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.
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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