Letting in The Other: What does Hospitality Have in Common with Poetry? Part 2: Thinking, Difference and Empathy.

‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become
the wounded person.’

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.


The Good Samaritan. Ronald Rae. Wikimedia Commons

This second post of three represents a temporary focus on hospitality and poetry; however, these concepts are also highly relevant to psychotherapy. In therapy, allowing another person in to one’s inner world and showing empathy are crucial.


How can a person let another into their world if they feel no empathy towards them? This holds true for both poetry and hospitality, It would be difficult to offer hospitality to another without having empathy for that person.

The poet also needs empathy in order to describe the spectrum of the human condition with which the reader can identify. The poet needs to see the self in the other, to recognise human commonalities.

At this point we can fruitfully refer back to a previous post; here, we have seen that the poet can contain and express difficult feelings for us.

In his book The Poetry Pharmacy  , William Sieghart takes this concept of poetry as containment even further; he actually prescribes certain poems for a variety of problems. What a delightful concept!




He comments in the book:

‘Suffering is the access point to poetry for a lot of people: that’s when they open their ears, hearts and minds. Being there with the right words for someone in that moment- when something’s happened, when they’re in need- is a great comfort…..’


This quotation highlights graphically the theme of this post: the hospitality of the poetic endeavour. The words ‘access’ and ‘open’ emphasise the act of entering into another’s world. The quote continues to bear witness to the fact that poetry, like hospitality,  is about giving and receiving. In this case, poetry is seen as a balm, a comforter, very like the offer of succour or a room for the night when in dire need of accommodation.

Both poetry and hospitality involve feelings and emotions.  I think this is what Derrida was referring to when he spoke of hospitality being poetic.

In the poetry extract below, see how Wordsworth becomes a kind of host, offering hospitality and kinship in terms of openness to other voices and into thoughts and feelings.

Through verse, the poet allows an emotional bonding, a connection, a kind of interaction with the ‘guest’, the reader. It is also a prime example of the poet’s recognition of the universality human experience, his knowledge of the ‘self in the other,’ mentioned above:

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.




Van Gogh. Enclosed field with setting sun.

Thus the meaning of hospitality can be extended, to describe the poet’s attitude, as well as that of the hospitable host. By means of emotional and linguistic fluency, poetry can demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable and let others into that vulnerability, allowing the poet to be seen and recognised, sharing perspectives.

Both poetry and hospitality are reflective, thoughtful. The invitation is to share in something inner. Poetry offers us a special kind of nourishment, it gives us ‘food for thought.’

Hospitality has connections with both poetry and with thought. Without a particular kind of thinking, we will not be able to host others into our own physical, psychic or poetic space. We will be unable to think in terms of the other, to think ourselves into the other’s skin. This might be called empathy, but it might involve more than that.

It entails something more poetic, a transcendent quality that is related to the idea of becoming other. It is a celebration of difference.

‘1. Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.’ Hebrews 13:1-3

Acknowledging this and identifying the fact that the ‘stranger’ is not only outside of ourselves, but also within is crucial. The process of trying to becoming one with all aspects of the self, rather than scapegoating others, is surely the most creative way of thinking:

‘If this elephant of mind is held on all sides
by the cord of mindfulness,
All fear disappears and happiness comes.
All enemies: all the tigers, lions, bears,
serpents, elephants…
and all the keepers of hell; the demons and the horrors,
All of these are contained by the attention of your mind,
and by the calming of that mind are calmed,
Because from the mind are derived all fears and unmeasurable





Image: Peter Clarkson. Unsplash.

Letting in The Other: What does Hospitality Have in Common with Poetry? Part 1.

‘An act of hospitality can only be poetic.’ Jacques Derrida.


Image: Unsplash. Artem Bali.

Do you have a special poem that seems to invite you in and stays with you? If you do, please tell us about it in the comments at the end of this post. Thank you, Linda.


How does hospitality connect with poetry and what can we learn from this connection?

They may at first seem quite different ideas and we might wonder what Derrida, in the quotation above, meant by linking them.


The statement ‘An act of hospitality can only be poetic’ might initially seem to be a conundrum; it can have many interpretations. Derrida makes us work hard as readers, grasping at meaning and trying to understand.

However, when you really think about it, there are many links between the two concepts. What are these links?

First, both poetry and hospitality invite you in to their world. They do so in an emotional way. Poems attract you in through the power and beauty of their language, their offer of a story, word-pictures, their creativity. Hospitality involves an invitation, a loving offer to enter into, to share, to experience.

Hospitality and poetry offer a kind of service to others and aim to meet some of their needs. They are giving a gift to another, of their time, their consideration, their feelings.

Both take us, the stranger, into their world, one that it different from our own. Both ask us to see that world from their point of view and open themselves up to us, to show us who they are. There is a way in revealed to us; the one shows us a place unlatched, unbarred, maybe a country allowing entry, passage. The other is a poetic path to disclosure, a letting drop of boundaries, a release, a declaration of the poet’s inner feelings, impressions and thoughts.

This representation of an opening of things might perhaps take the form of a door, a perimeter, a soup kitchen, an opinion, an idea.


Old door of secret room in Church of

Saint Martin in Třebíč.

By Jiří Sedláček – Frettie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12189688




Both hospitality and poetry necessitate an understanding of another’s needs and we can feel grateful for both. They involve an offering of the self, and reflect our personality and our world view. Sometimes it might seem as though that world view goes against reason and possibility; it might come across as implausible and unrealistic to us.

Poets and those offering their hospitality allow another person into the depths of their soul, their inner world, no matter how eccentric, unconventional or bizarre that might appear to the other.

Both are involved in a relationship with the other. Hospitality signifies a considered letting in of the other, a beckoning, a reflective, generous, non-hierarchical act of admittance, perhaps to a home or country. That home might be very odd to the incoming stranger, yet it has been offered without regard for the manner in which it is received.

Poetry represents an opening up through words, a welcoming in of the other to one’s world, of other voices, other ideas.

Poetry and hospitality each need another person to receive and accept the offer to ‘enter’ into their world.

These are the first lines of two beautiful poems and they, quite literately invite us in.

‘Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky’  (T.S. Eliot)


‘Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove,’ (Marlowe)

What wonderful invitations!

Poetry can still be inviting even when the hospitality is not quite so evident:

What draws us in is the identification with the poet, the descriptions, the lyricism, the beauty of the lines.  This still applies even when the subject is trivial:


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


The poet is making a confession. He has eaten the plums. We are very much invited into his private world. We can identify with his desire to devour them, even though they were not his. We can almost taste them, so vivid is his description.

We can also identify with the guilt of being unable to resist what was not his to eat. Along with the guilt is a modicum of humour, of mischief, to which we can all relate. The tone- and the title – of the poem imply that the poet knows he will be forgiven for his transgression.

Our attention is captured by the unusual, and perhaps eccentric nature of the subject matter; snaffling someone’s plums from the fridge! The boundaries of the poetic are stretched here into a rather eccentric subject for a poem. Yet the poem is still strikingly effective.

We are offered hospitality by the poet in two ways: he invites us into his kitchen, into the trivia of his life. Simultaneously we witness his rather embarrassed state of mind.

This post continues next week, with a further look at hospitality in the light of empathy, poetic thinking and the celebration of difference.

Don’t forget, if  you have a special poem that seems to invite you in and stays with you, please tell us about it in the comments below.


(Alan Sheffield. Chilean Black Plums. Flickr.)



Thinking and Poetry: Can poetry function as a therapeutic container for our thoughts?


‘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)