by Susannah Sheffer

As part of a detailed response to some of my work, an early poetry teacher of mine once wrote, “I wish I could experience the revelation rather than just accept the explanation.” It was one of those critiques that instantly enables you to see what has been missing and what you could be trying for instead. I saw that she was challenging me to make the poems more immediate, to have them manifest experience rather than just report on whatever the poem’s central insight was.

This is, of course, the kind of thing that is easier to say — or to recognize as a general concept — than to figure out how to carry out in its specifics. Still, I saw clearly that what she was proposing was the difference between a merely skillfully crafted poem, and a skillfully crafted poem that was vibrant and buoyant in the way that I knew poems could be— lifting off the page, making you shiver and say yes, yes, that’s what I’m talking about.

A lot of what makes following this directive so difficult is that the advice does not mean that poems ought to be more like journal entries, wherein the rough scribbling captures the moment’s realization exactly as it is occurring. Poems are much more crafted than that, of course. The journal entry (or the life experience itself) is the raw material, and the poem is most definitely a made thing, involving intention, design, choice. I don’t interpret my early poetry teacher’s wish to “experience the revelation,” as a desire to have been present at the moment of whatever realization, or observation, or insight, or emotional synthesis the poem might be trying to express. The idea, I think, is to have the poem somehow feel as if it is tracking that realization in real time, showing it as still live and squirming, rather than only dead and captured, even if that is not — and cannot be — true in the most literal sense.

A couple of decades after that early critique, I heard the poet Linda Gregerson say something similar in a workshop. I was scribbling it down as she spoke, so this may not be an exact quotation, but I’m pretty confident that it captures the essence of what she said: “Poems can’t just be a summation or accumulation of what you already know. Of course they will draw on everything you know up to now, but poems should also happen in the present tense, tell you something you didn’t know you knew.”

This strikes me as a wonderful companion to the earlier recommendation. Not only should poems  merely avoid reporting to the reader; they should also allow for revelation in the writer. I know that I have experienced that the feeling that, when a poem is in process, it can be accessing some kind of direct channel to the unconscious, or at least the not-quite-fully-conscious, so that it does indeed tell you something that you didn’t know you knew.

How to facilitate that, or increase its likelihood, is such a compelling and ongoing question for writers. Since I heard Linda’s exhortation over ten years ago, and having spent a lot of time studying in the intervening years studying psychotherapy, and then having also practiced it formally, I’ve come to think about how a similar sort of exhortation could be made about the therapy process. It’s too easy sometimes for people to use up most of a therapy session simply reporting on what has happened, whether during the previous week or during the many previous years of their lives, and not actually experiencing the associated feelings in this moment, in this room, with this person — the therapist. And this, in turn, can mean that the therapy sessions lack the full vibrancy that my earlier poems had lacked, and that there is – on the part of either or both participants – more a feeling of accepting the explanation than of experiencing the revelation.

Maybe this intersection is only notable to me because poetry and psychotherapy are two of my deep vocational interests, but there is something about the insistence on vividness and immediacy and presence in both cases that seems continually interesting and challenging. How to experience it, feel it, live it, rather than only hear about it or recount it. Neither a poem nor a therapy session is precisely like the life that it is trying to understand and make something out of but in this regard, anyway, the goals for the one are like the goals for the other. Don’t just accept, secondhand, the explanations that others give, or even the explanations that we give ourselves. Hold out for actual, felt experience, and the revelations that can come of it.


Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr