( Published in issue 55 of THE NEW YORK QUARTERLY, Nov., 1995)
The following remarks were partially inspired by a long editorial
in issue 39 of New York Quarterly on the possible damage done to creative
people (that is, living people) by psychotropic (mind-changing) drugs.
It occurred to me that, while psychiatric theories and practices impinge
on the entire population, there's a special relationship between psychiatry
and twentieth century poetry that renders poets particularly vulnerable:
Psychiatry has been the religion of modern poetry, as closely intertwined
with its practice as was, say Catholicism with the poetry of Dante.
When I'm not among poets, I find few people who know anything about
poetry. On the other hand, it's a truism that a good friend who has
never been trained in psychiatry is likely to do one more good than
a professional shrink. This is one point where these professions diverge.
I've been a poet for about 35 years, so I know something about poetry.
I've spent those same years NOT being a psychiatrist, so I know something
about psychiatry. (I HAVE done a few thousand hours of counseling
with some success, but without the dubious benefit of psych-anything
The usual connections discussed between psychiatry and poetry deal
with either the profound implications for poetry of psychoanalytic
concepts or the specific effects of treatment on Plath, Sexton, Lowell,
Berryman and others. I will not here add a few more paragraphs to
the libraries swollen with Freudian and Jungian significances or the
shelves newly crammed full of Who- Done-It-To-Sylvia books. In any
case, those who think that passing a large voltage through a depressed
poet's brain is necessary or wholesome should probably not bother
to read on.
My emphasis is, rather, that the relationship between poets and psychiatrists
is much like the relationship between Afghan children and the Russian
troops who scattered grenades disguised as toys: We (poets) are playing
with toys strewn by an enemy - or at best a doubtful ally. These toys
may be attractive, but it helps to know where they came from and what
traps they may conceal, lest we be maimed by them.
(This will be a pontification, mainly - no textual criticism. Proceed
at risk; beware of heavy ideas falling on road.)
Before I relate poetry to psychiatry, I need to relate psychiatry
to psychiatry - it's a schizoid subject. Most educated people still
think of psychiatry as, primarily, "talk therapy", for example, psychoanalysis.
Indeed, until recently, wealthy literate urban types (including the
writers who "educate" us on the subject), when they sought psychotherapy,
received some form of talk therapy, while rural and poor people were
shipped to asylums where treatment consisted mainly of drugging, shock
This has changed (as NYQ 39 documented). Few psychiatrists now are
trained in psychoanalysis, and little attention is given in their
training to any form of talk therapy. Psychologists and social workers
are more likely to be taught this, but the leaders in the mental health
field are the psychiatrists (the 007s of medicine). And in the rush
to embrace biopsychiatry (your every upset is a chemical imbalance
in your brain - though saying "your" and "brain" is a redundancy in
biopsychiatry), many psychiatrists favor the elimination of talk therapy
from the psychiatric approach to mental health.
It's much better economics to give out shocks and pills. A psychiatrist
can hand out Prozac prescriptions to 10 patients (for a substantial
fee - and $1000 for a single electric shock) in the hour it takes
to LISTEN to a single patient. And the listening requires attention
and hearing about all sorts of possibly upsetting things and, usually,
feeling the aftershock of failure to help. And the drugs are slicker:
Lots of side effects, but the worst ones are subtler than tardive
dyskinesthesia. Suicidal and murderous obsessions behind a smiling
face are not as disturbing to family and friends as unceasing, limb-and-face-wrenching
And the insurance companies pay for it. And Clinton's health plan
will pay for more of it.
Yes, there are "alternative" and "holistic" approaches, but they are
not part of the main psychiatric agenda, they do not receive the bulk
of government funding, they are not establishing clinics in public
schools and they have little to do with the treatment of mental illness
in this country and Europe.
A psychiatrist will argue that biopsychiatry is not only profitable
and easy (for the practitioner), but also the most effective therapy.
Since Time Magazine and most TV networks and NPR have been propagating
this viewpoint for years, it should need no further promotion here.
For an opposition viewpoint, I recommend the book Toxic Psychiatry by
Peter Breggin, M.D., St. Martins Press, NY, 1991. Or, for a booklet-length,
more sensational and less expensive view, get hold of a terrific piece
of muck-raking (which doesn't mean untrue - it's well documented)
called The Rise of Senseless Violence in Society: Psychiatry's Role
in the Creation of Crime, available for two bucks from CCHR, (Citizens
Commission on Human Rights) 6362 Hollywood Blvd., Ste. B, L.A.,
CA 90028. For those allergic to muck-raking and who want something
more intellectually austere than Breggin, try Thomas Szasz, The Myth
of Mental Illness.
What's wrong with psychiatry? I'll confine myself to a few brief remarks
(which I won't try to substantiate here, but the above references
do a good job of it, particularly Breggin):
- No, it has NOT been demonstrated that our mental problems result
from chemical imbalances in our brains. This is a piece of metaphysics,
like the notion that we moderns, being scientific, know that you
die and that's it, because this was proven by science long ago
(when?). Yes, it is possible to add a chemical and change brain
chemistry and with it our behavior/moods. But it is also possible
to change our behaviour/moods and with it, brain chemistry. Any
good hypnotist, for example, can change brain chemistry by implanting
a mood. And it doesn't require a hypnotist. One can learn to do
it at will. So which comes first? Do we cause our brain chemistry,
or does our brain chemistry cause us? Even the experiments that
claimed to find physical differences (shrunken parts) in the brains
of people suffering certain symptoms failed to take into consideration
that these people were already on psychiatric drugs known to cause
[Speaking of size of brain parts - props for the obscene jokes
of future generations of children? - it is odd to see leaders
of gay movements cheering on the shrinks - brain shrinkers - who
claim that homosexuals are homosexuals because one part of the
homosexual's brain is unusually small (or is it large?). It was
psychiatrists who established the first concentration camps in
Germany (e.g., Dachau) and the first ovens for ridding the Reich
of useless eaters, homosexuals and others who were alleged to
be genetically inferior, and it was psychiatrists in Germany (e.g.,
Ernst Rudin), England, the United States and elsewhere who did
the early "scientific" spadework for Hitler, for example, on Jewish
and Negro inherent personalities and on the necessity to purify
the human race with eugenics. When psychiatry says you're not
sick, you're just "different" - you should hide, not cheer.]
- The psychiatrists who say, "Yes, these treatments do have some
unfortunate side effects, but we must live with these, because
nothing else works to relieve the symptoms", have not studied
everything else. The implied research that studied everything
else and discovered that it didn't work does not exist. At best,
it can be verified that some psychiatrists poorly trained in some
form of talk therapy never validated by clinical study in the
first place failed to relieve a patient of schizophrenia by listening
poorly, interrupting frequently and lavishing upon him or her
the high affinity we usually reserve for cockroaches.
I know of approaches that DO work to relieve clinical depression,
for example, that do NOT require drugs, shock, etc. But that's
another story. It's hard to prove that in the scope of this article.
It's easier to show that psychiatry hasn't really looked. That's
an absence, easy to find not there once you look for it. Some
researchers DO look and DO find workable techniques. When these
techniques don't fit the psychiatric agenda, the official response
is always, "Oh, this patient is perfectly sane. You say you cured
her paranoia? No no no, it must have been a misdiagnosis to begin
with, since we all know that talk therapy can't cure paranoia.
Freud said so. By the way, you've lost your grant."
- Psychiatrists present themselves as those who have, historically,
taken responsibility for relieving humanity of mental anguish.
And many people believe this. It's part of an intense double-think
in our society: One night the made-for-TV movie features a villainous
Svengali in a white coat who terrorizes patients, and we nod,
yes, isn't psychiatry awful. The next night we nod as energetically
to see the loving shrink who, with immense compassion and personal
sacrifice, leads some poor sufferer back to the sunlight. Then
there's the good- hearted or at least harmless bumbler (Frazier).
No doubt all these clichés convey some truth.
But as one might expect from a field whose name means "Soul-healing",
but which begins by declaring that the soul is an unwieldy superstition
to be discarded - all is not what it seems. Psychiatry, historically,
from Bismark to this moment, has been financed, not by individuals
seeking help, but by governments seeking ways, not to cure individuals,
but to CONTROL POPULATIONS. On an individual level, this means the
goal is to control (suppress) symptoms or suppress the people whose
symptoms can't otherwise be suppressed.
The political objectives of psychiatry are obvious and widely agreed
upon when we look at the uses of psychiatry in the USSR (and, no,
they didn't fund Pavlov because they wanted to control their canine
population). It's no less obvious (when, for example, one looks at
the evidence in Breggin's book), but much less agreed upon when we
consider the practice of psychiatry in the United States.
Obviously the psychiatrists who prescribe Ritalin in our schools have
no political objective. They're just handling a brain imbalance. It's
odd, however, that only 2 or 3% of the children in a typical white
suburban school have brains lacking Ritalin, while more than 50% of
the children in an urban black school are likely to need it.
And we all know that governments are ANTI drug, right? Why would a
country at war with drugs sponsor a practice that hooks people on
drugs that do essentially the same thing as illegal street drugs:
Damage the brain and make people feel better, sometimes, while on
the drug? I can't think of any political motivation for producing
a drugged passive slave society - though the CIA did confess to introducing
LSD into this country via subsidized psychiatrists (including Cameron,
then head of the World Mental Health Assoc., who ran murderous LSD/shock/deep
sleep experiments on his unsuspecting patients in Montreal in hopes
of developing a real Manchurian-Candidate assassin for the CIA) -
as part of MK Ultra in the 50's and early '60's. (No assassins resulted,
it is claimed, but the experiments produced lots of vegetables, so
maybe it served agriculture.)
By the way, these psychopolitical goals are easy to document. Like
the Nazis, the psychiatric establishment despises us experimental
subjects too much to leave anything undocumented. The speeches made
by prominent psychiatrists to psychiatric associations and government
officials over the years are on record and are astonishing - as blatant
as Mein Kampf and as little heeded. (The CCHR booklet provides some
In summary, there's this profession called psychiatry whose mainline
teachings proclaim that we are our minds, and our minds are our brains
- or, some say, our brains, nervous systems and endocrines and related
biological structures; that any mental upset is a chemical imbalance;
that we can't help ourselves, but must be controlled by drugs or shock
or other intrusive methods to restore chemical balance; that we are
the effect of heredity (It used to be environment and heredity, but
environment is becoming unfashionable because it makes too many mothers
feel guilty and it suggests that one should do something for the person
other than inject chemicals); that the well-adjusted (or chemically
balanced, now) is healthy, etc.
And, conversely, it teaches that the spirit is non-existent - or at
best a meaningless construct, death an absolute; that it is necessary
to dump the burdens of ethics, dignity, freedom, spirituality, etc.
(Psychologist B. F. Skinner, who developed instrumental conditioning,
tried to raise his daughter by it and produced something less sanguine
than Walden Two, even wrote a book about this called Beyond Freedom
and Dignity. What's beyond freedom and dignity? Being well-adjusted,
And, by the way, those most likely to lead us away from this ideal
of "well adjustment", the most self-determined people in society,
the creative people who tend to make their own rules - in short, the
artists - are crazy, because you have to be crazy or next thing to
it to be a great artist, so if you're an artist, to show your greatness,
live an undisciplined, unethical life and generally make a mess of
it. And realize that you need help ASAP, run, do not walk to your
Well, that's a relief: The villain of the piece is modern biopsychiatry.
We poets have nothing to do with that (except for a few suicides and
incoherent out-patients). OUR intimate relationship is with the poetic
fringes of psychotherapy, Freud, Jung, the vasty deeps of the unconscious,
etc. And haven't I just said that psychiatry is now in the process
of discarding these practices? We're humanists, not psychosurgeons.
This brings me to the linking of psychiatry to psychiatry (sleek stainless
steel biopsychiatry to old sloppy lie-on-the-couch-and-be-interesting
analysis) I spoke of a few pages ago: Poets, in my experience, are
just beginning to understand what biopsychiatry means: You've lost
a lover: Don't try to understand it or achieve some new wisdom. Take
an anti- depressant. This is not a popular view with most poets I
know. It's not deep and symbolic and "inner" like Freud and Jung.
It's uncomfortable.(But articulate mental health spokespersons will
say that's a distortion: "We don't recommend drug treatment for temporary
upsets; only for chronic clinical depression." Nonsense: Powerful
and dangerous anti-depressants are being broadly promoted as diet
pills and prescribed for momentary upsets. Recently psych. hospitals
were closed in Texas and other states when it was proven that they
were recruiting and even kidnapping prospective "patients", some with
no symptoms of mental illness, and putting them on psychiatric drugs
until their insurance ran out, then discovering suddenly that the
"patients" were ready for release. When the government guarantees
lots of mental treatment as part of its health package, it will be
risky to act a bit odd, you wild and crazy poets.)
I would contend that the similarities between the psychoanalysts and
the biopsychiatrists are, broadly viewed, more significant than the
differences and that the psychoanalysts helped build a path to this
dominance of biopsychiatry in our society. Yes, psychiatry is now
in the process of ridding itself of psychoanalytic theory and practice,
but only as one dispenses of a worn tool.
Here are some agreements shared by classical psychoanalysis, biopsychiatry
and most "official" forms of psychotherapy and psychology:
- Man is effect, not cause. Man is not responsible for his condition.
In psychoanalysis man is the effect of his unconfrontable unconscious
("The horror! The horror!"), not his brain chemistry, but the
key is: Effect, not cause. Earlier psychology (e.g., faculty psychology
in the Middle Ages) spoke of the will, of the spirit, of responsibility,
etc. (Not always: High priesthoods prefer a populace that only
follows orders, whether the brain's or God's words as "relayed"
by the priesthood.) A man can't create the world he wants to live
in. He can only adjust (to the brain's demands for chemical, to
the demands of irrationality) and cope.
Hence we are not to be trusted with our own salvation. The psychiatrist
must control us for our own good. The psychoanalyst must explain
us to ourselves, invest even our dreams with his interpretations.
Eventually we'll all have wires hooked up to our pleasure centers
and all will be well, all manner of THING will be well.
- Man is effect, not cause. I said that already. I'll say it again
if necessary to make the point that no other agreement is needed
to demonstrate the linkage. It sounds like a little thing. It's
not. Sure, you can find therapists here and there who don't agree
that man is helpless before the onslaughts of environment and/or
heredity and/or the unconscious, but they are not part of the
mainstream, the funded, the positioned.
What happens to a child if, in rearing him, you continually point
out to him that he can't control himself or much else, that he can't
help himself, that he has to be careful because nearly everything
is dangerous to him, that he's not responsible for what he does and
that, poor thing, he's most lovable and interesting when he's been
picked on or hurt and can't do anything about it?
If the world were full of children who'd been raised that way, what
sort of world would it be?
Not much need to run this experiment: It might cause pain you cannot
easily undo. And the experiment has already been run on all of us
for decades: We've been told that we are the effect of things: The
world is dangerous to us. The opposite sex is dangerous to us. Our
own minds are too much for us. We must adjust to the world (school,
corporation, etc.), not adjust it to us. Those who suggest that we
are responsible for the state we're in are guilt mongers. Drug abuse
and child abuse are not unethical, but are illnesses, and really not
illnesses, but alternate lifestyles (yes, these are actual psychiatric
theories). And here we are (more or less).
(No wonder psychiatry served the Soviets so eagerly: Marxist theology
is also an "effect" view, ideas the result of collisions of opposing
Having achieved this unified field theory of psychiatry, I will now
speculate on what sort of poetry would be based on an effect view
of man. I hope you didn't expect a two-volume dissertation on the
specific influences, already much documented, of psychoanalytic theory,
alienation, etc., on poetry. No, this will be relatively painless,
just a simple way to align and understand some of the dogmas that
have attached themselves to our poetry, mostly in this century.
(In what follows, I don't argue that poetry so influenced is necessarily
lousy. Someone good can make something interesting out of excrement.
But it's a great way to lose an art form its audience.) Here are a
few likely characteristics:
- A glorification of victims, who become the "real heroes". (Funny
how much easier it is now to write about victims, how difficult
to write convincingly of heroes, people who cause to happen what
they want to happen and are not then overwhelmed by what they
have caused.) And the weird are more interesting than the "normal",
where weirdness is a subset of victimhood; for example, baroque
compulsions are considered fascinating and "deep", because they
reveal the inner depths of all of us, and are we not all victims,
helpless before the chaos of our own minds?
- A glorification of "symbol" and "myth", since these find favor
with the unconfrontable unconscious, which is more powerful and
more meaningful than our conscious "thought" or "rationality"
or even our observation and knowing.
- A glorification of the irrational (not non-rational or transcending
rational or mystical, but irrational). For example, surrealism,
which features dream imagery, means "above [sur] reality". The
surreal is not simply unreal or other-real; it's above/superior
to the real. Note that it is not the knowingly created dream,
the imagined, that is exalted here, but the unknowingly, unwillingly
created dream, the imagery that imposes itself from "the unconscious"
where the unconscious is not simply what we are not conscious
of (vanishing as consciousness increases), but a transcendent
Andre Breton founded the Surrealist movement, calling it "pure
psychic automatism...dictation of thought in the absence of any
control exercized by reason, beyond any esthetic or moral preoccupations."
Breton's education was in psychiatry.
[When I tire of overheated dissociative art, I take a cool dip
into Nabokov, the only prominent modern I know of who found both
Freudian and Jungian unconsciousnesses to be facile, boring and
pretentious. Viewing psychiatry as a bizarre, arbitrary construct,
he simply out-created it. That Joyce (and others) could make art
out of it (as some would argue) says more for Joyce than for Freud
and Jung. Or says that Freud and Jung have a rather aesthetic
play of ideas in among the dross - better poetry than science,
I've long suspected.]
- A glorification of the unintended: The true poem must happen
to one. You don't make it; you step in it. You don't communicate
it; you shake it off your foot onto everything in range. It isn't
made (though "poet" comes from poein, Greek for "to make"). Free
association is better than rational thought, and dissociation
is better yet (derange the senses). Even the craftsmen of our
century have mostly found ways to say that what they so meticulously
rendered was somehow imposed upon them and inevitable: They couldn't
- The assumption that the basic truths of existence (or the deepest
truths we can reach) are unconfrontably horrible. The argument
runs as follows: We moderns now know that life is a meaningless
horror from which we are protected by various frail strategems
and illusions. Most people don't want to confront these horrors,
which would only drive them mad. Therefore, serious works of art
cannot be popular. Conversely, to make a work of art more popular,
one must make it more corny (untruthful, sentimental, etc.). It
follows that if a work is broadly popular, it must be corny. It
is dangerous to go deeper, to try to get at more basic agreements.
One doesn't have a faith; one clings to a faith in order to stave
Vision is, of necessity, grim if it is valid. Great poetry is
either shocking (jolt people into seeing the awful truth - shock
therapy, of course) or obscure (elaborately non-confronting the
truth, sneaking up on it) or complexly, tentatively affirmative,
where the poet carefully "comes to terms with the meaninglessness
of existence" by means of complex ironies, "wry self-deprecating
humor" and almost apologetic joys that pop up in life despite
all our theories - like weeds in parking-lot asphalt. Or poetry
evades paraphrasable message altogether: Poem as pure music or
image or "language", truth in surface, etc.
It follows that poetry must be alienated, since poetry reaches
for a truth that any broad audience is incapable of confronting:
The world is unworthy of vision. (Besides, in a world devoid of
spirit, how can we not be out of communication with ourselves
and each other? Knock knock! Who's there?) Why should a poet try
hard to be understood when he feels that what he has to say will
only make his audience as miserable as he is? Or when he despises
and fears his audience?
And we can never hope to understand each other, the Holocaust
or anything else worth understanding. (We're pretty spineless,
can't face much. Humanity is Groucho's club, the one he wouldn't
want to join because it would have him as a member.)
Even formalists like Frost, Yeats and Auden are hard put to escape
this black hole. Fortunately poetry is not limited by the speed
of light. No matter the gravity, some manage to achieve escape
velocity on occasion. And a few never agreed.
- I mentioned shock as a valued poetic strategy: Since I feel
the value of shock is much overrated both in poetry and psychiatry,
I want to stress just how much shock has become the common coin
of this century's literature (especially poetry), most of it about
as shocking as a child's dirty joke. Art has always, I think,
involved surprise, a simultaneity of surprise and familiarity,
freshness and inevitability, something new that has yet always
been known. The aesthetic of shock goes beyond surprise (and it
doesn't require freshness, only force, perhaps very stale force):
It postulates that if a person can be jolted out of one state,
he/she will land in a better state.
Yes, if you throw babies into a cold fast river to teach them
to swim, some will learn - but most will drown. If you wanted
to teach swimming (or anything else that can be taught), you'd
best offer a series of easy steps that build up gradually to mastery.
Shock "therapy" cures depression, or seems to (sometimes) by wiping
out memories and abilities and moving man toward zombie. (That
some survive it with remnant heart speaks for their force of personality,
not the value of shock.) Shock in life and literature is justified
as a way of jarring people out of fixed ideas and attitudes, but
shock flings a person from one fixidity into another (explaining,
perhaps, the fanaticism of converts). Shock is not what its RECIPIENTS
need. It's what it's PURVEYORS need to deliver. It's a symptom
of the desperation of poets who cannot reach an audience, of psychotherapists
who, losing patience, cannot help patients. It is vengeance masquerading
as education or therapy. It loses readers as well as patients.
(Again that reservation: It can be made into great art. I suppose
anything can. The more tools the merrier. But it's a mistake to
confuse a tool - and a blunt one at that - with the essence of
- I think, too, that a poetry wedded to psychiatry would worship
the image. This is partly a matter of avoiding the odious "message"
as a solution to basic truth or any approach to wisdom being unconfrontably
horrible. But it's also part of that worship of the unconscious:
The image must be haunting and overpowering. It must be traumatic,
something that one doesn't create, but sets down because it won't
go away. Abstract statement is verboten. Poetry is IMAGE IMAGE
IMAGE. (Again, nice tool, the image, but awfully limiting as a
definition of poetry.)
I could think of more parallels to (or consequences of?) psychiatry
in the catechisms of modern poetry, but my point is probably made
by now - or unmakeable. I'm aware of post-modern backlashes, new bastions
of formalism and abstract statement. I don't know whether these amount
to a substantial change of course, and I don't know to what extent
these new trends, resisting the modernist clichés, incorporate them
in new forms. My point here has been, simply to indicate that in this
century, psychiatry has been the theology of poetry. Even staunchly
Anglican Great Poets speak with the voice of dissociation.
If I'm correct that poetry has taken on a psychiatric theology in
this century, is this peculiar to poetry? What about the other arts
and professions? No doubt our schools, churches, legal system (e.g.,
the notions of legal responsibility) and our other artforms have been
as influenced - or nearly so. I think psychiatry has particularly
found favor among the poets. Here I haven't much to say. I'm too lazy
to do the scholarship required to sell this point. I have only my
impression as reader that poetry bore the brunt of a psychiatric impingement
upon the arts. What makes me think this?
- The percentage of walking wounded in our field seems higher
than that in any other field.
- Poetry has had the greatest loss of a broad audience (a much
debated point these days).
- There are a lot more novels, for example, that I can feel good
after reading than poems. The sort of dissociation I spoke of
earlier was still "experimental" in most writing long after it
was endemic in poetry. I suppose painting could be argued to have
blazed some of these trails, but I don't think painting had a
"logic-promising" syntax as powerful as that of everyday language
to violate. (Sorry to even begin to open this can of worms in
a short article.)
- It makes sense (some will say paranoid sense) that poetry WOULD
be the first target for psychiatric subversion: Poetry depends
more than any other art form on the understood word. Most of us
communicate primarily in words, not in pictures or melodies, for
example. Seldom outside of opera do we see people at a bus stop
singing songs at each other. If you wanted a slave society (if,
for example, you were afraid of anyone being powerful enough to
find you out and hurt you), the first thing to do would be to
make it hard for people to communicate to each other, since your
small organized group would then meet no organized opposition.
A small group can easily control a mob. To wipe out clear communication,
muddle language as a tool for clear communication. To muddle language,
corrupt that art form chiefly responsible for keeping language
alive and able to get across what we feel, dream, remember, etc.
To corrupt that art form, push the idea that words are not to
be understood. (I think here of an interview I read twenty years
ago where Mick Jagger explained that for a song to be popular,
it was essential that it be impossible to make out the words.)
Push such concepts as "I really write for myself", "You're not
SUPPOSED to understand it", "Of course it doesn't make sense"
(irrationality being the supreme goal), "No one really understands
anyone else anyway", "The point is not words communicating, but
the music or the image or...".
It has often been observed that poets in the Western world have
been free to say anything at all in this century; whereas, poets
in places like Cuba and Russia have been frequently imprisoned and
even executed for their poems - and that our Western freedom is
not an unmixed blessing: We are left alone because we are not considered
important enough to bother with. We are not dangerous, because we
don't reach people, don't stir change, don't communicate or increase
the ability of others to communicate. I think we poets have been
a well-controlled population, like the hippies who rebelled against
the establishment by tripping on CIA-imported LSD.
I think poetry has become the least dangerous of arts because it
was made that way because it was the most dangerous of arts.
My argument for this special relationship between poetry and psychiatry
is far less complete (for me, I mean) than my argument earlier for
the parallel interests of psychiatry and recent poetry, but if it
is the case, how is it we've been so easily taken in? Aesthetically,
I suppose, the thrill of a brave new world of ideas. And the addictive
quick fix that lets us too easily create new combinations of images
when excused from having to make old-fashioned sense.
Also, poetry, receiving few rewards or recognitions based in broad
public acceptance, cut off largely from a recognized role in the
broader community and from commercial success, gains validation
for its work from small coteries of "authorities" who disguise opinion
and politics behind pseudotechnical complexities and complex verbiage
- just as psychiatry does. This renders poets particularly vulnerable
to psychiatric theology: An emperor accustomed to parading in rags
and pretending to splendor is in no condition to recognize another
The psychiatrists are the high priests of our day (official workers
of magic, spiritual - or anti-spiritual - authorities, using that
authority to maintain control of the populace for the priesthood's
own profit and on behalf of the government that funds and endorses
it - and is perhaps controlled by it, a president on Halcyon, for
Perhaps much of the unpopularity of poetry and the tendency of poets
to be taken in by psychiatry (personally or in their work) stems
from poets, too, wanting to be high priests. We become what has
overwhelmed us. I begin to think that the way most "serious" poets
INTONE their spoken lines (that sweeping vast intonation with the
upward questioning tilt at the end that resolves in a low note in
the last line) is not lyric (songlike), but priestly chant, the
high priest about to plunge his obsidian dagger into the virgin's
heart - one of those magical moments.
If of no other use, these ideas provide yet another excuse for finding
most poetry bad. Are we not all editors at heart? What matters the
excuse if we can just find a reason to read less of the stuff and
still call ourselves serious about poetry.
Or perhaps great poetry has had always at its core some awareness
of us as immortal spiritual beings at play (and quite "out of our
heads", possibly dangerous to the psycho-social order). Perhaps
poetry will always be the playing field of those who have never
agreed to be slaves. That's corny enough to be true.
more information, visit Citizen's
Commission for Human Rights on the Web.
copyright c. 2000,2004 by Dean Blehert. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.