Kelly Rafferty, Poetry Panelist
During the summer of second grade, I sheltered earthworms inside a deep puddle I graciously flooded every evening. My love so pure and forgiving I paid little mind to the precise distinction between moist and…drowning. Remarkably, they died. I wept wells of slimy tears and buried them alongside a stone slab in the hopes of securing their immortality through rudimentary fossilization. Later, I would learn process took no less than 10,000 years, so in the meanwhile, their grave was beautified by paper heart verses and sharpie scribbles of “I AM SORRY!” Strangely, these gifts of regret began to heal the sting of becoming an accidental executioner.
I used to think the word ‘catharsis’ sounded like a particularly nasty bowel medication or the sound an angry tabby makes after growing weary of persistent harassment. Though (incidentally) both problems might be soothed by a proper dose of it.
The Webster dictionary definition is: ca·thar·sis /kəˈTHärsəs/ noun: the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
Of course, the concept is notable in literary study from its definition in Aristotle’s “Poetics” which, declares that a truly ‘tragic’ play must culminate in this emotional purgation. Though, the process of catharsis itself is birthed from the true “mother”’ of modern society — repression. A dreadful yet necessary evil; think I am being facetious? Imagine candid emotion infiltrating the many rivers of your life. Brunch, where you deem Great Aunt May’s new ‘do, a hideous assault on Videl Sasoon. Or an early morning job interview that concludes with you yelling at Mike from marketing that he should really consider the toothpaste AND mouthwash combo. Hopefully, if you value friendships that go beyond mutual glances in the stairwell, meetings that don’t erupt into all forms of hoopla, or even public transit (as an entity), then a wee bit of repression is for you!
The dogmatic necessity of repression is likely where the “process” of writing first wedged its way into our consciousness. There must have been an early human who instead of screaming to his cavemate about the mammoth bones: all. over. the. floor. chose to write a deep and rather moving tale of a dreadfully messy man who was eaten by a sky vulture for neglecting to follow the tenets of proper sanitation.
I guess he was a moralist.
Modern poetry too struggles with the odd need for meaning and relief and (possibly) acceptance from crafting a self-philosophy in an erratic and almost self-evasive way. Here Michael Bazzett contends with this reality in ‘The Rock and the Cloud” published in Forklift Ohio:
“Lately, I’ve been struggling with the fact that I’m just a sentient cloud of electrons
Yearning to equate myself to some sort of thing like a hunk of clay that grew a backbone
Or a small
Fire living precariously inside a wooden hut
Or a yeti wearing tweed, but then
That they too are all just temporary mist
And what I think of as things
Don’t really exist”
Bazzett, makes peace with the relativity of human existence and institutes a sense of catharsis by the grasping their “disimportance,” which ironically, serves to elucidate their actual value (and his).
Anyway, our friend in the cave like Bazzett must have breathed a deep sigh of relief after realizing that this almost meaningless action had steadied his blood pressure and returned his thinking to its elemental state. The act of narrating our inner thoughts through voices, poems or even dark moralist tales allows us to take possession of our many abstractions. Frankly, creating does wonders for sweating out the nihilism! Yet, why are we so intent on alienating our fellow beings who engage in artistic practices?
Often when ‘schmoozing’ in college the “wHaT iS yOur mAjOr” inquiry permeates every facet of social interaction.
The dining hall in your pajamas-MAJOR?
Bathroom at 2 a.m.- MAJOR?
That awkward interlude between classes starting and classes ending- MAJOR?
We rub our palms together manically and murmur “gainfully unemployed” upon discovering that someone’s selection doesn’t immediately rhyme with “gem.” And why you might ask? People think it’s as odd to write, or paint, or even dance as it might be to stand on your head and recite “We Didn’t Start the Fire” backward. The words ‘I enjoy writing’ are met with aghast alarm and intellectual trepidation. Our cave friend would be left saddened by the en-vogue oddness associated with writing. How will one liberate emotions without verbal altercation (or cave slam)? The “strange” creator trope is so overwrought that when I googled it, there were no fewer than 10 million hits. Since it is such a common comparison, I will give it no more lines except to say, when did the pursuit of catharsis become a clinical condition?
We have imbued such a sense of “strange” into creative work that some people amount indulging in hobbies (basket weaving even) to a compulsion. No, I am not one of those people, ha I watch golf. Note: Someone close to me may or may not have said this in a smug and condescending tone. I digress, writing can have profound psychological and social benefits. Using my stats minor to the best of its capacity I’ve assembled a variety of studies that validate (scientifically) the value that lies within personal writing.
Some like linguist Walter Ong observed that, “writing is necessary to help the human mind achieve its full potential” (Ong 1982). Writing enables the author to engage with the complexities of abstraction and to “connect the dots in their knowledge.” ( National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges 2003). Humanities and science majors alike utilize the process of thinking in non-linear form whether that be engineering the world’s next alternative fuel or painfully delineating equations.
Beyond cultivating groves of intellectual aptitude, writing can help release powerful emotions and inspire a sense of catharsis: “These brief expressive writing episodes have led participants to report feeling happier and less negative than prior to their writing experience, and having fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety (“Improvement in immune system functioning” Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988), fewer doctor visits (Pennebaker, Barger, & Tiebout, 1989), and greater academic performance (Pennebaker, Colder, & Sharp, 1990).” Like a literary vitamin, actively practicing this ritual, supplements both physical and emotional wellbeing.
I will leave you with this. When the worms died, I did not scream loudly over their graves 1 + 1= 2. Although, in hindsight, that does have some strange sort of resonance. But, for the purposes of this explication, I instead wrote in 2nd-grade lefty scrawl, “I am sorry.” The weight of the pen to paper freeing the confines of guilt. You do not need to be the next Sylvia Plath or T.S Elliot or whoever has been fossilized in the public consciousness, to reap the benefits from a creative practice. And unlike a hearty bowl of Kale, you don’t even have to chew!