Art, Literature, and Life


For real?

A website designed by a counselor posts an essay with the title, Art, Literature, and Life?

51MoVHq0+4LWhen I built this website, Contemplations, I wanted to open the foci of counseling to entail discussions to be not only about pathology, but also to be about life. After all, many clients enter counseling without diagnoses or even the need to be diagnosed. They walk into a counselor’s office because they struggle with everyday pressures of living and believe talking with a professional will help them someway in their struggles. And on what will these clients tend to focus: life goals, relationships, uncertainties, ambiguities, paradoxes, and yes, even mysteries of life, to name a few. Sound familiar? At one time or another – perhaps multiple times – these are those muggy, foggy, and misty experiences of living we all encounter. Yes, I believe counseling is about life. And so is meaningful art. And in reflecting on life, meaningful art can teach us things about how people face and deal with such struggles. [Okay, what is good art? I’m going to let academes and literary critics deal with that.] For me, I value art that tends to delve into the meatier things of living, and at the same time takes me into arenas and experiences that I haven’t previously considered. Such art can be as simple as a three line Haiku. In painting, anything from classicism to impressionism, neo-impressionism, surrealism, abstract and hyperrealism can bring one into a confrontation with existence. Novels from Moby Dick and Call of the Wild to The Unbearable Lightness of Being can bring one face-to-face with the vicissitudes of life. I believe all good art comments in some way about life – painting, drawing, photography, literature, just to name a few. And all good literature addresses themes about life – novels, short stories, essays, plays, and poetry.

Poetry as Commentary on Life

In terms of literature, I want to focus on poetry in this essay. Recently, I have become an avid reader of poetry, about which I claim no expertise. So I’m simply going to talk about what impacts me through my reading. And by that, I don’t mean what impacts me as a counselor. Counseling is something I do. Obviously, in as much as I experience any form of art in an enriching way, it will inform what I do. But much beyond that, it informs me about life. So what follows is a short list of poets and some of their works that readers can access, and experience for themselves what poets and their art of poetry have to offer. I’m also going to draw on a work I just finished reading by Jane Hirshfield, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. I promise lovers of poetry that if you read her work, you’ll go back to it time and again. I wish I could discuss poetry like her, but readers will just have to cope with my meanderings in this essay.

Broad versus Concrete

I like the concrete experiences that poetry often supplies. Like various painters, some poets can paint with broad strokes, such as the metaphysical poets, many of the Romantics, and the classicists. Although poems such as T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is most definitely worth the study, the reader is taken into the metaphysical and mythological rendering of a decaying world. Eliot’s poem is worth the effort and what it calls for the reader to confront. However, I find myself returning again and again to Eliot’s, The Hollow Men, more so than to The Wasteland. It calls readers to an experience of one’s hollowness that tends to reflect many people’s experience with our modern age.

I experience the same with the Romantics. Many of their poems are long and involved, such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Again, such a poem is well-worth the study since Wordsworth is considered to have ushered in the style of Romantic poetry, but I find myself drawn more to his shorter poems, such as I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. Likewise, in sitting down with the works of Matthew Arnold, I prefer such poems as Dover Beach and The Buried Life. Wordsworth’s Cloud and these latter two by Arnold are reflective, somewhat melancholy, and not necessarily final pronouncements on anything. They are open-ended, somewhat ambiguous, and leave readers with enough uncertainty that they are left to reflect on the poems again and again. For this reason, I can read John Keats’ Odes and never tire of them, particularly, Ode to Nightingale. In reading Keats’ Odes, I feel that I’m taken on a trip into the labyrinth of the poet’s mind and experience, yet the trip is also through my mind and experience. And of course the brooding poems of Edgar Alan Poe are always a lot of fun. Who hasn’t recited, once upon a midnight dreary, and wondered exactly what is Poe getting at here?

Contemporary Poets

But alas, I think I must be a thoroughgoing modernist because the poets to whom I find myself returning over and over are those such as William Stafford, Robert Bly, Tom Hennen, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Jane Hirshfield, Linda Gregg, Anna Akhmatova, Ezra Pound, Czeslaw Milosz, among others. The reason is the concreteness of experience in their poems along with the very things of living with which clients seek to grapple. Many of the poems written by these poets are not only concrete and succinct, but are ambiguous, paradoxical, leaving one with uncertainties and mysteries regarding this thing we call life. Take for example this short poem by Ezra Pound: And the days are not full enough/And they days are not full enough/And life slips by like a field mouse/Not shaking the grass. It’s not my purpose in this essay to explicate poems, but this is a poem that one can read again and again, probably experiencing it in different ways across time. It’s succinct declaration yet open-endedness and ambiguity makes it somewhat a mysterious poem.

Through his life as a poet, Czeslaw Milosz came to value poems that he identified as concrete and realist. The term realist is a loaded one, but what he meant by it was that he was drawn to poetry that provides a succinct description of an experience, yet speaks to a life theme that takes one beyond the particular description. The titles of many of his poems, such as The Road, The Gate, The Porch, The Stairs, or The Dining Room reflect the concreteness of his work, yet these poems are not merely about a road, a gate, or a dining room. Take for example his poem, Window, which reads: I looked out the window at dawn and saw a young apple tree translucent in brightness/And when I looked out at dawn once again, an apple tree laden with fruit stood there/Many years had probably gone by but I remember nothing of what happened in my sleep. Again, this is a poem that one can ponder over and over, contemplating on what Milosz might be trying to get at in this description of a scene outside a window juxtaposed, in the last line, to his reflection on sleep and dreams.

Poetry covers the range of experiences that people encounter, the cycles of living, the raw experiences of human love and depravity, war and death, or the fulfilling successes of living. Many of Czeslaw Milosz’s poems speak to his experience in Poland during and just after WW II, describing both Nazi and Soviet occupation of his homeland. His contemporary Polish friend, Wislawa Symborska, wrote of similar experiences. The novelist and poet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and poet Anna Akhmatova wrote of their experiences under the Soviet regime. These four artists demonstrate that poetry can speak to horrendous and horrific experiences, displaying courage, survival, and ways individuals can face vicissitudes of life that they never would have guessed or imagined would come their way. Mary Howe, for example, authored a book of poetry generated by her experience of losing her brother to Aids. Hence, poetry portrays human drama in all its emotions, experiences, successes, and failures. Although Solzhenitsyn and Akhmatova make their pronouncements on the Soviet regime, their writings take readers into their experiences, showing what can be accomplished, even in the face of the unknown that never clearly becomes known, the incomprehensible that never becomes totally fathomed.

Haiku: Ancient Yet Modern

In terms of succinct, concrete poems that summon themes of life, one cannot do better than the ancient form of poetry designated as Haiku. In the English language, they are usually rendered as three line poems, sometimes with a formula of 5/7/5 syllable count for each respective line; however, not all translated Haiku poems fit this formula. The Haiku form is valued for its brevity and particularity, yet transcendent message it seeks to access. One has to wrestle with the juxtaposition of descriptions, which usually speak to the various cycles of life – e.g. spring, summer, fall, and winter, or birth, living, and dying. Modernists readily seize upon this form poetry, and although dating back centuries, many modernist poets today try their hand at Haiku. As in Jane Hirshfield’s case, they may translate Haiku into modern languages. Basho is considered the master of Haiku. Hirshfield, in her book about the power of poetry to transform, Ten Windows, devotes an entire chapter to Haiku, Basho, and other Haiku poets. She describes Haiku as seeing through words, and indeed many view poetry as painting with words. In this Haiku for example, though succinctly depicting a scene, Basho writes that it is also describes what he feels in the moment: this road/through autumn nightfall/no one walks it. So there is something about a road on an autumn evening, with no one traveling it, that describes how he feels at the moment of observing the scene. So as readers, we are left to ponder what we might feel with such a scene, or how indeed we have felt if we recall certain familiar places and their surroundings. However, Basho gives no definitive emotion that should accompany the poem – is it loneliness, peaceful solitude, or a combination of several feelings?


In her work, Ten Windows, Jane Hirshfield discusses the power of poetry to transform our world via ambiguity, mystery, paradox, and uncertainty. These experiences are the very ones that many clients bring to therapy, hoping for some resolution or some form of finality that clears everything up for them. Yet many times, we simply have to embrace – radically accept – that these experiences repeat themselves in our lives over and over. Yes, I think poetry can transform our world, not necessarily by doling out pat answers for us, but by bringing us into confrontation with life’s many vagaries and calling us to understand that much of living entails, not a final resting place, but mutability.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D./July 14, 2015