Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Keats, Poiesis and Psychotherapy

John Keats: Beautiful, Truthful and Tormented Soul

John Keats
Of the Romantic poets two have always enchanted me Samuel Taylor Coleridge  (October 1772 – 25 July 1834) for his wildness of spirit, depth of philosophy and breadth of vision and John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) for his intensity, profundity and his belief in the imagination which for him was nothing short of a religious belief in his deep commitment to it.  Of course, they were two very great poets as well - both masters of style who managed in that great Coleridgean definition of poetry to write "the best words in the best order."  If God existed, a proposition which Keats and most of his contemporaries were sincerely convinced of, this great Being would be little short of Imagination Supreme.  These are my words here, but they are not too far from the truth as I'll show further down in these musings.  Keats and my love for both his poems and letters have caused me to write these few lines here this evening.  He was a  poet who lived in the shadow of death for all of his far too short life - he died in at the age of a mere twenty-five years while the woman he loved and had hoped to marry lived to a ripe old age.

Another reason for my penning these lines here is that I have been reading a wonderful little book entitled Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1997) by Professor Stephen K. Levine, Associate  Professor of Social Science at Toronto University and co-founder of The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA).  This book caught my eye some few weeks back on Amazon and I literally had to buy it immediately, given its wonderful title which sums up a lot of what I believe about the work of psychotherapy today.  Soul work or Self work, call it what you wish, has always been very dear to me, especially now that I am in that second half of life which, as Jung puts it, is the time when we especially do a lot of soul-searching and meaning-making in our lives. 

My last ten or so posts have been on the history of madness and the historical development of psychiatry, coupled with some posts therein on my own personal experience of clinical depression and how we can learn to survive mental illness.  One of the ways I have survived is through what I call Soul-work or soul-making.  This, in effect, is the efforts of my imagination, shown through my creative activities like writing blogs in three languages, reading widely and more widely still the older I get; writing poems in both Irish and English and managing to get some of them published in journals here and there.  I also engage in meditation on a daily basis.  These, then, are the creative activities inspired by the force of my imagination.  Hence, this is a healing or holistic piece of writing here. It is meant to cheer and inspire; not to sadden and depress.  When I type these sentences, I am in fact soul-making - in other words, I am in fact meaning-making on a Soul or Self  level.  Then, all of this knits in well for me with the letters of one of my favourite poets, John Keats, who himself used that wonderful phrase "soul-making" in his highly influential and widely read wonderful letters.  You will see by my use of superlatives and the close repetition of the same superlative in the one sentence in the foregoing lines that I am an unrepentant disciple of this same poet.  I have even been on pilgrimage to the house in which he died in Rome twice in my life.

Levine in his introduction to the above mentioned book avers that

Stephen K. Levine
The essays and poems in this book were all written for specific occasions.  They retain, I hope, some of the liveliness of their origins, the sense of contact with a living audience.  The dangers in this type of work is that the parts will not cohere, that they will remain fragments of an unwritten whole.  In a sense this is appropriate: a major theme of my thinking is the necessity of fragmentation, the refusal to find prematue solutions that would only cover over differences in a facade of unity.  At the same time I find myself striving always towards integration, motivated by a hope for wholeness and reconciliation.  It is this activity of working through disintegration that I consider to be at the core of the creative and therapeutic processes.  I call this act "poiesis" (following Heidegger's use of the Greek word for poetry), and consider it to be the center of human existence. (Op.cit., p xvi.)
When I read these lines and the first two chapters I was immediately inspired to take down one of my favourite books of all time, viz., Letters of John Keats: A Selection, (OUP, 1987) edited by Robert Gittings.  Why?  Well, because practically everything that is said by Levine in the above quoted paragraph is ably expressed, and in a certain striking sense prefigured, in the prose and poems of an early nineteenth century poet, one John Keats.

Let's read some of Keats' own words here:

I  have been reading lately two very different books, Robertson's America and Voltaire's Siecle De Louis XIV. It is like walking arm and arm between Pizarro and the great-little Monarch.....Socrates Mankind may be made happy-I can imagine such happiness carried to an extreme-but what must it end in?-Death-and who could in such a case bear with death-the whole troubles of life which are now frittered away in a series of years, would the[n] be accumulated for the last days of a being who instead of hailing its approach, would leave this world as Eve left Paradise-But in truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectibility-the nature of the world will not admit of it-the inhabitants of the world will correspond to itself. Let the fish Philosophise the ice away from the Rivers in winter time and they shall be at continual play in the tepid de light of Summer.....Call the world if you Please "The vale of Soul-making". Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say 'Soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception-they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God-How then are Souls to be made? How then arc these sparks which are God to have identity given them-so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one's individual existence? I- low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because 'I think it a grander system of salvation than the chrystiain religion -or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation-This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence-the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and yet I think I perceive it-that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible-I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School-and I will call the Child able to -read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!  (I have copied perhaps too much from this letter as you can see from the above lengthy quotation, but I wanted to give the reader a taste of this real live letter - one can sense the poet literally thinking his thoughts out into language or words on tha page, unmindful of the rules of grammar - just like we all do when we write letters.  As a sort of Romantic soul myself, I regret the fact that we twenty-first-century folk have ceased writing letters to one another and have become far more used to lazy texts and e-mails which somehow lack the passion and imagination and intimacy of the hand-written letter).  See this link for a copy of this most profiound letter on line:  Soul-Making Keats )
I will leave it to the reader to compare both the quotation from Levine and that from Keats, because thay are both about the formation of the Soul in the sense of Soul as Identity or Self rather than as some transcendent or even immanent religious reality. Neither of these authors is talking in theological terms.  Indeed, both are talking in "depth-psychology" terms about identity, self-realization, individuation - use whatever term you please.  Obviously, Keats would have been totally unaware of these terms, which were not even invented during his lifetime.  In a very real sense both these authors are spiritual but not religious.  This is a theme I wish to return to again.  In  my next post I will say a little more about John Keats and his philosophy of life and his theory of "soul-making."

To be continued.

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