Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bishop, Crain, & the Therapeutic Model

The redoubtable Caleb Crain, blogging at The Paris Review on pronouns & the paintings of Elizabeth Bishop:

Panic attacks were waking me up in the middle of the night. In addition to a rapid heart beat, cold sweat, cascades of adrenaline, and pure fear, I experienced a conviction during these episodes that my personal pronouns were broken. I remained aware that the word I referred by convention to the body attached to the mind that happened at the moment to be uttering it, but the knowledge wasn’t accompanied by a sense that there was anything necessary, special, or meaningful about the reference. During one episode I had the impression that my missing self, or soul, or whatever it was, wasn’t far away—that it was fluttering around somewhere above me, like one of those birds you sometimes see battering themselves nervously against the ceiling of a bus-station terminal.

Crain sees in Bishop's work a distant analog to his own trouble with pronouns & considers how her visual art might be (or fail to be) talismanic. One argument that's often been floated about the uses of poetry (though we in the oonaverse don't discount the current consensus about poetry's uselessness or, at least, its pointlessness) has to do with its therapeutic function, its ability to help repair a mind in crisis. (Crain isn't making this claim at all, really, but his post raises the issue.) I.A. Richards, an important figure in modernist poetry criticism, was one of the most famous exponents of the therapeutic model of poetry. In Science and Poetry (1926), he outlines a theory about how minds struggling with the conditions of modernity--particularly the effects of the scientific worldview--might find in poetry an anodyne and (perhaps) even an antidote to what he sees (accurately or not) as distinctive twentieth century problems.

The question about whether poetry makes you saner (Richards et al.) or madder (Plato et al.) is probably, in the end, less interesting than the questions of how, where, & why readers of poetry have tried to make these use-arguments. Even in the early twenty-first century--when most people who concern themselves with English language poetry will (when asked what it's good for) laugh a little sheepishly & say I just like it, is all--remnants of this discourse of use are still common currency. It is not, after all, unreasonable to want to justify an activity to which you devote a great deal of time. We make of function a virtue. We delight, nonetheless, in wasting our time with poetry blogs. Now go do something useful for a change.