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Avoid the Iambic Foot in the Aisle: Coming at Poetry from Two Directions, Points of View on Selected Poems by CKosarek and AyaS

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What are we doing?

Ckosarek:    In the following analyses, I take a behavior analytic view in deciphering the meaning of the three poems we have selected. Applied Behavior Analysis, dating back to psychologist B.F. Skinner, is one of the few psychological sciences supported by empirical scientific evidence. Thus, by using this psychological lens, I hope to eliminate the “fictionality” of poetry in showing that the structures in poetry reflect the logical stimulus-behavior pattern seen in human interactions with the world.

AyaSeaver: As CK has been attempting one kind of reading of poetry I will attempt another. By looking closely at poems, their diction, story, literary references, devices, metrical or non metrical structure and other verse like elements I hope to crystallize some element of the ‘poetics’ assumed present in poems but I intend to reveal the artistry that co-exists with CKosarek’s psychological narrative. A powerful dynamic in art is the depth of artfulness. To what extent is a poem falseness disguised as truth, endowed with the status of a real object, story? And to what extent is the falsity—the meter, the construction of a poem through metaphor, the only way to reveal truth? What I think the lens of a close reading reveals here is that all the art of beauty of poetry—its craft elements—depend not on fictional narrative but on skillful, communicative writing—the basic tenant of almost any literary genre and form, the basic tenant of life itself.


"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath

"I Remember Sharpeville" by Sipho Sepamla (not available online)

On the 21st March 1960

on a wrath-wrecked 

ruined-raked morning


a black sea surged onward

its might ahead

mind behind

it had down centuries-old containment 

one goal fed its dazed loyalty

to shed debris

on an unwilling shore

like a sponge

it sucked into its core

the aged and the young

school-children fell helter-skelter

into its body might

as it rolled over

crushing the cream

and the scum of its make-up

into a solid compound

of black oozing energy


in a flash

of the eye

of gun-fire

like spray flayed

the fled they fell

the air fouled

the minute fucked

and life fobbed 


our heads bowed

our shame aflame

our faith shaken


we buried them for what they were

our fallen heroes and our history


for orations we had the religious

for un-carriers we had a strong of hearses

for flags half-mast tear-soaked hankies


we craned necks to raise voices higher still

for them than lay row upon row crammed 

a regiment under the blazing bloodied sun


they had lain deserted around and upon their original graves

left alone to bleed and plead for forgiveness

like the mangled bodies of their warrior forbears


the dust grit we ground as we gnashed teeth

the mournful wall of salt-stained faces

the groan and grouse of aggrieved relations

shall be our pledge to the dead


a monument in our hearts we shall mount

their unheard-of names to engrave

on time's sturdy wings their ideal we shall pin



Catullus 101 (Below is the translation we used)

Through many nations and many seas have I come

To carry out these wretched funeral rites, brother,

That at last I may give you this final gift in death

And that I might speak in vain to silent ashes.

Since fortune has borne you, yourself, away from me.

Oh, poor brother, snatched unfairly away from me,

Now, though, even these, which from antiquity and in the custom of our

parents, have been handed down, a gift of sadness in the rites, accept

them, flowing with many brotherly tears, And for eternity, my brother, hail and farewell.


Our Analyses: 





While written in free verse Plath organized Daddy (audio) into verses and stanzas.  Every stanza has five lines and Plath makes use of enjambment, metaphor, repetition and an assortment of aural effects. Daddy is at once a very visceral poem—traditionally called a ‘confessional’ narrative—and a obviously carefully crafted one.

            In Daddy Plath addresses the figure of her father, who died early in her childhood. She addresses him through a series of metaphors. In the most controversial and perhaps famous one Plath situates herself as a young Jewish girl and her father as a Nazi. In her notes Plath called this relationship and metaphor “an awful little allegory” (Rosenblatt). This metaphor for their relationship sustains the majority of the poem’s narrative—with a varying amount of critical success. Despite Plath’s use of a ‘fictional’ extended metaphor, biographical references are buried throughout the poem—the father’s status as a teacher even the reference to his big swollen toe (Breslin), yet because of the metaphoric level of the story one doesn’t need to be aware of her literal personal references to make sense of the poem.

            The poem’s narrative progression, a young girls relationship with her father, is helped along with a series of images Plath connects to her father. She establishes small metaphors and similes “black shoe” “a bag full of God” “an engine, an engine” but all of this plays out under the larger extended metaphor of the daughter-father/ Jewess-Nazi storyline. Perhaps what this metaphor makes most explicit is the real life and death power Plath intends to communicate her father has over her. Saying he “bit” her “heart in two” conveys a certain amount of danger and damage but connecting his actions towards her with the holocaust in lines like “Chuffing me off like a Jew./A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.” communicate a deep level of disturbance and power. In this way Plath’s poem deals with her own relationship but she addresses him indirectly, through this other young fictional girl and her fictional identity and relationship with her father. The references, historical, and mythological, may not be empirically accurate (her father was not a Fascist) but they do communicate her feelings well. I do not believe that the poem even suggests that Plath believes her father enacted a genocide on her but she uses the images of oppression and assault to convey the level of trauma enacted in their relationship (he died before she turned nine) in a way her audience may understand the generally accepted narrative (the historical and social one) more than they accept her own personal story of devastation.

            Plath’s structural decision, her narrative invocation of The Holocaust has often come under scrutiny. But the poem does work, even only in its narratives, on a plot level, and a confessional and an elegiac level. Plath mourns her own father through the narrative of the Jewish girl mourning the death of hers. She “kills” him in the text, as the girl does as well. And like the Jewish victim who must come to terms with the “black man” the “black shoe” Plath must exorcise her father from her life.

            What the collage of images, God, devil, undead, does is convey the motion not from adoration but from submission to attack. While the extended metaphor, the Jewess and the Nazi, conveys the emotion of her relationship with her father, and –to a level—the actual incident of their relationship, it’s the other images that convey the emotional narrative of the text.

Her use of vowel and consonant sounds—the ‘ew’ of the text—is so artful it creates a meter, a sing-song nursery like quality that multiple critics have commented on.() Plath’s manipulation of her vowel sounds—there is a theme of ‘ew’ throughout the entire poem: blue, you, du, do, shoe, Achoo, Jew. The use or aural devices is not distinctive to poetry but it does form a large number of poetic devices. Plath’s use of alliteration and other sounds, her simple repeition of the word ‘back, back back’ with its hard ‘ack’ and ‘ba’ sounds, adds something to the pace of the line. So not only is hearing Daddy read aloud an experience reading it at all is to participate in poetry.

William Carlos Williams famously wrote no ideas but in things  and Plath’s poem is full of images, the big toe, the seal, the telephone, a black man, a red heart, the black swastika, the colored ocean. And its all that detail that makes it clear that despite the international metaphor invoked, the poem deals with a deeply personal narrative. A true memory and reflection—a confession-- that uses metaphors not to fictionalize the narrative but to communicate more effectively.

In her poem, “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath constructs a personal narrative exploring her emotive ties to her late father. Using metaphor, she traces her behavioral reaction towards his passing, noting that she “was ten when they buried [him]” and that at twenty she attempted suicide. The poem draws a contingency between her father’s passing (an environmental event) and the narrator’s behavior, thus both examining how social reinforcers affect an individual’s covert  and overt behaviors and asserting that behavioral pathologies can be precipitated by environmental antecedents.

            According to behavioral theory, operant conditioning occurs when a stimulus is paired with either a punishing or reinforcing agent, thus marking that stimulus as either appetitive or aversive. The seventh line of Plath’s poem reads, “You [daddy] died before I had time,” indicating that the narrator associates her father’s death with a positive punishment– grief. The presence of the visceral and emotional feelings cause discomfort for the narrator, symbolized by her association of Nazi Germany with her father. Plath likens the traumas of those subjugated by the Nazis to the grief caused by her father’s passing. She juxtaposes a “Polish town/ Scraped flat by the roller/ Of wars, wars, wars” to the sensation of her “tongue [being] stuck in [her] jaw . . . stuck in a barb wire snare.” Because the narrator’s grief is paired as a positive punishing agent with her father’s death, through operant conditioning, the narrator’s father himself becomes an aversive stimulus. His memory evokes punishing grief, acting as a catalyst for the narrator to engage in both escape and destructive ruminative  behaviors when remembering her father.

            Plath’s entire poem reflects the obsessive ruminations the narrator experiences in the wake of her father’s death. Perhaps this is most overtly seen in the narrator’s  generalization of her father as an antecedent stimulus. She “think[s] every German is [her father]” and calls him a “[g]hastly statue with one gray toe/ Big as a Frisco seal.” She lumps him and Adolf Hitler together, stating that she “made a model of [her father],/ A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw” and calls him “the black man who/ Bit my pretty red heart in two.” Her father becomes a variety of negative stimuli, each eliciting an unpleasant reaction from the narrator.

            In addition to her generalization of her father’s memory, the narrator also uses escape behavior to avoid her father as an aversive stimulus.  She states, “Daddy, I have had to kill you.” Because her father has become a conditioned unpleasant stimulus, she cannot face the thought of him without experiencing a negative response; therefore, she “kills” her father’s memory. By disallowing him to invade her thoughts, she escapes from her grief. In an even more drastic example of escape behavior, the narrator also describes her suicide attempt: “At twenty I tried to die/ And get back, back, back to you.” Here, the narrator behaviorally responds to her aversive stimulus by trying to escape it by death; if she dies, her father will no longer be an aversive stimulus because the anger she has toward him for “leaving” her (dying) will be negated by the fact that she is with him in death.

            The narrator’s grief is caused by the loss of her father as a positive social reinforcer. Because this loss is paired with a strong unpleasant reaction, the agent of the loss (her father, the social reinforcer) becomes unpleasant as well. A negative contingency between the narrator’s grief reaction and her father is established. Since this reaction is negative, it leads the narrator to engage in behavioral coping mechanisms so that she may reduce her negative affect. And because the narrator’s original grief response was negative, she indulges in negative coping mechanisms, thus leading to behavioral pathologies (i.e. suicide, obsessions). Through “Daddy,” Plath connects environmental occurrences to behavioral disorder through the contingencies established by operant conditioning.



Sepamla’s poem begins with a date that makes the poem historic but also makes the historic immediate. By starting the poem with what would appear is a ‘fact’ –dates are widely accepted and agreed upon—Sepamla can make headway quickly by establishing the basics. In fact the first stanza does a very good job of establishing a setting and revealing the tone of the poem, and the subject.

      So from the first lines Sepamla addresses the Sharpeville Massacres from a historical and poetic perspective. His text summarizes and addresses the events of the riot but moves beyond that to social commentary and judgment, a call to action. To help convey this there’s a movement in the narrative from the third person narration, observing the riot to the first person plural bereavement of it.

Sepamla uses anaphora "our heads...our shame..our faith" which adds a rhythm, meter like quality to the description of the event. Otherwise his verse is quite free and he takes advantage of this, drastically shortening the lines in the second stanza to quicken the rhythm, slowing it down with more words at the end. So while conveying the information a history book might Sepamla can do speed and slow the text down, speed and slow down the story, the plot, the reader and the poem. This is a craft element. He purposely ends lines and begins them in a particular order. A news reporter could not do this, the point of focus would be on filling in the column. In no way does changing or playing with the structure of words constitute something that abstracts or fictionalizes the true elements in the text.

     Sepamla’s text is very in touch with the ‘reality’ of the situation in fact he is in touch enough to be critical. There is more than just the reflection or description to the poem. Sepamla writes, describes, the physical but also social context. Noting that the “black sea” the crowd, surged onwards he also observes that while the movement was strong it wasn't controlled or thoughtful. He speaks of the resistance group moving towards a goal but he speaks of them critically, of " the school children" among them.

     This conveys a sense of immediacy that goes beyond a contemporary present-seeming account. He takes the poem at the end and transforms it to either a call to action or a broad statement but there's definitely a movement to the general towards the historical and social. The poem is put together, constructed, in a very obvious way-he build up of 'fs' the repetition and anaphora, the alliteration. The better the language, the tighter the construction becomes, the more effectively it communicates not only the moment of action but the context around it.


Sepamla’s “I Remember Sharpeville” meditates on the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 in post-Apartheid South Africa. In the poem, Sepamla establishes contingencies between social reinforcers and behaviors, as represented by the solidarity of the black South Africans and the omniscient “them” (the police that shot into the crowd of the black people) in his text. By using these two groups, social ideals are tied to individual behavior in an examination of the power of social reinforcers to unify individuals into groups.

            The most prominent group in the poem is the black South Africans. Sepamla emphasizes their emotions as a unit – it is the group’s shame; the group’s faith is shaken. The people are no longer individuals, but “a black sea” staring down “centuries-old containment”. Their banding together is a behavioral consequence of the social construct of the Apartheid laws that are the product of the white man’s historical fear response to native Africans. As conquerors, the outnumbered Europeans risked losing control unless they subjugated the native people. This risk was then internalized and converted into a fear response centered on losing control. Since implementing limits on the natives soothed the anxiety produced by this fear response, it became socially reinforcing for subsequent generations to keep the limitations placed on the black South Africans as a way of avoiding their historical anxieties about the blacks. Thus, the white community embraced the separation between “white” and “black” in South Africa. As a consequence of the white people’s social ideals, the black people in the poem become “a solid compound/ of black oozing energy” because they were collectively categorized as a “dangerous” stimulus. Sepamla draws a direct connection between the black people’s banding together and protesting (their behaviors) and the social reinforcers that preceded those behaviors.

            If the black South Africans are united because it is socially reinforcing for the white people to categorize them as a fear-provoking stimulus, then the white South African police are united by that same fear-provoking stimulus.  At the “black sea surge[s],” the white police officers must confront a conditioned stimulus that their social context has taught them will lead to harm. When their avoidance behavior no longer wards off their uncomfortable fear response, the police officers retaliate and attempt to eliminate the stimulus altogether “in a flash . . . of gun-fire” just as they “mangled [the bodies] of [the black South Africans’] warrior forbears”.

            After the police attack, Sepamla describes the intense grief experienced by the blacks – “we gnashed teeth . . . the groan and grouse of aggrieved relations shall be our pledged to the dead”. As a consequence of the social reinforcers that led to the dichotomy of South Africa (and subsequently, the Sharpeville Massacre), the black South Africans find their own social reinforcer in the form of solidarity at having experienced the massacre as a unit. The fallen individuals remain a part of the whole and act as incentive to further separate white from black.


Catullus 101 conveys a simple story of a brother traveling to visit the grave of his dead brother. The poem is based upon an actual journey Catullus took to complete the funeral rights and visit the grave of his older brother.  When he speaks of “through many nations and many seas” he speaks of the travels he would have undergone to visit his brother who had died while serving the Roman Empire abroad. Catullus does not specify what funeral rites he must perform but in Ancient Rome proper burial was essential for proper passage through the underworld so the voyage is not purely emotional. Catullus has a responsibility to carry out the rites that he calls a “final gift”.

     The poem is an expression of grief written in Latin in the elegiac meter It is quite well known for it’s brief and haunting, “ave atque vale.” “hail and farewell.”  In the original there is perhaps more of a sense of the grief and the confusion of the loss. Catullus situated his exclamation of “Alas!” [Heu!] in the exact middle line, and spaces out the repetition of frater three times quite evenly throughout the poem: lines 2, 6, and 10. When translated to English the power of word placement is lost because of the necessities of syntax.      There is a loss in the translation of the meter entirely and some of the forlorn emotion. Perhaps this is what prompted Anne Carson to carry out her translation where she brings in the actual physical elements of the scarifies and voices the incipient anxiety with her question, “How long does it take the sound to die away?”

     Translations like Carson’s highlight the undercurrent and subtextual nature of the original poem. For example she begins with the observation that “Multitudes brushed past me “ heightening the reader’s awareness of the fact that Catullus’ brother died away from home and that Catullus must have take a journey to the grave to say farewell. And though Catullus enacts the ritual there is no sense of confidence—they are at first describe as ‘miseras’ miserable, wretched rites and then only in the context of being handed down among the family. The ashes themselves he speaks to “in vain.” Catullus, like Plath, works towards a kind of catharsis. He comes to terms with his brother’s death through the rituals even though he lacks confidence in them.



Catullus 101, an elegy to his dead brother, represents an unconditioned response to the loss of a social reinforcer. The narrator acknowledges that speaking to his brother’s silent ashes is pointless, and that the benefits he once experienced from his worldly connection with his brother have now been lost to death. He describes his tears as his brother is buried with the typical “inferias” (rites) and says that his brother is “adempte mihi” (lost to [him]). The grief seen in the narrator’s response to his brother’s death is a natural, uncontrolled, unlearned response to loss of an intimate connection.

     Because humans are innately social creatures, we are not “conditioned” to engage in intimate relationships. In the 1960s, Harry Harlow proved the natural sociability of primates with his monkey experiments, in which baby monkeys were deprived of the warmth and affection characteristic of intimate relationships with devastating consequences. Catullus exemplifies Harlow’s observations in this elegy, shown in the negative affect the narrator experiences when his intimate social reinforcer is removed.




Initial Responses:



In reading CKosarek’s points I am driven back to an earlier reference (Miller) made in class discussion as to the nature of narratives. Freud’s psychology, often more useful to literary analysis than to psychology in this time, was built upon the experiences of listening to patients speak and narrate their lives. Several psychoanalysts at the time observed the symptoms improved once communication had started. 

            There is an impulse in psychology, present also in the narrative of Robert Coles, that narrative is a cathartic force of freedom and a process for discovering identity, To go back to literary theory, narrative—any narrative whether it’s the The  Bell-Jar, Daddy, My Last Duchess or Fun Home, is impelled by the human impulse for narrative, driven by our need to explain things but also by the dissatisfaction we experience with previous explanations. Science may explain the ‘face’ on Mars but it doesn’t explain away the itch we feel for the explanation. ( That stories, more stories, are necessary because in fact they fail to wrap up all the loose ends of the universe into the endpapers does not suggest or prove that Anna Karenina is a failure any more than Keat’s 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.' suggests that Chapman’s Homer was an artistic failure, Chapman’s adaptation of Homer’s meter does not suggest that Homer failed as a writer only that narrative fails because it can never succeed. It’s not entirely meant to answer the questions only address them. We look to narrative to explain the color of berries but we also look to it for a distraction from the impossibility of ever knowing all the answers.

Stories respond to this addresses the dark edges of human knowledge even when they appear close to us. Just as Science can reveal something as close as microscopic bacteria or as far away as dark matter art can take into account the plums on the table or the founding of an empire.  They all reach for an unknown, they all attempt to construct a story line out of events. Even the most disjointed or sparse words leave an impression.


The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

          What I was struck by then is that by connecting poetry to the real world of behavioral responses and projection, all we do is connect it back to the theories of literature. But yet, that’s hardly unimportant. Literary analysis explains and ‘reveals’ texts in a way psychology ‘reveals’ patients. Both involve theory, search and commentary.

            The use of objects and metaphor as communication, helps aid and move the narrative, constructing the story to operate on multiple levels –like setting Shakespearean romances in Italy—removes the situation from context and at the same time makes it less threatening, more understandable and less dangerous. This fits well with the concept of Plath using projection because she cannot, in fact, face or confront or construct her own narrative with her father in it. But the examples are numberless—The Mikado for example and also Jane Austen’s novels—all of them confront society indirectly whether the veil is Japanese names or fictional ones or both. Poetry’s veil I believe is itself.  Poetry is constructed so much like poetry that however powerful and relevant it’s text is it is still safely distanced from reality—appears to be distanced from reality—by its own devices and canon. . Like Plath’s metaphors it communicates more effectively because while distanced in some situations from the literal truth they present a general one. Perhaps her extended metaphor because it is a metaphor safely reveals and argues the depth of damage and intrusion her father’s death and life had on her in not only the only way she could argue but the only one we could read.

In reading AyaSeaver’s analyses, I saw further opportunities to treat narrative as “truth” in the literary structures she highlighted. The fact that the literary analysis of poetry can be explained in behavioral contingencies further supports that poetry is grounded in “reality” and thus should not be dismissed as “fiction” when dealing with the “true-to-life” concerns of its authors.

In her analysis of Plath’s poem, AyaSeaver mentioned that Plath addresses her relationship with her father indirectly through a series of images, and that these images are undoubtedly somewhat autobiographical. Extending this point, I would like to add that not only are the images autobiographical, but that they also represent Plath’s use of a common defense mechanism –  projection – to avoid difficult emotions surrounding her father and his death. By interweaving her father’s memory – his occupation as a teacher and swollen toe (as AyaSeaver mentioned) – with a Nazi and the black man, Plath displaces her own painful emotions onto the characters she creates, thus projecting herself, her feelings, and her situation onto those same characters. The result of Plath’s projective behavior is that she constructs a narrative not of a Jewess or any other fictional character, but of herself. It is entirely possible that Plath herself is unable to confront her emotions in any way but through projection, and that by giving her feelings a fictional identity, she is able to write her autobiography into the lines of her poem.

            AyaSeaver’s analysis of Catullus 101 also illustrates the narrator’s use of a psychological coping mechanism when faced with an aversive stimulus – death. In the face of his brother’s death, the narrator becomes hyperfocused on the rites he must perform according to the (socially reinforced) customs of his society. The Roman culture in which he lives constructs a ritualized pattern of behaviors through which the narrator will be able to come to terms with this brother’s death. Whereas Plath projects her feelings, the rituals in Catullus 101 allow the narrator to acknowledge his emotions and then release them through pattern in a positive coping mechanism. In Folkman et al.’s article, “Stress, Positive Emotion, and Coping”, three positive coping mechanisms are listed: positive reappraisal, three positive coping mechanisms are listed: positive reappraisal, creation of positive events, and problem-focused coping (Folkman et al. 115). Through his intention of embracing of the traditional funeral rites of his society, Catullus employs “creation of positive events” “by infusing ordinary events with positive meaning” (116). The funeral rites the narrator uses infuse his brother’s death with emotional significance and closure, and will help the narrator to grieve using the funeral rites as a coping mechanism in an emotionally healthy way. The patterns of the rites offer the narrator a respectful distance from his brother’s death so that he will no longer indulge in “pointless” dwelling on the death by “mūtam nēquīquam alloquerer cinerem” (“speak[ing] to [his brother’s] ashes pointlessly”) once he has comforted himself with the rites.

            In the last poem that we analyzed, AyaSeaver brought out the possibility that Sempala’s poem could be a call to action. If we do indeed take the poem as a call to action (which does seem logical, given the circumstances about which the poem was written), then we can see the poem as a component of a social behavioral chain, in which each component of the chain acts as a stimulus that brings about a response, which in turn becomes the next stimulus. Sempala’s poem could be the catalyst that directs his audience (ostensibly, the black South Africans) toward action. The must bury and honor their dead and then move forward against the injustices of not only the Sharpeville Massacre, but Apartheid and its effects as a whole. The stimulus of the Massacre provoked the response of Sempala writing this poem, and this poem could be seen as the stimulus that mobilizes its audience to stand for social justice in South Africa.


Secondary Responses (A Response to a Response):



What is important I think to maintain from CKosarek’s response is her reminder that “Poetry is complex.” None of the theories, in literature of psychology ever manage to dismiss the problems. Even attempting I think to dismiss them goes against part of poetry’s very nature—revelation not conclusion.

            What I find worth stopping to consider is out joint claim that these poems are not fiction. When Merriam-Webster considers fiction they consider “an invented story” and I don’t think any of these poems are invented stories. The imaginative aspects of poetry boil over with artful language and stretch out to abstractions through concrete images and details. Invented doesn’t always mean an ‘invented story’ the description in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ of the telephone is invented but at the same time it is undoubtedly connected to actual telephones she owned or saw or even just heard about.

            Poetry, fiction, narrative, stories, non-fictions—the accurate but visionary assessment of the Sharpeville Massacres, the extended explanative metaphors of Sylvia Plath and the brief moment of Catullus’ grief turning to acceptance—all are moments, events, actualities simply lifted up to a light and held a certain way.

            Like a photo hung on its side for the first time, poetry takes something and transforms or revises it into language. I am not sure there is much more I am certain of when it comes to any genre or form. Afterall, novels take something and revises it into language again.

            Where do the differences in form lie, the genre? The meaning and the audience?

            What is poetry? Prose? Fiction?

In AyaSeaver’s response to my response, I was struck by her observation that poetry is somewhat “safely distanced from reality . . . and so avoids threatening those who read it.” If we look at poetry in this way, then it is possible to see the whole genre as a defense mechanism. With Freudian psychoanalysis, one supposedly uncovers the hidden motives underneath his actions through the construction of a narrative (or whatever “free association” turns out to be); in Applied Behavior Analysis, the motives for the actions are unimportant compared to the fact that a problem behavior exists. If we take poets as those who find means of building up walls of words in order to separate both themselves and their readers from the fear that their circumstances and emotions could incite, then one can see poetry as a way of coping with those difficult emotions and circumstances. Poetry in and of itself could be a behavioral coping mechanism – a way to push forward past difficulty.

          But as AyaSeaver indicated, poetry “construct[s] the story to operate on multiple levels”, and dismissing it as a simple coping mechanism then seems unfair. Poetry is complex, and if we are to interpret it for its psychological value, the words (like their author) must also be allowed to operate from varied psychological viewpoints. There is an element of discovery in poetry, and although words and literary devices place distance between human and event, the fact that narrative poetry moves through time marks it as exploratory. In narrative theory in psychology, an individual sums his life events and emotions into a cohesive interpretation, one that he will use to influence his future actions and perspectives. Perhaps another level on which the psychology of poetry operates, then, is on the level of narrative theory. As a coping mechanism, poetry pushes an author and his readers past an event; as a narrative, it acknowledges the events, learns, and then moves forward.

          Poetry, like other forms of cathartic writing, is safe and reflects the very real need of humans to make sense of their chaotic lives and feelings in a place of reasonable security and comfort. In many ways, poetry represents the modern therapy session: it is nonjudgmental, somewhat difficult, and seeks progression. AyaSeaver maintains that poetry is not fiction, and I would add that not only is it not fiction, but that its inherent qualities ensure that it is a reflection of the psychological complexities of the world, thus offering a “real” glimpse into human resilience and evolution.



On Working and Writing With Another Student:




Links and further reading:




“Affectional Responses in the Infant Baby Monkey” Harry F. Harlow


“Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures” 4th ed. Raymond G. Miltenberger, print.


Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, available online at:


“The Structure of Coping” Leonard I. Pearlin


LINKS (in order of appearance):,9171,869441,00.html