Telling the Truth by Telling Lies – How Poetry Walks the Line

by Mary Canavan

An evening with Theo Dorgan (04.03.05, IAHIP, Aisling Hotel, Dublin).

An evening with Theo Dorgan was always going to be a pleasure. Anyone who has heard him in conversation with the good and the great, from Doris Lessing to Gore Vidal and Edward Said, will expect depths of knowledge, a quick wit and gentle irreverence. He is a poet, broadcaster, editor and, in recent years, a sailor. Tonight the poet and sailor were to the fore. Theo’s recently published book, Sailing for Home is a voyage of the sea and of the soul, which the reader takes along with the writer. For me, this describes the evening’s experience, though we sailed from the familiarity of home with Theo’s refrain “We make it all up” ringing in our ears.

Aware of the strangeness of the voyage, Theo highlighted points on the chart, our guiding stars from the classics, history and philosophy. We sighted Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who changed the course of English literature by turning the gaze inwards towards the self. Theo marked the place where poetry comes from as “the dimly heard music that comes from another room” and remembered Brian Friel describing his call to write “by the taste at the back of the tongue” We recognised the intuitive nature of creativity.  He talked of the imaginary not only as visual, but also enriched by voice, smell, taste and touch.   We reflected on the autonomy of the image.  After reading two poems, ‘Blue Bowl’ by Tony Curtis and ‘Silk’ by Paula Meehan, the power within the symbol to create meaning and to evoke feeling was palpable.  It does so independent of the life of the poet, creating a dream image for the multitude. We came through experiences of thought, feeling and image that placed poetry and psychotherapy in the same creative fray.

The challenge was put to us: does the language of psychotherapy confine or liberate? How do we realise that language does not simply reflect a reality but helps constitute it? The whisperings of the French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida, Kristeva, Luce Irigary were audible. Language is a narrative that seems at once to reveal and illuminate a world, and hide or distort it. William James, quoted by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, wrote; “New truth is always a go-between, a smoother over of new transitions”. We sailed on.

Travelling into deeper waters, the issue of power saturated the conversation: the power of uncompromising objectivity over the subjective; the power of educational practice to stifle a poem by strapping it to “proper meaning”. How political is the significance of reading a poem! The encouragement and skill to allow that child know the inner reverberation of a poem, undaunted by the “right answer” is mirrored in the process of our work that is the discovery, and strengthening of the inner voice, the inner self. And still the refrain “we make it all up”.  We could not allow ourselves become too secure, always respecting the unexpected, the oceans’ hidden depth.

The tide turned: there was laughter, irony, tales of radical politics, failed rock ‘n roll stars, Nuala Ni Dhomhnail as Persephone. There were questions out of wonder and out of scepticism. What was the root of artistic endeavour? Was there pain at the heart of all poetic life? What was impact of psychotherapy on artistic expression? In lively conversation with Theo, Brian Howlett introduced the concept of the consensual intersubjectivity; the felt shared moment reached through empathy. This is the precious moment of creativity in relationship whether it is found in a poem or the therapeutic moment.

Theo then skilfully set the course for home. Poetry is purification, he said, keeping the stream of language clear, running with vigour. It dislodges and erodes as it goes but in time, it deposits and transforms. He was unequivocal- poetry has never waned and will not die as it is intrinsic to the human spirit. He told us about the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. In the tenth year of his incarceration in the Gulag, a hardened fellow prisoner approached him. “Are you Mandelstam the poet?” Debilitated and morbidly afraid by this time, he said, “I am, what do you want of me?” The stranger recited three of Mandelstam’s poems precisely and heartfelt “I say these poems every day. They are what has kept me sane through these years” Theo’s parting words were “Sometimes we need poetry to enrich our lives, sometimes it is essential for survival”. Could be he spoke for psychotherapy too.

It was a wonderful evening, light hearted and rich. Strange to say, having taken the two hour voyage with Theo Dorgan through the counterflows of poetry and psychotherapy, having heard so many voices, we have not heard Theo’s true poetic voice in the reading of his own poems.

Mary Canavan has a private practice in Avalon Psychotherapy practice , Monkstown, Co. Dublin. Mary is currently serving on the Governing Body of IAHIP.