Poetry, Therapy, and Becoming a Good Man

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Poetry Editor Charlie Bondhus writes about poetry, problem-solving, and how writing well can help you become a better man.

Much has been written about the efficacy of poetry therapy–a process by which at-risk groups such as inmates, addicts, veterans, and juveniles are encouraged to read and write poetry as a means of coping with difficult emotions and trauma. However, it’s a truism of gender studies (and of common knowledge) that some men resist exploring their feelings, let alone expressing them.

In 2012, University of Washington-Tacoma researchers Rich Furman and LeConté Dill published a study which considered the challenges of selling this practice to “a population whose behavior and identity may at times run counter to the core tenants of poetry therapy” by virtue of their investment in a masculinity that emphasizes toughness, stoicism, and clear answers rather than nuance.

In addition to helping these men become aware of the “scripts” they have bought into, and in so doing, inviting them to challenge these dominant narratives, Furman and Dill advise therapists to meet their clients halfway. They suggest, for example, incorporating song lyrics written/performed by men their clients are likely to respect and/or identify with, and to bring in poets such as tough-guy favorite, Charles Bukowski.

I think that this is good advice, but I would also add that poetry has a lot to do with crafting and problem-solving…skills that men who subscribe to an essentialist version of masculinity are likely to be interested in.

Much in the same way that conceptual masculinity has been hijacked by a dominant narrative–guys must be stoic, self-sufficient, sexually potent strongmen–poetry in the popular imagination has been unfairly painted as an emotional free-for-all, an uncensored spilling of guts and tears on the page.

However, good poetry–the kind of poetry that resonates and endures with an audience other than its creator–is finely-tuned on multiple levels. Great poets think about individual words–what they mean literally, what they mean connotatively, and how they sound to the ear. This is what Robert Frost famously called “the sound of sense.” A poem which deals with turbulent subject matter, for example, might employ cacophonous letter sounds while at the same time deploying stormy imagery and violent metaphors.

And when one is writing a poem, one generally does so in fits and starts, stopping and restarting, asking questions, setting and putting out a million fires along the way. Where to break the line? Which word to use? Which image most accurately captures what I’m trying to convey? Was that comparison too predictable? Or was it too “out there” for anyone to get?

My goal is not to argue that poetry is inherently masculine. Nor is it inherently feminine. Men don’t have a monopoly on craft and problem-solving any more than women have a monopoly on emotion. And in poetry, both sides are needed. A well-crafted poem without an emotional core is like an intricate machine; interesting to look at, perhaps admirable for its mechanics, but not otherwise memorable. Likewise, a poem that’s all heart and no craft is simply catharsis and not likely to relate to anyone other than the poet him or herself.

This is why poetry can be a potent tool for men who have trouble accessing their emotions. In order to fully “solve the problem,” that is, the poem, a man must use both his head and his heart, something which all human beings ought to strive for.

And this, incidentally, is also why poetry is not an inherently feminine art or an inherently masculine art. It’s a human art.

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Source

Rich Furman, MSW, PhD, LeConté Dill, DPh. “Poetry therapy, men and masculinities.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 39, Issue 2, April 2012, Pages 102–106

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Image Credit: Russell Jones

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About Charlie Bondhus

Charlie Bondhus’s second poetry book, All the Heat We Could Carry, won Main Street Rag’s Annual Poetry Book Award for 2013 and the Publishing Triangle's 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Previously, he published How the Boy Might See It (Pecan Grove Press, 2009), and two chapbooks, What We Have Learned to Love and Monsters and Victims (Gothic Press, 2010). His poetry appears in numerous periodicals, including POETRY, Midwest Quarterly, War, Literature & the Arts, The Wisconsin Review, and CounterPunch. In addition to being Poetry Editor at The Good Men Project, he teaches at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey.

Comments

  1. Dragon

    I smell the sulfur of dragon’s breath
    emanating from the darkness
    beneath consciousness,
    dwelling deep within me.
    He is an ancient one,
    possessing the wisdom of eons,
    remembering as if only yesterday
    the truths behind the legends,
    and where the bones
    of the Heroes are buried.
    He is a fierce beast,
    attacking with the cold efficiency
    of a serpent’s heart.
    Lying silently in my shadows,
    he guards my sacred Treasure
    with ferocious, primal power and purpose.
    His fiery breath burns away
    lies and hypocrisy
    reducing them to ash of purity.
    Its reptilian mind
    has singularity of purpose,
    a noble task and sacred duty,
    a lethal reflex from an ancient lineage
    of magical creatures.

    Some claim he is not real,
    merely an archetype, symbolic only,
    dismissed as primitive representations
    of dinosaurs long dead.
    But, no, the dragon is very real.
    His breath is still magma hot
    and his magic grows ever more powerful
    in these barren times.
    He coils tightly around my sacred core,
    rumbling the roar of a million crocodiles,
    snatching and devouring all
    who dare to steal from this Sacred Trove.
    Approach the dragon’s labyrinth
    with respect and trepidation,
    it is not Hell’s portal,
    but the gate of Heaven,
    fiercely defended!
    The dragon’s fire
    burns fierce and eternal,
    even as my mortal one
    flickers and dims.

  2. Poetry does have a rap as feminine, but there are so many strong male poets – Yeats, Frost, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney – strong men who wrote strong words from a place of strength and had both the courage and the craft to express their emotions. And there are female poets from the past like Emily Dickinson who wrote like men – direct, no-nonsense – and many modern counterparts. Poetry when done right is spare, concise, tight, functional, and to me, more muscular than prose. Poetry can blind-side you with a left hook, while prose just keeps jabbing. Thanks for exploring the gender bias towards poetry while extolling its virtues and value to the world.

  3. Dwight A Gray says:

    “Nor is it inherently feminine. Men don’t have a monopoly on craft and problem-solving any more than women have a monopoly on emotion. And in poetry, both sides are needed.”

    Thank you for this. On one side there is a fear, wanting to be seen as people of action and forgetting that the life depicted within the verse IS that action. On the other side, the misunderstanding that poetry is akin to solving an esoteric riddle through some equation of rhyme, meter and poetic devices, ignoring what is at the heart of the poem.

    I remember Nancie Atwell writing about her teachers who attempted to simply ‘get through’ the poetry unit because it was required, but who confessed to not enjoying it, and that mentality was transferred to students. Fortunately Atwell broke free and has written extensively about teaching poetry — but I think that fear or misconception is still transmitted sometimes generation to generation.

    As far as the fear, there are so many examples of poems that meet the problems caused by that ‘manly stoicism’ head on. Having been in a room full of male students reading Frost’s “Home Burial” I can remember hearing everyone have something to say about the barrier between the genders, or reading Simpson’s “My Father in the Night Commanding No” working through their father-son issues.

    Not to say we should be stuck in the habit of reading one type, but I remember years ago this was my entry point into a world of riches.

    • Charlie Bondhus says:

      Agreed, Dwight. “Entry points” are important, and so is moving past them. I started out in high school as a slam poet. But that’s just one type of poetry. And when I was in college and in the process of coming out, I focused on gay poetry. Again, that’s just one type of poetry.

      Slam and gay poetry definitely set me down the joyful path I’m on, but I’m so glad the world has opened up. Everything is so much richer.

  4. As one who has spent, and is spending his life healing through the written word, it can’t be said enough: Thank you for this article. This is well said; necessary; relevant; wonderful. Maybe because of this speaking from you, more men will speak for themselves… through whatever means they find themselves able.

    • Charlie Bondhus says:

      Thank you, Michael! I’m glad my article spoke to you and, hopefully, to others. I very much believe everything I said in the above, and am happy to share it with my students and with the folks who come across this piece.

  5. Hi Charlie

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my image on “1 in 5 teenagers” experimenting in poetry, enough to use it on your article. Would you mind just linking the image to my blog, since I created it?

    Many thanks

    Russell Jones

    • Charlie Bondhus says:

      Hi Russell,

      Sorry about that! I simply found the image on Facebook as a meme and didn’t know where it originated. You now have appropriate credit and a link to your blog at the bottom of the article.

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