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New Existentialists

Psychology needs poetry

By February 19, 2015February 19th, 2018No Comments

Ask most poets who the biggest influences on them are, and you’ll usually get a list of other poets – Byron, Shelley, Keats, Frost, Whitman, Plath, or Ginsberg.

But when Tom Greening tries to think of the most important influences on his poetry, the two names he comes up with are psychologists.

“Rollo May was a big influence,” Greening remembers.  “And Jim Bugental, with whom I worked for many years.  Jim liked to play with words.  He sometimes made bad puns, which I don’t particularly like, but he certainly had a playful side.”

Perhaps that’s appropriate, because though he’s been a poet in some fashion for most of his life, it’s humanistic psychology – a discipline which he’s done as much as anyone to help shape – that has dominated Greening’s life work.  May and Bugental were two of the pioneers in the field, and they saw a connection between art and scholarship that seems alien in the academic world of today.

There’s now a separation between the humanities and the sciences – one so vast that it seems novel to suggest it could be any other way.  But it could:  perhaps especially in psychology.

As former APA president Frank Farley wrote:

The spiritual side, the poetic side, the giving and forgiving side, the generous and loving side, are humankind’s finest features.  Hebb defined psychology many years ago as not being poetry.  Although Hebb was my scientific hero, I demur from defining psychology without poetry.

That, Greening says, is because the arts and humanities provide both insight into the human condition and a means of ennobling it – and what else is psychology for?

For May and Bugental there was certainly never a separation between psychology and the arts and humanities:  in fact, they saw the latter as being a crucial part of the former.  So much so that Greening and May once created an alternative … albeit satirical … licensing exam.

It included questions about the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Thoreau, Hamlet, Siddhartha, Faust, Guernica,  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Elie Wiesel, Mullah Nasrudin, and Icarus … among many others.

How many psychologists could pass that today?  If there aren’t many, Greening says, their patients are poorer for it. “Do you feel safe walking the streets at night knowing there are psychologists out there who don’t know who Faust and Siddhartha are?” he asks.

“Of course, there’s different kinds of psychology – there’s quantitative, statistical analysis, neurophysiology, drug based  psychopharmacology… and that’s very important, I’m glad people are doing that,” Greening said. “But in the other direction there are the humanities, and people like Rollo and myself believe that they are a crucial resource for anyone who wants to better understand what human beings do and how human beings think and feel.”

For Greening, writing poetry has always been a part of his appreciation of poetry – and he’s been pleased to see that, over the years, the poems he’s sent out … sometimes provocatively … have been well received.  Rollo May was particularly fond of two poems poking fun at him that Greening wrote to celebrate May’s birthday:  May even had one framed and put it on his wall.

In 2008, a colleague of Greening’s in the American Psychological Association’s division 32 – who had been getting emails of Greening’s poems examining psychological issues – invited Greening to submit a collection of his poems for publication by the University of the Rockies Press.

The result, published late last year, was Words Against the Void: Poems by an Existential Psychologist, a sample of Greening’s many poems – often light and satirical, others dark and serious – dealing with issues of psychology, psychologists, and the search for meaning.

The selection of poems, Greening said, “was sort of haphazard.”  The editor used many of the poems he’d collected over the years, and Greening sent several other favorites “to back them up,” including Rollo May’s favorites.

The need for psychology to reinvigorate itself, through the arts if possible, through satire if need be, is enormous, Greening said.  “Psychology can get very pretentious, and take itself very seriously, so some of what I do is to shake that up a bit – and in the book many of the poems are anti-psychiatry, anti-drugging, anti-reductionism.  I’m very appalled by what that kind of psychology turns into.”

That’s a big goal – but it’s an essential one, Greening says.  Like Farley, he believes that psychology without poetry is hollow: the humanities carry the wisdom of  humankind’s search for itself, and the arts bring a creative vitality that psychology cannot do without if it wants to be worthy of the inner lives of its patients.