Monday, December 31, 2007

In Which I Finish The Last Book of 2007
Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing by Judith Hall is not a book I would lightly recommend although I think it is wonderful. Nevertheless it takes a certain kind of reader to enjoy a book that promotes Freudian psychology by using confessional poetry as a primary example of why writing can lead to healing. (If you don’t quite get the connection consider what a person does while lying on the psychiatrist’s couch and the comparison should be clear.) This is a book for academia. Literature and psychology majors will agree with nearly everything Harris proposes. I may not have bought into her hypotheses hook, line, and sinker. However, I found myself nodding in agreement and even remembering experiences of my own which agreed with what she is saying. Through the writings of Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Kenyon and others Harris shows how pain is a shared experience, one to which we can all relate on some level. Although the details may not be mutual, how we experience pain is very familiar. For instance, when writing about Carol Frost, Harris says: Although she was principally a formalist poet who avoided the first-person pronoun because she did want to indulge in the sentimentality of self-honoring, her illness causes her to move inward and to search for a model poem that successfully universalizes personal grief (4). Now many readers would find themselves yawning or even wanting to toss the book across the room with a statement like that. But there are those others, people like me, who practically melt when reading a sentence like that.

The capacity for being in a state of uncertainty about ego identity, and to sustain imaginative belief rather than reaching after reason or fact, was a Keatsian trademark that he made famous in his axiom about a poet’s gift for negative capability. Sympathetic identification as, for Keats, the vehicle for his migratory flights from imagination to reality and back again—a spinning dialect of the mind in constant interaction with itself (138).

I read things like this and I need a cigarette I am so satisfied and excited, either wanting to agree with or debate upon the finer points. While this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Signifying Pain is a brilliant piece of literary research that makes the usually unappreciated importance of poetry and throws a rose colored spotlight on how very significant poetry and pain can be. Not practical, by any stretch of the imagination, this book is a solid argument for confessional writing in the form of poetry, journaling, etc. If you want to know why you should write and you love literature, read Keats and Plath with fearlessness, then this book will delight. If you are looking for a how-to rather than a reason why or you are not one to read poetry for pleasure, this book will likely frustrate more than enlighten.

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