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.

A Christmas Present: the Best of 2018. Thinking Quotes to See You into the New Year.



Here is a selection of some very pertinent and powerful quotations from this year’s blog posts on Ways of Thinking.

Please leave below any short-or long- comment that comes to mind after reading these, either about the blog in general, or specifically regarding this post. I’d love to know your thoughts!


‘In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Pico Ayer

Blog post: What Thinks Can We All Think Up?


‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’

(Samuel Beckett. Adapted from a line in Waiting for Godot.)

Blog post: Thinking and Acting


‘A thought once spoken is a lie.’ Tyutchev

‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’ Flaubert.

Blog post: Thoughts and Secrecy


‘We must care to think about the unthinkable things, because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.’ (James W. Fulbright.)

Blog Post: Unthinking, Not Thinking and the Unthinkable.


‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’  Albert Einstein.

Blog post: The Unthinkable: ‘Failed Empathy’ and Hatred of ‘the Other.’

Do you have any suggestions for subjects for next year’s posts? Please leave below and I’ll try my best to accommodate!

Attacks on Thinking: in Society and in Therapy.



A poet’s work….. is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

(Salman Rushdie , The Satanic Verses.)

Rushdie’s poet, Jumpi Joshi, mentioned in a previous post, advocates freedom of thought and its expression.

However, such freedom of expression is not available to all. Autocratic societies prevent individuals from expressing thoughts that in democracy would be regarded as acceptable; there is often suppression of ideas merely because they do not concur with the state. Such regimes declare themselves inviolable, their ideologies sacrosanct and unchallengeable. Ideas that do not accord with their beliefs are strictly censored. Often such societies attack and manipulate the ways of thinking of their people.

Research has indicated that what is termed ‘cultural tightness’ inevitably affects what thoughts and ideas can be written or expressed, cramping ‘cognitive style’ and ways of thinking.

‘Tight cultures promote narrow socialization, with highly developed systems of constraining, regulating, and monitoring behaviors (Arnett,1995), and deviation from established norms is readily identified and sanctioned. Additionally, justice systems in tight cultures often impose stiff punishments for crimes (e.g., the death penalty for corruption in China). In terms of everyday life, tight cultures are also linked to situational constraints that embody a restricted range of appropriate behaviors (e.g., in Singapore, eating and drinking are not allowed in the subway). Over time, these institutional practices collectively foster individual-level psychological adaptations, such as self-regulation, cognitive styles, and propensity toward change, all of which have implications for creativity.’

(Recently, Gelfand wrote in The Guardian, about ‘the science behind the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise,’ using his concept of tight cultures to explain the cultural cause of these contemporary political changes.)

In Waiting for the Barbarians, JM Coetzee describes an extreme example of a ‘tight culture’ in the form of an imaginary place, ‘Empire,’ in which the people are told that there are barbarians outside, waiting to invade. These are the ‘others’, who are different and speak an unknown language, depicted as savage people who should be tortured, eradicated. The novel is an allegorical story about apartheid, the oppression of black people in South Africa.

The fear of the other, inculcated into their people, strengthens the rulers’ control of Empire, making the people terrified and dependent. There is a need to create an enemy, in order to feel some kind of dysfunctional sense of ‘safety’ within the walls of Empire. Thus the oppressors think themselves into existence; their own identity as masters of Empire depends on their projection onto the barbarians of denied aspects of themselves. What Coetzee creates in his novel is a kind of memorial to the victims; he cannot insult them by attempting to historicise their experience:

‘Waiting for the Barbarians does not recover history as a fully narratable subject, but bears witness to it by refusing to translate the suffering engendered by colonial oppression into historical discourse. In “bringing to speech an impossibility of speech” (Agamben, Remnants 164), in maintaining rather than negating the unsayability it says, the novel can be seen to embrace an anti-historicist ethics of remembrance, an ethics of testimony….’ (J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and the Ethics of Testimony)

Coetzee portrays an example of thought control at its most powerful, for any thoughts that do not concur with Empire’s masters are prohibited. This destroys individuality and choice, determining what people are allowed to think and censoring those who dare to contradict the ‘laws’ through the use of torture and murder.

That Empire has no definite article is crucial, for this generalises the imperialist way of thinking, making its milieu unspecified. Thus the implication is that the discourse of totalitarianism can be found anywhere and everywhere.

George Orwell was also well aware of this fact; ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,’ he said. In his seminal novel, 1984 he creates the ‘thought police,’ those who will closely monitor the thoughts of others, through omnipresent television monitors, minute observation of facial expression and other subtle surveillance methods. The menacing image of Big Brother is everywhere. Any deviation from the party line is regarded as thoughtcrime and thought criminals are severely punished with torture or death.

Sadly many forms of persecution, maltreatment of others, and tyranny are to be seen in the real world and their threat is pervasive today. Under the guise of religion or politics, and long after the year 1984, people around the world are tortured, brutalised and oppressed for their ways of thinking.

Such physical and psychic trauma often result in difficulties with thinking, remembering and certainly with speaking thoughts. Extreme suffering such as this often renders speech impossible, creating numbness and an inability to think. Subsequently, painful memories may be repressed, as a way of defending against the resulting psychic pain.

When such pain becomes unmanageable, some people might decide to engage in psychotherapy. There are many examples of how patients in therapy unconsciously find ways of suppressing the thinking process as a defence against very painful thoughts and repressed feelings and impulses.


In group psychotherapy, this can be particularly striking; psychoanalyst Robert Hinshelwood, in a book entitled Ring of Fire;Primitive Affects and Object Relations in Group Psychotherapy , describes attacks on what he calls ‘the reflective space’ in the group:

‘The term ‘reflective space’ indicates that aspect of the group in which members link emotionally and from which personalities can emerge. In contrast, primitive states reveal themselves in attacks on the capacities for thinking, for reflecting and for making emotional links.’

Such attacks may take the form of ‘primitive processes of violence and paranoia,’  which disrupt the group’s thinking.

In individual therapy, the patient may also attack thinking, for buried emotional truths can be extremely upsetting. The task of analytical therapy is to help the patient bring into consciousness such difficult issues, which may be adversely affecting aspects of his current life. The therapist’s empathy and understanding will, it is hoped, enable a committed patient to work through such difficulties.

Further examples on attacks on thinking will be discovered in a future post about the effects of digital media on thinking.

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)