Many poets, especially the go-getters, have high culture on their minds when they come to Washington to give readings. The esteemed peaks are the podia at the Library of Congress and the Folger Library. A different poet appeared the other day-- Desmond Egan, an Irishman from County Kildare who writes lyrical verse in the mornings and teaches literature in a midlands college in the afternoon.
In the evenings, obeying Ireland's highest calling, he dreams. One of those dreams came true when Egan, skipping High Kultch and an agent's fee, gave a reading at St. Elizabeths mental hospital. The story of Egan's appearance at the U.S. government's largest and oldest insane asylum, and the literary surprises he found there, is a reminder that American poetry, as Hemingway wrote of a character, is "strong in the broken places."
Egan came to St. Elizabeths with a gift: a poem he wrote about Ezra Pound. For 12 years of his long and out-of-kilter life, Pound was confined at St. Elizabeths. After release from his forced stay, he wrote a friend: "How did it go in the madhouse? Rather badly. But what other place could one live in America?"
In a reading room of the hospital's library--a two-story brick building near the center of the 300-acre world of St. Elizabeths--Egan read his 40-line poem about Pound before a group that ranged from staff psychiatrists to schizophrenic patients. It began:
"I cannot take you off the lawns of the mental home
called after St. Elizabeth where you wandered twelve years
and sat behind doors behind doors waiting for callers
no nor be of any use now on your release back into the world
of 1958 incurably insane but harmless."
During the reading, which Egan delivered in the soft brogue of Ireland's midlands, a modest monodrama occurred. A patient, a young woman sitting ramrod in her chair, began talking in an undecipherable outpouring of words. Clinically, she was emoting. But Egan, from the land of "Finnegans Wake," understood and welcomed it as a stream of consciousness. He looked pleased that his poem may have opened up something inside the patient. He had practiced one of the surefire therapies: helping someone "get it out."
Others in the room looked pleased also. These were the psychiatrists and mental- health workers who run St. Elizabeths bibliotherapy program. Bibliotherapy, whether used with mild or acute patients, is the effort to use literature to evoke a feeling of response. Clara Lack, the director of bibliotherapy training at St. Elizabeths is a believer in Robert Frost's thought: that a poem is a way to clarify life--"a momentary stay against confusion."
Lack, who led bibliotherapy groups in mental hospitals in California in the 1970s, says: "Literature can move us from where we were in our isolation." She has seen psychotically mute patients talk, hostile ones calmed and despairing ones hope as a result of joining a group where poems are read aloud, discussed or written.
In a paper published last year, Lack wrote: "The universality of literature hones in with acute accuracy on the inner pain of patients who learn that pain which was heretofore unexplainable was described in a poem or song. In the recognition that another human being has, with exquisite precision, perceived and represented pain similar to the suffering of the patient, pain is somehow lessened."
Patients have their private definitions. At St. Elizabeths, one wrote a poem called "Bibliotherapy":
There was a group that met each Tuesday
Who found reading poems chased the blues away.
They quietly came in to sit
Reading a story helped a bit
They wondered what would happen another day.
Desmond Egan's visit to St. Elizabeths was a moment of deep joy for the patients. Few outsiders, much less writers, ever come. In the outside world, mental health means being able to forget the insane. That Egan's reading went so well prompted someone to suggest that it was time to establish the Ezra Pound lecture series: bring in other poets and artists, and let them share their craft where it is truly needed.
Every mental facility in the country should be offering bibliotherapy. It is still an infant discipline. Volunteers are needed. The success at St. Elizabeths is proof that poetry has healing power. It is not hearing voices to believe that. It is hearing the truth.