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On Poetry and Mental Health
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the work of Iain McGilchrist and the importance of rightly ordering our lives as bi-hemispheric creatures. I think about his thesis a lot — that the right hemisphere of the brain should lead, and the left should follow and give back its insights to the right (or, right-left-right for short)— because I tend to live the other way around. I inspect. I analyze. I explain. Even when talking about the importance of the right hemisphere, I tend to do so with left-hemisphere cerebral attention.
That’s why I try (not always successfully) to keep a healthy balance of music, fiction and poetry in my diet. I need more of it. In that spirit, this week I’m sharing one of my poems with you.
The title is “Images”
I am nova, I am spark. I am beacon, bent to dark. I am glass, rent shards of soul. I am diamond from the coal.
I wrote this 10 years ago, and despite it’s brevity, I workshopped it almost more than any poem I’ve written. Don’t worry so much about understanding the poem. Unless of course you want to literally understand, that is, stand under, and look up at the poem, and take it in like you would the night sky. Or rather, as you let the night sky take you in.
You see, we don’t understand poetry. That is left-brain talk. Poetry understands us; we are object, not subject. It changes how we see and think and feel. And we need more of it. I haven’t seen anyone say or write this better than Malcolm Guite and his poem “On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier”.
Give it a listen before you continue reading:
Quote from Iain McGilchrist1 (which I would subtitle: On Why We Need Poetry and Other Arts)
“Let’s do a thought experiment. What would it look like if the left hemisphere came to be the sole purveyor of our reality?
First of all, the whole picture would be unattainable: the world would become a heap of bits. Its only meaning would come through it’s capacity to be used…This, in turn, would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in its turn, would seem more “real” than what one might call wisdom, which would seem too nebulous, something never to be grasped.
[T]he human body itself, and we ourselves, as well as the material world and the works of art we have created to understand it, would both become more conceptual…more virtualised.
Increasingly, the living would be modelled on the mechanical… “Either/or” would tend to be substituted for matters of degree, and a certain inflexibility would result.
The impersonal would come to replace the personal.
Exploitation rather than cooperation would, explicitly or not, be the default relationship between human individuals and between humanity and the rest of the world.
The left hemisphere cannot trust and is prone to paranoia. It needs to feel in control.
Reasonableness would be replaced by rationality…One would expect a loss of insight, coupled with an unwillingness to take responsibility, and this would reinforce the left hemisphere’s tendency to a perhaps dangerously unwarranted optimism. There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or to change one’s mind.
We would expect there to be a resentment of - and a deliberate undercutting of - the sense of awe or wonder.
As a culture, we would come to discard tacit forms of knowing altogether…There would be less tolerance for and appreciation of the value of ambiguity. We would tend to be over-explicit in the language we use to approach art and religion, accompanied by a loss in their vital, implicit, metaphorical power.”
Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter, by Malcom Guite
How do you engage your right brain?
Tweedy, Rod, editor. The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy. Routledge, 2021.