Poetry, generalisability and method

The poet Christopher Reid has recently won the Costa Prize for literature for his collection of poem entitled The Scattering which charts the demise of his wife from the moment she received news of her terminal illness through to her dying. The poems are both tender and unblinking, witty and emotional.

In a radio interview Reid expressed his surprise that a collection of poems so personal, and so specific to the particularities of his situation and his relationship with his wife, should evoke such strong resonances with so many of his readers. Many who wrote to him mentioned the powerful experience of recognition that they had had on reading his poems despite the fact that their own experiences of death and dying will have been very different. As a successful poet this need not have surprised him, nor would it surprise anyone else who takes an interest in how patient attention to particularities may at the same time throw up general observations about human experience. Paradoxically, there are generalities in the particular, and particularities in the general. We have addressed the question of how subjectivities are formed in previous posts both in looking at the subject/object dualism as well as drawing on insights from the complexity sciences where the particular is both formed by, and is forming, the general pattern of interaction.In reflecting on his method, Reid talked about the importance of his dispassionate enquiry into his feelings and noticing what he was experiencing. He tried, in Norbert Elias’ terms, to be more detached about his involvement. The act of writing itself allowed him to explore these thoughts, feelings and attitudes towards the object of his devotion and by doing so he was able to observe some generalisable things about the permanent instability of anchoring our feelings to impermanent others. Writing about his feelings is a reflexive method and was a movement towards greater detachment.

There are sharp fluctuations in our sense of self, in our identities, which we experience through emotion as we are caught up in relationships of interdependence with others in which we are able to become ourselves. We are subject, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum expressed it, to upheavals of thought provoked by strong feelings as we negotiate needing recognition from others, and they from us in the patterning of mutual recognition and realization.

Similarly, in his writing on  leadership,  one of the things that Ralph Stacey draws attention to is the importance of being able to take the attitude of the other to oneself and of using the self as a method of research. A good leader, argues Stacey, has an enhanced ability to take the attitudes of many others to themselves and as a consequence may be able to intervene more creatively in the ongoing patterning of interaction to which s/he is contributing. One way of achieving this is to pay attention to the strong emotions that a particular situation is evoking in oneself: Stacey argues that this is also what a good therapist is doing, drawing on their subjective experience  to derive more detached inferences about what might be going on between oneself and others, and therefore how one might respond. Exploring the self as one research method amongst others can give us an insight into some of the regularities of human experience. Strong subjective experience can give us clues about generalised tendencies to act in a particular way.

Subjectivity is the domain of the poet, novelist and researcher and can offer us profound insights into what it means to be human.


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