better’ is not singular but unstable and repeating. To attempt to reach or mark a definite ‘better’ would be antithetical to Moore’s poem. This attempt to reach and mark: we might call it recovery, by another name.

Here I use Merrill Moore’s sonnet as a case study to examine the relationship between poetic practice and recovery models in evidence-based therapy. I deliberately say ‘practice,’ given this blog post aims to interrogate the relationship between poetic and psychotherapeutic practice. In mentioning evidence-based psychotherapy and medicine, I refer to statistical models such as randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and outcomes research (Schechter and Perlman, 2009: 161). Poetics ultimately provides an alternative ‘stabilizer for subjectivity and selfhood’ (Horncastle, 2018: 263).

 

Cyclical and Clinical

Mikkel Kenni Bruun recently wrote about developments in UK evidence-based psychological therapies, specifically IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). IAPT’s five primary features include ‘the introduction of 'self-referral,' the proliferation of therapists, the development of 'stepped care', a focus on evidence-based therapies, and the measurement of outcomes’ (Pickersgill, 2019: 634). These 'measurement[s] of outcomes' – such as the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) – offer a means for evaluation of IAPT and its success. In citing IAPT, I do not hope to discount its importance in UK mental healthcare but instead to consider the relationship between standardized assessment and the mandate for discernible recovery. More plainly, in order to receive funding, IAPT must demonstrate success and recovery among its patients; poetry need not remain accountable to political or economic institutions.

What is the relationship between a cyclical poetics and the rise of 'economistic approaches to accounting for the efficacy of psychological therapy' in UK mental healthcare (Pickersgill, 2019:  634)? Emily Dickinson famously wrote, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes –," yet the cyclical nature of her poem undercuts the opening pronouncement. Dickinson challenges the linearity of that opening ‘After’ with her concluding line, ‘First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –‘ (Dickinson, 2016). Adopting Dickinson’s own recommendation of ‘Reading Backward’ – discussed by poet and scholar Susan Howe, in My Emily Dickinson; and scholars Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels – I consider the value of reading Dickinson’s, and now Moore’s, poetics backward.[1]

How does Backward Reading challenge the sort of linear recovery models proposed by (or implicit in) talk therapy? Or, as I began to consider following Bruun’s discussion of IAPT with our research network in December 2020, how can Moore’s or Dickinson’s poetics (or any cyclical poetics on psychic pain and recovery) challenge the rise of an ‘(ac)countable’ therapeutic practice like IAPT (Pickersgill, 2019: 634)? Moore’s verse rejects (ac)countability through its trance-like repetition. Although it follows a sonnet form, it does not reach a particularly cathartic release in the final couplet. In fact, Moore’s sonnet begins at not even the end of the repeated line but ends on its first fragment, making it impossible and irrelevant to ‘count’ the number of times the phrase is uttered or spoken.

Moore’s work offers an apt case study on the relationship between poetics and psychotherapy given his own dual professions as poet and psychiatrist. A ‘serious physician and serious artist,’ according to Robert Frost, Moore (1903-1957) was a practicing psychiatrist with foci in alcoholism and suicide in the mid-twentieth century (Poetry Foundation, 2021). Moore taught neurology at Harvard Medical School and the Boston City Hospital, and published in medical and psychiatric journals (Dartmouth Library). Despite sharing company with poetry heavyweights like Allen Tate or John Crowe Ransom in the Fugitives movement, Moore remains lesser known and studied.

Poetics is antithetical to death, given its cyclical and ongoing nature. The incomplete nature of Moore’s poem runs counter to the possibility of termination, of suicide (as Moore very well knew), too. But a cyclical poetics is then perhaps also antithetical to recovery – or, at least, a linear recovery. What would it mean to get ‘better’ in the ‘spring,’ Moore’s poem asks us, when spring seemingly never ends nor arrives?

 

Poetics as Practice

Lastly, I consider how poetry can lend agency to subjects who fail to find agency in talk therapy and medical practice. After describing the inadequate response to queer subjectivity in medical and psychiatric institutions, J. Horncastle encourages an examination of ‘the value that poetics has more specifically to analyses of crisis’ in ‘contexts of mental health care and other medical settings where agency is routinely and markedly compromised’ (Horncastle, 2018: 260). I write about poetry in the practical context of talk therapy to consider the role of poetry in establishing subjective capabilities and faculties. Moore’s poem offers linguistic capabilities that goal-motivated practices cannot achieve.

Poetry is not a symptom but architect of subjectivity. Poetry does. ‘The poetic landscape is the antithesis of speechlessness,’ Horncastle writes, ‘it provides access to further conceptualisation of a rich language of becoming, out of, for example a language of erasure or formlessness in medical clinics’ (Horncastle, 2018: 260).[2] I don’t propose that poetics is therapy, and vice versa, but instead consider what sorts of speech acts and thus subjective liberties become available as a result of poetics.

Poetics isn’t a talking cure; it’s just talk. I don’t intend to suggest that poetics can save you––it can’t––but it has salvaged something, unnamable sometimes, within me. Poetics saved that.

 

This Blog draws from my project, Sarah Kane’s Poetics of Subjectivity, specifically my second chapter, 'A Cleaving in the Clinic: The Cyclical Poetics of Emily Dickinson and Sarah Kane.'
 


 

References

Dartmouth Library Archives and Manuscripts. 'Moore, Merrill, 1903-1957.' https://archives-manuscripts.dartmouth.edu/agents/people/1549.

Dickinson, Emily. 'After great pain, a formal feeling comes –' Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. Edited by Cristanne Miller, 2016, p. 198.

Franco, Katherine. Sarah Kane’s Poetics of Subjectivity. Honors Theses. 266. 2021. https://digital.kenyon.edu/honorstheses/266.

Horncastle, J. 'Busting Out: Happenstance Surgery, Clinic Effects, and the Poetics of Genderqueer Subjectivity.' TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, volume 5, number 2, 2018, pp. 251-267.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New Directions, 1985.

McGann, Jerome, and Lisa Samuels. 'Deformance and Interpretation.' http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/jjm2f/old/deform.html.

'Merrill Moore.' Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/merrill-moore.

Moore, Merrill. 'To the Sick in Winter.'

Pickersgill, Martyn. 'Access, accountability, and the proliferation of psychological therapy: On the introduction of the IAPT initiative and the transformation of mental healthcare.' Social Studies of Science, vol. 49, 2019, pp. 627-650.

Schechter, Alan N., and Robert L. Perlman. 'Evidence-Based Medicine Again.' Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 52, no. 2, 2009, pp. 161-163.

 

[1] In my thesis, I examine the relationship between Sarah Kane’s and Emily Dickinson’s cyclical poetics and evidence-based therapy. Here I apply and extend this theoretical framework to Moore’s poetics.

[2] See J. Horncastle’s “Busting Out: Happenstance Surgery, Clinic Effects, and the Poetics of Genderqueer Subjectivity” (2018) on the practical value of poetics in the context of gendered and queer subjectivity––a context in which both Dickinson’s and Kane’s work exists.

 

 


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.

Posted: Monday 9 August 2021

Contributor: CRASSH News

Tags: recoverypsychotherapypoetrymental health