Thinking and Poetry: Can poetry function as a therapeutic container for our thoughts? Written by Dr Linda Berman.


‘Among the Old Poets’ by Walter Shirlaw.


Many writers have commented on the intricate connection between poetry and thought. What is the nature and meaning of this connection? On what basis are the two related? Could this connection be seen as therapeutic?

Poets and writers have grappled endlessly with the notion of thinking, its meaning, its power.

Some regard the kind of thinking required to write good poetry as of necessity deep and considered. Poetry for them is a kind of distillation of thought, a pure and refined, intense essence of the process of thinking. Keats observed that poetry ‘should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts.’ Others, as we shall see later in this post, use their poetic thinking in a free, almost experimental way. Poetry can amply contain the most refined and the most unprocessed of thoughts.

Generally, thinking is what makes poetry meaningful; without it one could not interpret the nuances and implications of poetic form or language. Auden has to write his thoughts down in order to understand them. It is as if the poetic written word crystallises meaning for him, giving structure, containment and solidity to an amorphous thought process, making nebulous ideas comprehensible. He asks ‘how do I know what I think until I’ve seen what I say?’

The poet Thomas Gray stated that ‘poetry is …..thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.’ It is as if he is saying that through poetry we can experience real,‘breathing’ thoughts and words which seem to emerge, smouldering, from the depths of the inner self. Perhaps the poetic structure gives necessary boundaries to such smouldering thoughts, so that they do not burn out of control.

There is something elemental for Gray about the relationship between poetry and thought; poetry for him is an almost primal experience, a way of touching thought in its most sensitive, unprocessed and natural form. It is as if thought has dissolved in breath itself, as if it has become an autonomous part of ourselves, a living, intrinsic constituent of the air we breathe.

The work of Alice Oswald reveals the use of poetry itself as a way of thinking, a contemplative and exploratory endeavour. It has a tentative feel, a little like an experience of ‘free association’  in psychotherapy. She says:

‘A human being is a thinking, deciding creature, and that is what I think is worth investigating.’


In her poem ‘Flies’, the flies buzz questions: ‘What dirt shall we visit today/what dirt shall we re-visit?’ They are thinking, trying to work things out. But somehow language- and thought- fail, as sometimes they fail us all:

They lift their faces to the past and walk about a bit
trying our their broken thought-machines
coming back with their used-up words

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter
what should we
what dirt should we

The cadences of the poem, its rhythms, patterns, pace and frequent gaps are the very fabric of the thinking process in her poetry. This work is disturbing, challenging and somewhat experimental, in that it feels as though Oswald is experiencing the poem as it unfolds itself. Each poem is a developing idea, unfurling, new-born, happening almost autonomously. The poem is both the thought itself and the container of the thought.

Oswald’s poetry represents thinking at its most intense level. She comments:

‘I think it’s often assumed that the role of poetry is to comfort, but for me, poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don’t mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking. It goes lower than rhetoric, lower than conversation, lower than logic, right down to the very faint honest voice at the bottom of the skull.’

(The Guardian, 12.12.2011)

For Oswald, then, poetry is a challenging, disturbing experience, reaching the depths of her psyche, a little like Gray’s ‘thoughts that breathe and words that burn.’ Perhaps this may be seen as a kind of therapeutic, growthful experience, as she faces the disconcerting questions that poetry produces. Perhaps also, these thoughts are most safely expressed through the poetic medium.

Poetry gives us a kind of permission, through its form and its expressive nature, to experiment with and investigate our half-developed, muddled thoughts. Seeing poetry in this way provides a stark contrast to Keats’ view of poetry as embodying our ‘highest thoughts.’

An interesting and unusual way of seeing the thought/poetry connection is described in Kendall Walton’s article ‘Thoughtwriting – in Poetry and Music.’ He explains his term ‘thoughtwriters’ as ‘writers who compose texts for others to use in expressing their thoughts (feelings, attitudes.)’ He compares the thought writer to the speechwriter.

He feels that readers can and do use poetry to express their own thoughts, the poet having formulated them. These poetic thoughts are borrowed where necessary, with people appropriating them for their own use. This idea furthers Keats’ view (above) that the poet expresses the reader’s thoughts.

Kendall points out that poetry is often easy to memorise and can be called to mind in various situations that require expression of thought and feeling. As an example, he quotes a familiar line from the 23rd Psalm, easily remembered, called on by many in times of strife:

‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…….’

Robert Frost said :‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.’ However, not all of us can always find the words; we may need help sometimes to do this. Perhaps it is sometimes comforting to have our thoughts readily expressed for us.

It is almost as if the poet might become a kind of therapist, supportively ‘lending us his ego,’  providing us with the words for our thoughts at times when we lack our own clarity and expressiveness. Thus the poem may serve as a kind of container, a safe place where our difficult and needy thoughts can be expressed and held by the poet on our behalf:

‘The notion of “lending ego” derives from the psychoanalytic tradition; and broadly conceived, it refers to a therapist’s functioning as an “auxiliary ego” for the patient. The patient is allowed to use or “borrow” the therapist’s presumably well-working mind and psychological capacities in order to enhance his or her own, relatively deficient, psychic functioning in particular domains. In effect, the patient is encouraged to think like the therapist, who presumably represents a good role model for mental health.’

(Donald Misch)


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