Existential psychology embraces creativity and the arts, especially as a counterbalance against the field’s current emphasis upon empiricism and science. Indeed “we express our being by creating. Creativity is a necessary sequel to being” (May, 1975, p. 8). W. H. Auden once remarked to Rollo May (1975) in private conversation: “The Poet marries the language, and out of this marriage the poem is born!” (p. 85)
So in teaching my students about the existential approach, I often encourage them to reawaken their artistic selves. I remind them that what our clients and we ourselves seek for is inspiration far above information. In addition to delivering information and expert knowledge, the gifted therapist is one who is able to inspire his or her client to reconnect with their own being and achieve transformation. Thus, just as an artist marries the language, with language being much more than just a tool, we need to “marry” our techniques so that it too becomes much more than a tool.
Well, “what does this look like, and how can you teach us to accomplish this,” I’m often asked? This is a difficult question to answer for how can one teach another to write poetry? I struggle with this endeavor on a regular basis. For one, this is not a linear process. Just as I teach my students, I remind myself in the words of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, “what clients [and my students] need is experience rather than an explanation.” So much of the time, I’m simply trying to provide the proper environment for my students’ poetic selves to emerge. And of course, in order for this to happen, it is important that I model this way of being.
For a long time, whenever I demonstrate role plays, I try to model the importance of listening to the music rather than the words. I instruct my students that it’s important that we listen with all of our being, and hear and feel what the client is trying to communicate to us. That just as the poem is a tool, an avenue to communicate the inner self of the poet, the words that the client uses are also mere tools. Similarly, May (1975) illuminates, “the greatness of a poem or a painting is not that it portrays the thing observed or experienced, but that it portrays the artist’s or the poet’s vision cued off by his encounter with the reality” (p. 79).
Therefore, we teach our students to focus not upon the words (content) but rather on the essence behind the words. What we strive for is not content accuracy. This is not accurate empathy. What we strive for is ontological accuracy. Or perhaps even poetic accuracy. We want to be aligned with and in tune with the rhythm, timbre, and melody of the client’s being. And in this regard, poetry is a powerful tool.
Fortunately, if I am attuned to and entrust myself to the process, such creative teaching inspirations do come about once in a while. Such an instance came about late last year as I was sharing about creativity and the use of the self in therapy and how that needs to be affirmed in supervision. I shared about this case in one of my previous New Existentialist blogs. This case involved a beautiful Chinese song titled Lilacs. The lyrics from the song was beautiful and an intricate part of the story. Therefore, I needed to have it translated. Given my limited Chinese ability, I asked a friend to make the initial translation. She offered a fine translation that accurately matched the song nearly verbatim.
However, much of the essence of the song was missing. It failed to match the melody and capture the soul, the essence of the song. Those of you who have experience translating poetry will immediately understand. The songwriter shaped the Chinese language to fit that particular melody. It would have been very difficult to accomplish the same with a different language. However, in order to do justice to the song and to the story, I had to try.
Below you will find in the first column the original Chinese lyrics. The second column is the more objective, verbatim translation. The third column is what I have to offer as an example of poetic translation. As you can see, my poetic translation took much liberty in interpretation. It portrayed my understanding and feelings of that song. Objectively, it was a distant remnant of the original song. But I believe the poetic translation, offered a much closer representation of the soul and message of the original song.
|你 看 那 满 山 遍 野||You said your favourite flower is Lilac||Your favourite flower is Lilac|
|你 说 你 最 爱 丁 香 花||Because Lilac is your name||For this is your name|
|因 为 你 的 名 字 就 是 它||Such a gloomy flower that is||A melancholic flower|
|多 么 忧 郁 的 花||Such a sentimental person you are||A sentimental you|
|多 愁 善 感 的 人 啊||When the flower wilts||Upon your wilting|
|当 花 儿 枯 萎 的 时 候||When the scene is being frozen||Time stood still|
|当 画 面 定 格 的 时 候||Such a tender and lovely flower||Such a tender and lovely flower|
|多 么 娇 嫩 的 花||Unable to escape from the blow of wind and rain||Battered by the wind and rain|
|却 躲 不 过 风 吹 雨 打||Floating, swaying through its life||Floating through life|
|飘 啊 摇 啊 的 一 生||Knitting one after another beautiful dreams||Weaving dreams, one after another|
|多 少 美 丽 编 织 的 梦 啊||But hastily, you left||Hastily, you left|
|就 这 样 匆 匆 你 走 了||What’s left with me, is a life-long of memory||Leaving me a lifetime of memories|
|留 给 我 一 生 牵 挂||Flowers blooming at the grave – that’s the beauty that you long for||Flowers blooming at the grave, the beauty you longed for|
|那 坟 前 开 满 鲜 花 是 你 多 么 渴 望 的 美 啊||Look! The mountain is full of flowers||A mountain of blossoms|
|你 还 觉 得 孤 单 吗||Do you… still feel lonely?||Are you lonely still?|
|你 听 那 有 人 在 唱 那 首 你 最 爱 的 歌 谣 啊||Listen! Somebody is singing your favourite folk song||Listen, a serenade, your favorite ballad|
|尘 世 间 多 少 繁 芜||You will never have to worry anymore, about all the trouble and misery in the world||Worry no more about the troubles and miseries of the world|
|从 此 不 必 再 牵 挂||The Lilac is in everyday of my life now||Lilac, my daily companion|
|(Repeat all x 1)||Blooming so beautifully||My beautiful, blooming Lilac|
|日 子 里 栽 满 丁 香 花||I’m here accompanying her||I’m here with you|
|开 满 制 胜 美 丽 的 鲜 花||Now and forever, I will be here to protect her||To protect you now and forever|
|我 在 这 里 陪 着 她|
|一 生 一 世 保 护 她|
I am very thankful for this teaching opportunity that fell across my lap. It helps me to demonstrate to my students the difference between content reflection and poetic reflection when it comes to reflecting back to our clients what we’ve heard. Paradoxically, less is more. Even though the poetic reflection offered less words/content and was therefore less objectively accurate, the limitations of the words added to the depths of its meaning. May (1975) teaches us that “creativity itself requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them” (p. 113). May (1975) writes furthermore:
Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem. The struggles with limits is actually the source of creative productions. The limits are necessary as those provided by the banks of a river, without which the water would be dispersed on the earth and there would be no river—that is, the river is constituted by the tension between the flowing water and the banks. Art in the same way requires limits as a necessary factor in its birth.
When you write a poem, you discover that the very necessity of fitting your meaning into such and such a form requires you to search in your imagination for new meanings. You reject certain ways of saying it; you select others, always trying to form the poem again. In your forming, you arrive at new and more profound meanings than you had even dreamed of. Form is not a mere lopping off of meaning that you don’t have room to put into your poem; it is an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing your meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence you wish to express. How much meaning Shakespeare could put into his plays because they were written in blank verse rather than prose, or his sonnets because they were fourteen lines!
Therefore, the next time you have a chance to teach or think about the basic and fundamental act of reflecting back to your clients what you have heard and felt, I encourage you to take some liberties and offer a more Poetic Reflection that may differ in content, but stays true to the essence and meaning behind the story that you heard.
May, R. (1975). The Courage to Create. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
— Mark Yang