Our feelings can make us sick, especially if they are not given shape, form, and expression. Ever since Sigmund Freud came up with his theory of Psychoanalysis we’ve all been used to the idea that unexpressed, bottled up emotion can lead to unpleasant consequences. Freud called the resulting mental distress and its defense mechanisms, “neuroses”.
Freud’s student, and later fellow titan in the psychoanalytic world Carl Jung, came up with his own theory of Analytical Psychology. Both men have influenced not only psychological science but the arts and pop culture as well.
But even before Freud, our ancestors already had the notion that we need to express our feelings, particularly the toxic ones. Hence the command, “Maglabas ng sama ng loob.” (Vent whatever’s bad inside.)
If there’s one practice that we all associate with “expressing feelings” it is the practice, or maybe just the hobby, of poetry. That’s what poetry seems to be good for most of the time: letting feelings out. That’s how many understand it, perhaps.
This approach to writing poetry is, I would dare say, universal. It’s something akin to, metaphorically speaking, slashing a vein and bleeding out. But through the written word. It has its uses.
When I met the teacher who would eventually–though when I first met her I had no idea such would happen–by my poetry mentor, I was so ignorant about poetry as a craft and art form. She was at the time, the Dean of the UST Faculty of Arts and Letters, Ophelia Dimalanta, and someone deserving of a National Artist Award for Literature, really, though I wonder if anyone had lobbied for her for that distinction.
It was through her and another poet, Cirilo F. Bautista (National Artist for Literature, 2014) that I cut my teeth on poetry. They were practically my literary parents. Both have passed on but I will be grateful forever for their generosity, genius, and patience. It turned out that poetry in a big way saved my life and sanity at that time. I never knew it right away, but during those years under their mentorship in UST, I was going through a potentially fatal clinical depression.
So poetry was more than art but also, unknown to myself, therapy. Even though I was a Psychology major and learning about Theories of Personality and took units in neurology and clinical psychology, I was–like many psychology students even today–clueless about the reality of mental illness.
[Of course, back then we didn’t have the internet yet so there was no easily accessible, widespread ongoing conversation about mental illness. We had shame and secrecy, instead.]
Many years later, poet and psychologist Vim Nadera would write his landmark doctorate thesis, “Poetreat” that explored the use of poetry for psychological and emotional healing. For this work, he gathered together a group of cancer patients who were given workshops and mentoring in the art and craft of poetry.
I met with those patients and interviewed them during one of their poetry sessions. It was too bad that I couldn’t attend their “recital”. The idea of providing them with mentoring in poetry was to give them a medium through which they could channel emotions and thoughts–and if you are a cancer patient facing your mortality, such emotions and thoughts can be quite powerful.
What we call “feeling” in the ordinary sense is usually synonymous with emotion. In the deeper sense, however, a “feeling” goes beyond emotion. They arise from deep in our subconscious, and are more primal, intuitive, imaginative, passionate–and may be expressed as gut-feel, hunches, visions, flashes of realization, crushing grief and loss, or soaring ecstasies. Feeling can be intense, powerful, and chaotic and so, after their onslaught, it’s usually best to calm down and reflect on what they might be telling our conscious mind.
Poetry can be used as a means to bring order, shape, form to the chaos of intense feeling we can experience. Ultimately, the true depths of genuine feeling is inaccessible to words, so poetry is always the saying of what, finally, cannot be said.
When I was a young man formally and technically wrestling with poetic craft, well, I moved in circles where such were important. You could say that making a poem was similar to building a house, or more organically, growing a plant, or assembling a baby in the womb–every part has to have a purpose, every word, phrase, line-cut, capitalization, pause, punctuation, image, metaphor, you had to know what to do, why you are doing it, where to place it–and if you are asked, you should be able to explain and justify all of your minute artistic decisions and techniques. In other words, you had to know your own individual poetics.
The reasoning was, well, in terms of building a house, usually you would not want to put the toilet bowl where the kitchen sink should be: but if you did do that, then you should have a valid, justifiable reason for doing so.
Fast-forward to the age of Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav, and many readers seem to have become ignorant or simply do not care for poetry as a craft. Much less poetry as art. This is because Kaur and Leav don’t really focus on that. Mastering craft and technique requires months, even years of study–and in our world running on mega-, giga-, terabytes of speed per second, who has time for that?
Still, the fact that Kaur and Leav are mega-best-selling poets today does show that they fulfill a need in their audiences: which is the venting of raw feeling. That’s important. Nothing wrong with that.
Knowing my own background as a poet, however, I’m the sort who wants to balance out raw venting with craft, with even a minimal effort at bringing order to chaos–that’s because I believe it’s in that balance that real wisdom, true insight can be found. It’s also the way to meaning and understanding ourselves and the world.
It’s easy to vent: just fire up a tweet, share a même, post a rant on social media. But to write something that helps others better understand themselves, life, and the world? That requires craft and technique.
And for me, that’s a better path to wellness of mind, body, and spirit. Venting or ranting, much like yelling a cuss word thoughtlessly and just letting it rip–that’s like smashing a glass window. Craft and art is taking the broken shards and creating a sculpture. One is destructive and chaotic, the other is creative and ordered.
I only have one Lang Leav book in my home library: “Lullabies”, which Leav launched in Manila several years ago. I went to the launch in Shangri-la mall. There were so many fans! Mostly young people, mostly female.
“Lullabies” is Leav’s second book, the first being “Love & Misadventure”. For some reason, I don’t like the first book so much, and her books that came after “Lullabies” don’t draw me in. So I’ve stuck with this one.
Here’s a poem of Leav’s from “Lullabies”:
Perhaps I never loved enough,
If only I’d loved much more;
I would not nearly had so much,
left waiting, for you in store.
If I had given away my heart–
to those who came before;
it would be safer left in parts–
but now you have it all.
The language is simple, directly stated, and as I said, relies more on venting thought and emotion. The subject matter is actually deep and complex–the loss of a loved one, and the psychic destruction, the hollowing out, the emptying of the ego following the loss.
Leav does not choose to explore further the contradictions she pointed out–she leaves the tension not merely unexplored but somehow chooses to view it from a safe distance. We can only speculate why. Still as a poet, that’s her choice. That’s her craft, style, technique (and I believe Leav has more of those things than Kaur) and I won’t go into whether she puts enough of those in her writing.
It’s perfectly all right to allow each poet, each writer enough space to do as they will in their writing. To me, that’s the easier path to wellness. If studying more craft and technique is neither attractive nor of value to you, then so be it. Why put yourself through more arduous effort or even potentially traumatizing critique?
After reading “Lullabies”, I was able to appreciate Leav’s poems there even though I had a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction. I would think, if I was handling a similar subject or theme as Leav in “My Heart”, how would I write it in a manner that satisfied me more as a reader and a craftsman?
So I wrote my own poem that I put a rather facetious title to–but I promise it was not done out of ill-humor. I thought of the title because at the time of my poem’s making, so many “learned” poets had been complaining over the quality of Leav’s poetry. So the title I chose for my poem is meant to be–well perhaps ironic, perhaps as an awl-jab at my own ego. Here’s the poem:
BETTER THAN A LANG LEAV POEM
I went to see the love of my life
The one who is not my life
But who turns mysterious meaning-
Less suffering into happy, tiny bits of
I went to see the love of my life
The one who loves me less or
Less than less, or most than most
Of all, but I’ll never truly know. Love
Being light or nameless shadow,
Depending on her own pain that only
She can know.
I went to see the love of my life
The one who will leave me out of love
Or love’s disappoinment. And who
Will not forever live, or whom I will
Leave never willingly unless she
Leaves first. As summer grass. As
Silence green amongst trees.
I went to see the love of my life
But she isn’t here. And I am told,
No matter, no matter. Life goes on
And it does all around me and all
Around her wherever she is.
And the arms holding her now. And
Arms holding me that are my own
Arms inside the cold bus with my
Painful fingers all nerve and bone.
Love and life. My love. My life. Small
Things that want to be everything
And are, the only things, until the last
Word you see:
I noticed that quite a few of my friends, whether on social media or IRL, have been writing poetry during the lockdown. I love them more for it. It just shows that poems really can be a means to find balance and wellness amid the chaos of our anxiety, fear, dread, and frustration. Maybe some of you reading this would like to start writing poetry for your own wellness, as well.