Book Reviews : Two Works on the Power of Language

Every Person's Life Is Worth a Novel by Erving Polster (W. W. Norton: You Must Revise Your Life by William Stafford (University of Michigan/Poets on Poetry Series: $22, hardback; $8.95, paperback; 176 pp.)

"A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens-- second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter," writes Reynolds Price in his little masterpiece, "A Palpable God." "Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our days' events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths."

I thought of Price's credo when reading two new books about language as a tool of self-revelation and self-redemption. Erving Polster, director of the Gestalt Training Center in San Diego, explores the use of storytelling in psychotherapy in "Every Person's Life Is Worth a Novel." And William Stafford, a gifted teacher of writing, ponders the psychic underpinnings of poetry in "You Must Revise Your Life." Each of these books is based on a recognition of the fundamental importance of language as the ordering principle of the human mind and the essential linkage between human beings. Each of these two authors, while seeking to instruct the reader in various technical aspects of their respective disciplines, acknowledges the awesome power and the ultimate mystery of the spoken and written word.

"My life in writing, or my life as a writer, comes to me as two parts, like two rivers that blend," Stafford explains. "One part is easy to tell: the times, the places, events, people. The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known--perhaps not even to me. . . . My poems, especially, are not to my mind crafted objects but little discoveries in language that spring from the encounters between outer events and that unpredictable--and never sufficiently identified--mysterious river."

Polster's book embraces a similar duality--the author attempts "to unite the technical requirements of a therapeutic job-to-be-done with the recognition of the healing effect which comes to people as they learn how remarkably interesting they are." As a therapist, Polster seeks precisely those "little discoveries in language" that are embodied in Stafford's writing; the therapist and the novelist, according to Polster, have "a kinship in the deep exploration of human behavior and awareness." Declares Polster: "By recognizing this common bond with the novelist, the therapist may more readily sense the drama in peoples' lives--the plots they live through, the suspense they create, the discovery of unique characteristics and events, the microcosmic commentary each person's life offers, and the inevitably creative passage through problematic experiences."

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Stafford's friendly little book is the latest offering in the "Poets on Poetry" series, a library of literary instruction and inspiration edited by Donald Hall and published by the University of Michigan Press. (Stafford's "Writing the Australian Crawl" is another title in the series.) His approach to the craft of writing poetry is fairly oblique, and appropriately so--Stafford reminisces about his Midwestern youth and his years behind barbed wire as a conscientious objector during World War II; he shares several short poems on the subject of writing; and he gives us several short essays and interviews, including a surprising dialogue between Stafford and a Mormon interviewer who asks: "Do righteous poets have better access to inspiration?"

Rather like a psychotherapist himself, Stafford embraces what he characterizes as a "no praise-no blame" approach to the teaching of writing; we catch the flavor of his teaching in his poem, "You and Art." Stafford writes: "Your exact errors make a music/that nobody hears./Your straying feet find the great dance,/walking alone./And you live on a world where stumbling always leads home."

Indeed, Stafford could be writing of psychotherapy when he muses: "Can it be that poetry often allows both writer and reader to swing wide on allusion and hint and loose connection, just because only by such recklessness can one reach far out for meanings, with frail helps from language?" And, like Polster, Stafford the poet discerns a kind of found poetry in casual conversation, such as the gritty but poignant chatter of a preschooler:

This has been an awful good day.

First, I found a snake

then an old rotten dried-up mouse

then a baby dead mole

and then an old part of a gun.

The snake will probably get away.

A cat will eat the dried-up mouse.

The baby dead mole's mother will take

him to her nest.

But I'll keep the old part of a gun.

If the title of Stafford's book on writing poetry makes it sound like a psychological self-help manual, I suspect that not a few book buyers will think that "Every Person's Life Is Worth a Novel" (a title borrowed from Flaubert) is a book about do-it-yourself autobiographical novel-writing. But Polster's stated purpose is to teach the professional psychotherapist how to apply the novelist's techniques to the healing of troubled minds and souls. "The story lines created in therapy are jointly created; the therapist and patient are, one might almost say, co-authors," Polster writes. "The therapist may interpret, advise, or provoke. He may be supportive or informative. He works to get his patient heading in a direction that promises a better life." The goal is the self-actualization of the patient: "The full artistry of the therapist, like the novelist, may honor the unrealized self by releasing all the poignancy, sadness, frustration, anguish, sweetness, love, fury--everything that belongs to the confirmation of a person's experience."

I must leave it to the profession of psychotherapy to judge the soundness of Polster's techniques, but I found some of the case histories in "Every Person's Life" to be a little too facile. For instance, one woman reaches the momentous decision to abort a pregnancy after a prompted dialogue in which she "role played" her ambivalence about having a baby--and she suffers no more: "She felt peaceful about giving it up." And Polster concedes that encouraging a patient to engage in self-revealing narrative can be treacherous, even dangerous: "At times . . . the therapist must set aside pursuit of these mysteries for the sake of immediately clarifying experience," he writes of group therapy session in which he responded to a patient's anxiety state by offering "some metaphorical meandering about primordial danger." Polster admits: "Lives may be at stake."

But "Every Person's Life"--like Stafford's "You Must Revise Your Life"--may be read as an expansive treatment of reading and writing rather than a technical work of psychology. Polster is a remarkably literate psychologist who is less likely to cite Freud than one of a dozen contemporary novelists, and his observations on the elements of storytelling are as applicable to the struggling writer as to the struggling patient: transforming the ordinary into the remarkable, linearity, suspense, endings.

Both of these books style themselves as instruction manuals in disciplines that, at their most effective, are probably unteachable: poetry and psychotherapy. But it is unnecessary to approach "Every Person's Life" and "You Must Revise Your Life" as textbooks in order to understand and appreciate what Polster and Stafford are offering so freely and so lovingly. In fact, the essential wisdom in these books is intuitive and fairly cosmic: "A poem is an experience in the reading or hearing; the eventfulness of a poem comes in the experience of the reader," writes Stafford. "For me an artist is someone who lets the material talk back." And Polster, too, acknowledges that "simple humanity can, indeed, generate fascination and . . . highlight the drama, therefore the reality, of each lived life."

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