An old blues legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. One night at a crossroads, people say, Johnson met another black man near a river, and gave the stranger his guitar. The stranger tuned it, played one song, then gave it back. From that point on, Johnson becomes unusually creative—he can play the guitar well, he can make up new songs, and he can sing. He also matures into a man of unusual power. And those who had known him before, who had considered him a bit of a pest on the guitar and who found his voice scratchy, were surprised and delighted by this change. They were also suspicious, for they were sure Johnson had made an evil bargain.
This Faustian legend intrigues me as a poet and as a psychoanalytic therapist, especially the element within it of the fateful encounter--the interpersonal and intrapsychic engagement with whatever it is the devil represents here which allows in turn for something new and creative. As a poet, I recognize in the process of writing poems a fateful engagement with aspects of my imagination, my ear, and my skills as a writer. As well, there is an engagement with internal objects and with an internal audience that helps me realize poems singly and in sequence. And as a therapist, particularly as a psychoanalyst, I engage not only with my analysands in potentially transformative ways, but with aspects of myself in the countertransference. However, contrary to the blues legend, I have learned from both kinds of encounters that meaningful change happens not suddenly, not dramatically or supernaturally, but gradually and subtly. And, it happens through language.
Poets and psychoanalysts are, of course, taken with meaningful language and appreciate its power to contain, represent and to affect. The language is verbal, primarily, and we attend to its contents and to its form. But we are also intrigued by the relationship between what is stated and what is not, and between what is symbolized and what remains unsayable. We also attend to what feels most meaningful, and to when and where the breaks in meaning occur. Both psychoanalysts and poets concern themselves, moreover, with the relationship between meaningful and nonmeaningful language.
I also find that we value subjective experience, particularly the unconscious, as well as the processes of relaxed attention and “free” association. And, as one who is both, I have developed a basic trust in “the process”: in treatment, that the analysis of resistances to emerging transferences moves most analyses along; in poetry, that overcoming impediments to fateful engagements can similarly yield meaningful writing.
I do not listen in the same way, though, when I am in my office and when I am at my writing desk at home. As an analyst, my listening is close and largely focused on moments of immediate discomfort conveyed either in the content or form of what is said to me. I listen also to the content of the analysand’s language for connections to what else I have heard about the history, the transference, and the current life. In short, I listen as an analyst primarily to language. As a poet, I seem primarily to be listening for language. I am listening largely for what presses to be represented, and then for how to present “the right words in the right order”. Though analytic listening involves a similar dynamic, analysts associate more to what is already communicated. When I write poems, I am most like my analytic self only when I am revising or “re-seeing” the not-yet-finished poem, for then my attention is directed more keenly and my thinking more prominently synthetic.
I’ve not been conducting psychoanalyses for very long, but so far it seems that another, related difference between the two kinds of listening involves how much time I can spend freely in reverie. In the office I experience an interpersonal (and professional) pressure to speak what I observe and what I think. When I’m writing, the danger of foreclosing a poem inclines me to wait, occasionally for a year or two, before I begin to think of myself as working on a specific poem.
My dual identity as a poet and a psychoanalyst is new, and only slowly does it become more comfortable. Sometimes, I feel as if the two represent distinctly different states of mind. Increasingly, though, I recognize that each influences the other in terms of the content of my preoccupations, and in terms of the stimulation within me of productive states of contemplation. Most valuable, though, is the way each deepens my capacity to listen. It makes me think once more about that Robert Johnson legend: perhaps in fact his fateful encounter was with what he had yet to hear, his transformation thus a changed capacity to listen to what had seemed unpleasant, uninteresting or merely absent. Perhaps the change occurred not only in Johnson, but in all of us, poets and analysts included, who were listening to him.
printed originally in The American Psychoanalyst (2000)