Theo Dorgan in Conversation with Thérèse Gaynor

I imagine that most people working in the area of psychotherapy are avid readers but no Irish writer really knows who their readers are, there is often so little feedback. One of the things that you never get is people speaking to you out of their specialism, speaking about how yours affects them or vice versa, so you rarely see a psychotherapeutic overview of contemporary Irish writings or even a response from a therapist’s point of view to an individual writer.

Every piece of writing is an orphan sent out to make its own way in the world; we can do absolutely nothing to control how it is received. And very often it’s sent out into a silence that is broken only by people who are already very much a part of the world from which it comes.

So if I consider the question; what might the role of poetry as narrative be in psychotherapy? I haven’t really got a clue because not enough therapists talk to enough poets about the use that they make of narrative; one of the unfortunate effects of the compartmentalised world we live in is that people live more and more inside their specialisms — and rarely step outside those bounds. I can put my hand up and say that I am not au fait with current trends in psychotherapy. I imagine I am nearly twenty years out of date in terms of what’s appearing in the literature. When I speak to psychotherapists, socially you might say, I think that what we immediately find in common is the thread of narrative, the realisation that story-telling is fundamental to the location of the human being in the totality of what it is that we do. Nonetheless, from a technical point of view I am not really aware of what is at the cutting edge of thought in their field.

One of the defining things we do is that we tell our stories, that is, we tell ourselves our stories, and perhaps in psychotherapy one tells ones story to oneself in the presence of another. Very often you hear of people managing a remarkable taking-back, by taking charge of or by mastering the narrative of their life story. The macro example of that in my life time is the emergence of feminist discourse. The new narrative began to be written in confident, aggressive and necessary ways – in ways it had never been written before. When I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I remember reading the Female Eunuch and The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone and I was very impressed with Greer (but less so as time goes by, as she becomes a parody of herself)  I thought that in many ways Firestone was more remarkable because she understood that you must create a master narrative if you are to create a new way of looking at the world.

You can’t just supplant a narrative out of thin air, the new has to be organically linked to what it comes from, what it challenges, it has to be a dialectic. So if there was to be a new feminist view of man and woman it would have to be according to how things actually are, from what actually exists, and not be a sort of wish fulfilment on the part of irritated middleclass academics. Americans, and a great deal of the feminism we were exposed to was American, are still obsessed with striking off out into the great unknown, with the writer as solitary pathbreaking hero.

But no writer is ever alone. The late Francis Stewart, a much maligned man, had what he called a high consistory, a term drawn from the medieval priesthood, a jury of eminent writers whom he had admired above all others and before whom he imagined placing his work to be judged I would imagine that a person who is reconstructing the narrative for themselves in therapy will have, consciously and unconsciously role models or exemplary figures who they would like to learn from, before whom they would like to place the evolving self. Where the work is done is a moot question: Is the work best done when you walk away from another human being, when you are alone? If I write a poem, my next impulse after writing it is to write it better but a point comes when it’s absolutely no good to me at all until I show it to somebody else, until I hear what they have to say. For a writer there is a high risk that they will say that it’s rubbish. So you might only show your work to people who will unequivocally praise it but by the end of your professional formation, you are actively seeking out people who will, if given the slightest opportunity, happily rubbish the poem.

You go from aren’t I great to have made this drawing of a boat with finger paints  all the way to making a boat that will stand in any storm. You take your narrative away from that place. You take it away from that conversation with the other, and you have to take complete responsibility for it yourself and you have to turn back into the self again.

Let’s say that someone in therapy comes to a new realisation and thinks, “God, I hadn’t realised that there were times when I was in charge and I didn’t let things go by” and that becomes useful to them in making a new story for themselves. Well that will also happen in making a new poem, an image will certainly strike you with force and you might say that this is about hope and not despair or vice versa and this will push you deeper into the poem or you might say, this is trite and banal and you bin it. The question is perhaps, how do you know which it is, good or bad, promising or a dead end? Robert Graves has a poem called ‘Any Honest Housewife’ and in it he says that any honest housewife can tell you straight away if a fish is off or not. They may not have a degree in biology or chemistry or biochemistry but they’ll know immediately when a fish is off. And he says that we have the same capacity for the work of art and if you’re an honest poet you can tell when something is off.

A poem is a kind of architecture in space and time which is using pure energy as its matrix and it either holds together or it doesn’t. A sculptor casting in bronze makes a mould that is out of balance, out of kilter, where the axis doesn’t support the weight and as soon as the piece comes out of the mould it will fall over to one side or the other because there will be too much weight off the central axis. That’s basic technique, and technique is part of the process. It isn’t all inspiration, and it cannot be mere wilfulness. If you keep making sentences without verbs you’re eventually going to run out of meaning as far as the impatient reader is concerned. So, you learn technique, a means of using the language as it actually is. There are an awful lot of people who are quite happy to settle simply for technique, who can produce these beautifully dainty things. So really, at the end of the day, the skilled writer and the skilled reader are in the same place, looking for that quick of life. It’s what you know or you don’t know, it’s what you see or what you don’t see, it’s either there or it isn’t and if you don’t get it you’ll never get it, you can’t have it explained to you. Technique carries the thing so far, but it’s the flash of lightning at the heart of the story that matters.

Coleridge wrote autobiographically explaining a poem would be like teaching a theory of music to the deaf or a theory of colour to the blind – you get it or you don’t. Louis Armstrong was once asked what jazz was and he said; ‘…if you have to ask the question then you wouldn’t understand the answer.’ The culture teaches us not to trust that and yet, in the culture we actually live in, people do it all the time, they spot good music and distinguish good popular music from bad popular music instantly – it’s not a very sophisticated apparatus, you know when something is crap or when it’s good and how does that happen? Perhaps it’s an innate element of consciousness that we’re being guided by. And this flies in the face of the institutionalised scepticism of the formal culture.

It’s our habitual experience, generally, to make immensely complex acts of judgement on people, practically the instant we meet them. We can take a long time to untangle the elements of the story but you either have the connection or you don’t, you make a connection with a person or you don’t, you trust them or you don’t. It’s no surprise to anyone if they hear someone say, ‘I knew the instant I laid eyes on him he was a rat.’ We say that sort of thing all the time and more often than not we’re right. One of the working definitions of un-ease in the self is not being able to make those judgements with confidence. As long as you realise that nobody is infallible then it’s a healthy thing to have. That works in aesthetics just as much as it does in every day to day ordinary dynamic and of course you must know it well enough. This is very different to just having an opinion. An opinion is utterly worthless but, an informed opinion is a very different thing.

The great heresy of our time would be to suggest that direct or unmediated knowledge is possible. We live in an age where all knowledge has to be mediated. It’s the fallacy of the scientific model that a thing is only valid if it can be endlessly replicated by others, that’s not true in our lives. Yet, if you take what Maslow called peak experiences for instance, those things which mean most to us, mean so much in part because they are not replicable.  How do we convey that to each other?

Anybody who has ever been in love recognises the signs immediately in someone, even a total stranger, if they have recently fallen in love. The signs are there and though it might be sentimental and gauche to try to describe them, nevertheless the knowledge, the perception is instant.

Can you imagine a group of women meeting for a drink on a Friday night and one of them has just come from out of the bed of their lover – the others will all know instantly, I’ve seen it happen, instantly. Direct unmediated knowledge.

This has been a bad historical moment for a lot of men; most men I know belong to a transition generation where the kind of naive and often sentimental simplicities of male identity have been left long behind and everybody is trying to find a way to make a new identity. In the aftermath of the arrival of the Feminist Movement and the coming back into discourse of half of the human population there have been repercussions. It’s like a great load of wagons suddenly banging into the back of a stationary wagon, the shock effect has been long term.

So there are difficulties with male identity. There’s an interesting gap in the narratives that flow back and forth between women and men now. If from the age of sixteen you’re reading constantly that you’re prone to being a rapist simply by virtue of being a man and no crime is more abhorrent to you than rape, how do you resolve that into a positive narrative? If you look at paradigm shifts in human history it can happen very rapidly. I’d like to think that the restoration of balance might happen very fast and in our time.

I read someone like Andrea Dworkin who says that every act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is a rape. I think that is a truly bizarre statement. But once a thing is said, it becomes part of the totality of what is thought. Just as the horrific things that men have said about women in history are always there in back of our stories, climbing into our new narratives with the greyness of the old wrapped around them. And that makes it difficult for some men I know to simply see feminism as a desire for justice because they see it as a competing narrative, they see part of the drive in it as a wish to replace one upward/downward relationship with another.

I do recognise that in moments of great historical change it is often the unfortunate lot of a generation caught in the transition to suffer, to get caught in the turbulence in between. And so, that’s just tough luck and get on with it. What worries me is that there aren’t too many examples of a new narrative in accepting an adult relationship between a man and a woman, which also necessitates a new narrative between women and women and men and men, there are not too many examples of new narrative like that. How does this affect poets? Well, consider this: you’re told that all love poems are suspect and that they are ideologically wrong – love poems belong to a discourse that is part of a decadent male culture and therefore we can’t have it. These excesses in the academy are often driven by people who are taking up more and more extreme positions in order to stand out in the race for tenure, but they leak back down into the culture and do immense damage. Over and against that discourse of learning, if you like, which is more and more a specialism of the academies, there is a different discourse, which is a discourse of popular song, a discourse of poetry and painting and theatre and film. So there is always another position. In the case just posited, and in defiance of theory-based prescription, men and women, will keep on writing love poems and writing love songs and songs of struggle and funny poems and — well, whatever they like really.

If you look at the history of evolution in human society whenever there is a push towards some kind of totality or a totalising view ideologically, there is always a corresponding reaction to that in the culture or in what we think of as cultural phenomena. So, for example, Wordsworth the great English nature poet was writing in a time when the Industrial Revolution was really beginning to take off in the U.K. The rail network was spreading its tentacles everywhere, right through the Island of Britain, Wordsworth himself had shares in the railway company, but there he was writing about pristine untouched nature at a time when the process of the despoliation of nature is really getting under way – you get this kind of dialectical impulse. I would say that it’s very likely that if we do find a new healing social narrative of how it might be between men and women and men and men and women and women, most of the key texts will be works of fiction or works of poetry or works of drama.  These will give us the new language. It’s less and less likely that it will come from the language of the sciences or the language of the pseudo-sciences and I don’t include psychotherapy in that.

I see psychotherapy as a parallel to writing in so far as it values the independent human being as practitioner, and it resists coalescing into an ideology. As long as it is a healing science of listening, which is alert to the possibilities of narrative then, it sets itself much more firmly with poetry than science. In the sense that, for instance, it would be unhelpful if someone were to attempt on a scientific model to come up with a typology of human nature which would allow us to throughput certain determined characteristics and output a resolution of the kind:  “You are a white female, you are four kilos overweight, you have an ambiguous relationship with your father and a negative relationship with your mother, you earn thirty-five thousand a year in a position of responsibility and own your own home – what ails you is x and the solution is y”. If we relate to this kind of quantifiable model then it’s absurd and it’s not how successful healing works in any aspect of medicine.

Science as a thing we do is a good and useful thing in its place but it doesn’t supply us with a paradigm that can be applied to everything else we do. Painting or dancing or hill walking or cycling or swimming, by virtue of their metaphoric resonance, do in fact give us much more useful paradigms to deal with the complexities of life.

You can have very interesting and clear experiences in psychotherapy by focusing on two very distinct ideas about yourself or about different part of your life and by placing them side by side, a technique common in poetry or in painting. You could say for instance that ‘for breakfast I prefer sweet things rather than sour things’ and put that alongside ‘I’ve never gone to see a comedy film in my life’ – one doesn’t mean the other, nor are they even the same order of statement, but putting these two true things about yourself side by side sets the mind working in a different way. What’s interesting is that it works because it’s drawn from the fullness of being human. The science model suggests that what works for you can be replicated for anyone else that is essentially at the heart of the scientific model. Art suggests we can all learn from the singular and the unrepeatable.

The bedrock on which all narrative is based on is the bedrock of language: we make narrative with words and words are not simple things, they carry their histories, they carry resonances that are more important than any literal meaning sometimes.  In the nineteenth century if you said of a politician that he was a man of no honour, it would have been a most devastating thing to say but if that is said today, about any member of the Dail, people just shrug, unmoved – the word no longer carries the weight that it used to have. Part of the business of poetry is to constantly make the language fresh and clean again, to clear the stream. Language comes down to us like a great river that rolls on into the future, we swim in it, we walk on it (the occasional one of us) but it carries each of us for a certain distance and then like it or not, there is an end, we die. We may or may not have added to the flow of the language, we may have polluted it or we may have helped to clear it. One part of the business of poetry is clearing the stream.

In every culture, in every time, people have recourse to poetry because it’s in poetry that we try for a clear state of being where words mean only but fully what they mean. And sometimes we acknowledge that meaning may be beyond us, we do not have to be in charge of everything. So we read a poem and we say, I don’t know why that poem breaks my heart but it does – it’s good to have an experience that you can’t explain provided you have the strength to give yourself to it and not be diminished by that experience.

Poetry, because it has a certain cultural cachet, permits you to be overwhelmed gracefully with no loss of sense of self. Painting does the same and theatre does the same. It’s part of what Aristotle and the Greeks meant by cathartic experience. We know somehow when the culture is lying to us and is polluted.

We live in Ireland in the early part of the twenty-first century where the dream of a republic has been superseded by the nightmare of an economy and we elect people to govern over us who are focused on making more profits for the rich, not on making a humane education system, not on making it possible for the largest number of people to delight in being alive but to produce a ‘productive’ economy. Well, this is a banal observation but it’s interesting to me that so many will agree with the analysis but resist doing anything about it. Dare one suggest we are under some kind of malign spell? We are so reduced in our lives at the moment, we live inside such a narrow compass, that our lack of imagination gives a certain focus and drive to our rulers’ will to power – but some of us at any rate are burrowing away, burrowing away all the time and eventually we will bring them down.

We want our language to be clear, we want our language to be good. We want, when someone says ‘I will be there for you’ – we want the words to mean ‘I will be there for you’. When someone says ‘I can do nothing for you’, it’s good, it’s helpful to know that that means ‘I can do nothing for you.’

That’s the business of poetry, to allow words their absolute freedom to be and to mean what they are. It’s always about clarity, everything is about clarity. It’s not an accident that ‘claritas’ and ‘caritas’ are so close, they are practically Siamese twins – ‘clarity’ and ‘charity’. There is a reason for that. When people need and want you to know exactly what they mean they say ‘Let me be clear.’ It’s fundamentally important to us, that we be understood in our speech, and we’ve taken something from one vocabulary to another in order to emphasise it.

I believe that poetry is an architecture made of light, it’s made of energy and what holds it up, the architecture of the poem, is the exact same kind of thing as the skeleton of a high-rise building. It has stresses and strains, balances and imbalances,  and that’s what holds up the structure. It’s that light that takes place inside the building that no-one can explain but that’s what keeps us going. The thing is, you never know where it comes from.

One of Graves’s poems called “Dance of Words” says; ‘…. grant them their own traditional steps and postures/ and see that they dance it out again and again/ until only lightning is left to puzzle over, the choreography plain and the theme plain.’ In a different way the American poet Galway Kinnell said, when he was asked where do poems come from? that it’s a matter of walking out into a field one evening in a storm and hoping to be hit by lightning and if you’re lucky you’ll be hit by lightning four or five times in your life.

You can’t decide to write a poem, poems write themselves, poems write in and through you. That’s why when people say; she has the gift of poetry, it would be more accurate to say; she has had the gift of some poems, she has been gifted some poems. Nobody knows what will survive of all the poems now being written, nobody ever knows what will survive, and sometimes poems have their own wayward power of living. Something that might strike us as quite banal in our culture may come to be the defining speech of our time at a later time. Sometimes I will say that the best lines of poetry written in the twentieth century are in Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” —  ‘…the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face’ – and that either opens the world up for you or it doesn’t. Paul Simon has the line ‘… the moon rose over an open field’ and that’s also one of the great lines of the twentieth century. You can’t say the line without being in the field, it’s impossible to be alive, to say those words aloud and not be in the field. And no-one knows how this works but it works and there is truth in the ancient formula ‘ right time, right place, right speech, right hearer’ – you must be fitted and framed to hear it, you must be ready to hear it, you must be willing to hear it, you must be able to hear it.

This surely must also be a great question in psychotherapy? We may believe we’re  ready to hear what we’re being told but we may not be able to understand what we’re being told. It’s a terrible mistake that we make and our culture drives us towards it, and that is the idea that, if I don’t get it then it must be stupid or flawed and, if I don’t understand it then you must be wrong. If you teach people not to have powers of discrimination, not to value the power of discrimination, if you teach people that all opinions are equally valid, the uninformed as valid as the informed, it’s easier to sell them rubbish, it’s easier to make the citizen into the consumer.

I don’t think anyone sat down and worked this out and planned this, but I do think that in Ireland we are no different to other cultures and that all cultures are immensely naive about the quality of deliberate deceit perpetrated by the advertising community and that individuals specialising in cognitive behavioural psychology are employed at the highest level in advertising agencies and in manufacturing companies in order to very skilfully manipulate the mass of humanity.

The problem is that this has leaked out into the rest of the things we do. We’re fed the idea that the more you have the happier you’ll be and that’s how people get persuaded to keep buying and yet, nobody has that experience. I never met a single person whose happiness increased directly in proportion to their power to buy things. I’ve met a lot of people who were miserable because their lives were poor but that’s a different thing. The difference is that there is a way of being rich that kills your spirit and there’s a way of being poor which doesn’t.

I grew up in very poor circumstances, we were a large family on one man’s salary, we were poor by any objective standards – but we had very good neighbours, we had very good relatives, we were good with each other and we got through with a fraction of what I would now consider basically necessary for anyone to get through. We were part of and lived in a community. I’ve no time for the sentimentalisation of poverty but if you’re going to be poor, it’s better to be poor in a place where community is still a value than in a place where to be poor is to be called a loser. We didn’t look at ourselves as losers, we thought of ourselves as excluded but not as losers. Charlie McCreevy’s attitude was, I grew up poor and today I’m wealthy why can’t you all be like me – which is the monetarist view of life, that’s the real poison of Thatcherism and it’s still out there in our culture. Don’t tell me that a barrister on €1,800 a day doesn’t feel intellectually and morally and humanly superior to others paid less. We live in a culture that says; if I’m paid more then I’m worth more. That’s the heresy that’s entered into the culture.

The sickest joke in the history of the Republic is in our claim to cherish all of the children of the Nation equally. I don’t think there is the remotest chance of this being so in my life time. The only hope is that as many of us as possible will try to cherish as many of the children as we can. Looking on, it seems they may be doing it for themselves. I think there’s quite a radical generation on the way except that what they are has never been described to them as radical and perhaps that’s the responsibility of our generation. I like it very much that when one young Dubliner meets another these days, the usual greeting is ‘What’s the story?’ Isn’t that a very good question?

Theo Dorgan poet, editor, broadcaster and writer. His translations of Slovenian Poet Barbara Korun, Songs of Earth and Light, has just been published and his prose book , Sailing for Home, has just appeared in paperback.