Be Strange, Be Real:
John Fox sees poetry in your life
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
John Fox, poet and author of Poetic Medicine:
The Healing Art of Poem-Making, will be in Atlanta May 21-23 to conduct
a workshop with the same theme as his book title.
Fox's appearance here will follow his participation the week before in
the annual conference of the National Association for Poetry Therapy in
Charleston. Fox is on the board of that organization and also teaches
at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, Calif.
For more information on Fox's workshop here, contact Anne Wissler, 404-607-9598.
Cost is $150.
Fox and I recently talked:
What will people be doing in your workshop?
We'll be writing of course, learning to speak with our poetic voices
so that we can say what we haven't been able to say. I emphasize 'knowing
less' in my workshops. By that I mean to counter the ordinary sense we
all live with - that we have to look good and know how to get from point
a to point b. 'Knowing' is great for opinions but not so great the rest
of the time. In my workshop, nothing is required. We come to the blank
page with a sense of playfulness, supported by a community, and, with
more trust, we move into an appreciation of mystery.
But why poetry? Why not some other process or art?
Because it's such a durable way of expressing oneself. But it's also
permeable, interesting, allows for a sense of discovery. Poetry really
does give the unspeakable a voice. What we can't say, or feel we can't
say in ordinary language, can find voice in poetry. I mean, why not poetry?
You say that poetry is healing. What is healing? It's a word we use
constantly now but everyone assumes a shared understanding of its meaning.
Well, I don't mean 'curing.' It's not about looking for specific answers
and outcomes. When I talk about healing, I mean finding a connection with
yourself that feels deeply rooted. That sense of deep rootedness in turn
gives you a sense of who you are and what matters to you. I think a very
important part of healing is making contact with others. There's that
moment in Our Town when Emily says to her mother that for a moment
she felt really seen. This happens in poetry. When the façade is
down, we recognize ourselves and others see us. This evokes such a sense
of mystery about life. It also brings us into contact with the world at
That really impressed me about your book, that you do talk about personal
healing but you also talk about nature, our relationship to the larger
world. Then I realized, that poets have always done that, always had a
Yes, and I extend that to social justice, too. This work is about developing
a poetic perspective and that means living from your heart.
Well, this is at the foundation of my own critique of psychotherapy.
It is reductive. It reduces everything to causes, to origins, so the client
is forever brought back to this concern with biography and the past. I
wrote a paper on Sophocles' cycle of Oedipus plays recently. The Oedipus
myth forms the foundation of Freud's psychology. I realized, with James
Hillman, that the play's importance to Freud, beside the contents, is
its action -- Oedipus' insisting against all advice to the contrary to
know his origins, to reduce everything to his personal wound and history.
Poetics, on the other hand, asks you to imagine your life differently.
That is a very important point. You see, a poem breathes. It opens. It
depends on how it's done, of course, but you're right. Psychotherapy is
generally reductive. It generalizes and classifies you, gives you a diagnosis.
But a poem, through metaphor, opens you. It's the difference in story,
which invokes the imagination, and biography, which is fixed and reductive.
I think we do have to give Freud credit, though, for framing his foundational
thought in terms of a myth, a story. It does mean that he was, at some
level, trying to open doors in the psyche to a new way of imagining, but
he got trapped in literalizing.
And Jung did stay with the myth, the story
.I think another thing
we find in poetry that we don't find so much in therapy is an appreciation
of the strangeness of life
Well, yes, although if you read the early cases of Freud and Jung,
you are fired by their fascination and appreciation for the weirdness
of psyche. I think that's been lost from psychology though. Now the weirdness
is all pathologized, has to be fixed
Speaking of which, I noticed
in your book that you are fond of Rilke, as I am.
Now, he's a poet who certainly opens us to the strangeness of life. He
speaks to the uncommonness of experience with incredible compassion. Rilke
teaches us to hold ourselves and others in our strangeness and mystery
with absolute compassion. And I think Rilke's poems stay with us, as medicine,
as our own poems can. The place where the poem opens to us - mysteriously,
to strangeness -- is where its healing is.
One of my professors says that the appropriate question when a client
comes in for therapy is not, 'What happened this week?" but "What
unusual, what out of the ordinary happened?" In the strange we find
ourselves, our meanings. This is an invitation to reverse the continual
reduction to the same old story.
Yes, that's listening poetically. Where were you surprised this week?
What seemed strange in your week?
Now I am presuming people don't have to be poets or writers to take
your workshop. The point here is not to become a good poet, but to find
one's voice, right?
Yes, that's right. My work isn't at heart about creating poets but about
transformation, learning to hear, to listen, to trust, to pay attention.
Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing
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