Psychoanalytic Explanations for the Transition of Writers from Poetry to Prose Writing

by Sagit Blumrosen-Sela

January 1, 2002


This paper sheds light on the prevalent phenomenon of the transition of writers from poetry to prose writing. It describes the characteristics of the 'poetic' (or 'lyric') versus the 'prosaic' mode of writing, and relates them to two early developmental positions. The 'lyric' position is related to the earlier psychological position, which is characterized by narcissism, the dominance of primary processes, looseness of ego boundaries, a lack of clear differentiation between the self and objects, and a high level of unity between symbol and symbolized. The 'prosaic' position is related to the later developmental position, which entails strengthening of ego functioning, strengthening of secondary processes, the presence of a narrating subject who is more separate and self-conscious and often has a more realistic and integrative regard for himself and for objects around him. In this position, symbolization is more differentiated and there is a syntactical and lexical fullness.


"The literary genres turn out to be the textual projection of the diversity of human attitudes to life." (Todorov 1978, p. 59)


     This paper sheds light on the very prevalent phenomenon of the transition of writers from poetry to prose writing, which occurs in almost all writers. It describes at first the main characteristics of the 'poetic' (or 'lyric') versus the 'prosaic' mode of writing, at their 'pure' forms, and the psychological-mental-epistemological positions at their basis, and then relates them to two consecutive developmental positions, which take place in early childhood: The 'lyric' position, on the one hand, is related to the earlier psychological position, which is characterized by narcissism, the dominance of primary processes, looseness of ego boundaries, a lack of clear differentiation between the self and objects, a high level of unity between symbol and symbolized (called 'protosymbolism'), and an excessive use of defenses, especially early ones, such as projection, introjection, projective identification, splitting, idealization, and so forth. The 'prosaic' position, on the other hand, is related to the later developmental position, which entails a strengthening of ego functioning and reality-testing functions, a strengthening of secondary processes, the presence of a narrating subject who is more separate and self-conscious and often has a more realistic and integrative regard of himself and of objects around him. This position involves greater differentiation between self and objects and a more realistic, objective and full regard of objects. The symbolization in this position is characterized be a clearer distinction between symbol and symbolized and a syntactical and lexical fullness. This position also includes a decrease in the use of defenses. The two positions are featured in terms of various psychoanalytic perspectives, such as those of Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Lacan, Kohut, Stern and others.

    The paper describes how the lyric position comes to the fore mainly through adolescence (which often stretches in our culture till the mid-twenties or even after), due to the high emotional pressures and the efforts of reshaping identity that characterize this age, whereas the prosaic position is usually reached from the mid-twenties onward, and is related to a growing interest in the world and a more objective regard of reality. However, there are writers who go on writing lyric works along their adult years, due to week ego boundaries, which enable them to access their unconscious more easily and create various identifications and unions, manifested in their works of art.

    It is stressed in the paper that the transition between the positions is not one-directional and that most often in adulthood the different positions are included in a personal repertoire, with interchanges between them from one work to the other or within the same work. Moreover, in older ages writers often return to lyrical modes of expression or combine different modes of expression, in accordance with recent psychoanalytic theories' perception of the ability to move and combine psychological positions as an achievement of the mature personality.


1. Introducing the Phenomenon

     The transition of writers from poetry to prose writing is a very prevalent phenomenon, especially in the modern era. It apparently occurs in most writers - some of whom return to poetry after their work in prose, or abandon poetry altogether. The transition may also be manifested in a move to other kinds of writing, which are not 'prose proper,' yet have 'prosaic' characteristics - such as biographies, essays or research, or works that combine 'lyrical' and 'prosaic' characteristics, like lyric prose, prose poems, long poems, and so forth. The transition may also be expressed in changes in the nature of the poetry and prose works themselves, which tend to become less 'lyrical' and more 'prosaic' along the years. For example, in my thesis (XXX), I examined 144 twentieth century writers, prominent in world and in the local Hebrew literature in the twentieth century - elected according to the criteria of figuring in certain lexicons and having published works in both poetry and prose - and found that more than 95% of them had written and often published poetry before their first prose work appeared. The fact that the decisive majority of these authors began their careers by writing poetry and turned to prose only later, and not vice versa, strongly supports my primary assumption that the phenomenon is rooted in a universal psychological pattern.

    In terms of age, lyric poetry is written mostly in the late teens or early twenties of writers' lives, whereas prose works are most often produced from the mid-twenties onward. Ezra Pound (1913, 52), for example, writes: "it is true that most people poetize more or less between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three." Kundera (1988b, p. 138) writes: "the lyrical age = youth." Several scholars, such as Lehman (1953), Geleerd (1961, p. 395), Jacques (1965) and Gedo (1996) also point out to the relations between the writing of lyric poetry and these years. However, it is in no way claimed that the transition between poetry and prose writing is one-directional or irreversible; on the contrary, many writers - both poets and prose writers - go back to poetry and very often introduce poetic elements into their prose writings. In fact, throughout a writer's life there are most often dialectic relations between the 'lyric' and the 'prosaic' positions. As will be shown, these interchanges and dialectic relations are much in agreement with psychoanalytic theories, especially recent ones, which describe such relations and interchanges between psychological positions throughout life.

    In this paper, I will first outline the main characteristics of the 'poetic' (or the 'lyric'; these two terms are used here interchangeably, since the 'lyrical' is actually a representation of the 'poetical' in its pure form) and the 'prosaic' modes. Then I will associate these two modes, and the two mental-epistemological-psychological positions at their base, with two psychological positions that exist in early childhood and come to the fore later in life, in the light of various psychoanalytic theories.

    The association of poetry and prose writing with early psychological positions relies on the psychoanalytical perception of creativity - as related to early psychological positions. Many psychoanalytic theoreticians, mainly in the past, have associated creativity with psychopathology - i.e. a fixation and a regression to early states occur because of structural and/or environmental factors - though others, mainly more recently, (e.g. Sobel 1978, Rose 1980 or Gedo 1996), would rather talk of the artist's ability to 'access' different levels of experience, with no necessary psychopathology. As regards this paper, there is no need to decide between these two approaches, since they share the associating of creativity with positions similar to those existing in early childhood.

     2. The Differences between the 'Lyric' and the 'Prosaic' Modes in their 'Pure' Forms

    My point of departure is that the 'lyric' and the 'prosaic' literary modes, in their pure forms, are basically related to two different psychological-mental-epistemological positions of the writers - which I refer to as 'the lyric position' as opposed to 'the prosaic position'. This contention has been upheld mainly since German Romanticism, by theorists such as Schelling [1803], Hegel [1830], A.W. Schlegel [1801] and others, who drew distinctions between three main literary modes - the 'Lyric', the 'Epic' and the 'Dramatic' - and related them to 'subjectivity,' 'objectivity,' and a mixture of the two, respectively. Associating the literary modes with different mental or psychological positions became a common procedure in the modern era .

    I will now briefly present the major differences between the 'lyric' and the 'prosaic' modes, based on the various descriptions (such as those of Hegel, Mill, Staiger, Hamburger, and others). It should be stressed that the differences described are those between the modes in their 'pure' forms, though in reality such 'pure' forms are very rare.

    The main focus and attitude: The lyric mode in its pure form gives expression mainly to the inner life of the poet - i.e. his/her feelings and thoughts, often in a concentrated and abstracted form. The prosaic, by contrast, presents a wider, fuller, and more integrative picture of both inner and outer reality, usually creating a wider perspective in time and space.

    These differences are manifested in writers' attitudes towards objects: in the lyric mode, the poet relates to objects mainly through their echo in his/her own consciousness, or his/her projections on to them, and out of a sense of proximity or unity between him/herself and them. Staiger (1991, pp. 181-182), for example, writes: "in the lyric realm there is not yet any distance between subject and object. The 'I' swims along in the transience of things. In the epic, subject-object dichotomy comes into being." Staiger adds that in love relationships, for instance, the distance between object and subject is most absent, and indeed love is a very common theme of lyric poems, especially youthful love. Similarly, the poet Hofmannsthal, describing his period of lyric writing, says: "In all expressions of Nature I felt myself." (1952, p. 132) In psychoanalytical terms, this attitude towards objects involves the use of defense mechanisms based on identification, such as 'projection' or 'introjection' and sometimes even magical thinking (it is interesting to note that lyric writing is very often related to the belief, often unconscious, in the ability to somehow exert an influence on objects in the world). The use of rhythm may also be associated with the unconscious wish to exert some magical power on the world (Richards [1926] and Borel [1934] point out the relation between poetry and magical thinking). The fact that objects in the lyric mode are typically described through the prism of the poet's subjectivity usually renders the portrayal partial and one-sided, tinged by the poet's emotions, and often split into 'good' or 'bad'. In the prosaic mode, however, there is more distance between the subject (i.e. the writer) and the objects, and the objects are described in a fuller and more integrative way, and from a greater distance.

    Similar differences may appear in writers' attitude towards themselves in both modes: in the lyric mode, poets often speak of a single point in their lives, out of great proximity, and with a limited consideration of the wider psychological and historical context. James Joyce (1966, p. 224), for example, writes that "He who utters it [i.e. the 'lyric'] is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion." In the prosaic mode, the writer may sometimes treat his/her own life as well, yet out of more distance, objectivity and psychological integration - as in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu or Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    Inspiration versus hard work: Prose works are very often the outcome of a continuous hard work, whereas lyric poetry is characteristically the consequence of 'inspiration' - i.e. a sudden 'flash' in the poet's consciousness. Staiger, for example, writes that the lyric poet "gives in; he lets himself be carried wherever the fleeting mood takes him." (p. 67) He says that the aim of the lyric process is to recapture the moment of inspiration, whereas 'epic' and 'dramatic' poems do not have to lean so hard on inspiration. (pp. 93-94) In psychoanalytic terms, one may talk, instead of 'inspiration', of writers' easier access to their own 'unconscious', 'primary' processes. Thus, the typical shortness of the lyric mode reflects its limitation to the moment of inspiration as opposed to the length of the prosaic mode, which stems from its wider perspective. The use of language: In the prosaic mode, words are handled mainly according to their semantic, 'referential' meaning. In the lyric mode, they are chosen and connected with each other on the basis of both their semantic and 'formalistic' features - such as sound, rhythm, rhyme, and so on - which carry emotional charges, even though these are not explicitly expressed. Pound (1913) and Todorov (1978) write that poetry 'presents' meanings through the signs themselves, whereas prose 'represents' meanings (this distinction would be relevant in the psychoanalytic theories as well).

    Linearity versus associativeness: The prosaic mode is characterized by a linear, chronological and logical mode of connection, whereas in the lyric the mode of connection is more associative and unsequential. The use of metaphors and similes is very appropriate to the lyric mode since it reveals the poet's subjective consciousness, using idiosyncratic connections.

     3. Relating the 'Lyric' and the 'Prosaic' Modes to Two Different Psychological Positions

     The major differences between the lyric and the prosaic modes which were discussed above match very well the features of two consecutive psychological positions that exist in early development and reappear later in life, as described in various psychoanalytic perspectives. (It should be stressed that only the main features that are relevant to the explanation of the transition were extracted from each theory). The term 'positions' refers to levels of psychological organization, with characteristic object relations, modes of symbolization, defense mechanisms, level of ego functioning and so on (the term 'positions' is preferred to 'phases', since there may be dialectic relations and interchanges between positions throughout life).

    Several theoretical perspectives will be presented, in order to show how each may contribute to explaining the transition. A major difference in the basic conception of psychological development of the different theories should be noted: whereas some of the theories tend to draw a linear line of development, aimed at the 'achievement' of a certain maturity, others, especially more recent ones, do not perceive development as progressing toward one objective aim, but rather perceive the different psychological positions as accumulating to create a personal repertoire, while the ability to move between them is perceived as an achievement of the mature personality . (It should be noted, however, that this distinction is not clear-cut or dichotomous, since some of the theories certainly include both aspects ). In any case, I find both kinds of theories valuable in accounting for different aspects of the transition from poetry to prose writing: whereas the first kind is especially useful in explaining the one-directional, linear transition, as it happens essentially the first time, the latter present a more complex picture of the dialectical relations and interchanges between the two positions throughout life. Thus, the tension between these two kinds of theories is essential in explaining the transition (as well as human development in general).

3a. 'Classical' theories - Freud, Mahler, Jacobson and Others:

    The transition from poetry to prose writing fits very well the account of development presented in Freud's 'classical' theory. Freud (1911, 1914) describes 'normal' development as proceeding from a stage of 'autoerotism,' in which the infant is occupied with his/her own sensations and does not relate to other objects; to a stage of 'primary narcissism,' in which the infant invests libidinal energies in himself and in inner representations of objects, with no clear distinctions between himself and other objects, or between different objects, accompanied by feelings of omnipotence. Later, between the second and third years of life, a phase of 'object-love' begins, in which mental energies are turned from the self to other objects, the infant differentiates better between himself and others and between other objects and gradually develops a capacity for interpersonal relations. 'Secondary narcissism' is characterized by a withdrawal of the libidinal energies from the outer world and their investment in the self. Freud emphasizes the importance of the developmental transition from dependency to autonomy (1924) and from passivity to activity, which is a part of it (1920).

    Mahler's theory also describes a transition from primary narcissism and unity with the mother, through the process of separation-individuation. This process takes place at the age of 5-6 months to 3-4 years and includes the achievements of separateness, object constancy, use of language, the ability to function independently of the mother and to create healthy relations with other persons, perceiving them as separate and realistic wholes. Other 'classical' theoreticians, such as E. Jacobson (1964), A. Freud (1965), Hartmann (1964) and others, describe similar lines of early development.

    The classical theoretical account of development fits very well the transition from the 'lyric' to the 'prosaic' positions: it describes the move from self-centeredness to relating more to others; from concentrating on inner reality and fantasy to a growing sense of outer reality; from relations based on identification and the use of defense-mechanisms such as projection and introjection - to relating to objects in a more objective, realistic way, due to the strengthening of ego functioning and the establishment of a firmer self image and clearer boundaries between the self and others. The transition from passivity to activity, described by Freud, fits the transition from the passivity which characterizes the lyric position, related to surrendering to inspiration, to the greater activity, which characterizes prose writing, manifested in greater intentionality and executional effort. The process of separation-individuation, described by Mahler, may be related to the growing sense of separation and individuality which is typical of the transition from the lyric to the prosaic position.

     3b. Winnicottian perspective:

    Winnicott's conception of development is in many ways close to that of 'classical' theory - i.e. in describing a transition from a more 'subjective' relation to objects, characterized by the use of early mechanisms such as projection, introjection, displacement and so forth, to a more 'objective' and realistic approach towards objects and the ability to perceive other people as whole, separate and able to have feelings similar to one's own and thereby the capacity of feeling guilt, mourning and empathy. However, Winnicott conceptualizes the development in his own terms, which may be relevant to the account of the transition from poetry to prose writing as well: for example, he describes how at first, the subject 'relates' to objects as 'subjective objects' - i.e. as parts of the self; then s/he discovers that the object is beyond his/her control and therefore tries to destroy it, and if the object survives that, s/he begins to acknowledge it as an entity in itself, and not as a projected entity, and is able to 'use' it (hence the term 'object usage'). The next phase is that of having a 'relationship' with the object, with an element of reciprocity. Winnicott also describes a developmental transition from 'apperception' (i.e. tinged by the perceiver's inner world) to 'perception' (i.e. an 'objective' perception of the world), and from a state of 'being', which is related to early relations with the mother and to passivity, to a state of 'doing', which is characterized by a more 'masculine' element, and to more activity. All these developments are typical of the transition between the lyric and the prosaic modes as well.

     3c. Kleinian and post-Kleinian perspective:

    Melanie Klein's account of development is especially suited to explaining the transition between poetry and prose writing, in light of the clear parallels between the early 'paranoid-schizoid' position and poetry writing and the later 'depressive' position and prose writing. Klein (1950, 1952) and her followers (such as Segal 1957; 1991) associate artistic creativity mainly with the depressive position - i.e. they perceive creativity as stemming from an urge to compensate for the anxiety aroused by the real or imagined destruction of primary objects, by creating symbols. However, I think one may distinguish between two kinds of creativity - one closer to the characteristics of the paranoid-schizoid position, and the other to the characteristics of the depressive position - and associate them with poetry and prose, respectively. In any case, this may be reconciled with the Kleinian conception of creativity, by assuming that any kind of creativity - including poetry writing - must depend, to some extent, on the processing of the depressive position, though it may give expression to paranoid-schizoid features as well - in accordance with Kleinian and especially neo-Kleinian concepts of dialectic relations and interchanges between the two positions. I will now go on to the correlation between the characteristics of the p-s and the depressive positions - as described by Klein (1946, 1952), Fairbairn (1940, 1952), Guntrip (1968), Ogden (1992) and others - and those of the 'lyric' and the 'prosaic' positions, respectively:

    Lack of historical dimension versus historicity: In the p-s position, there is no historical dimension; experiences are perceived as they are in the present, with no integration of past, present and future. In the depressive position, by contrast, a person begins to consider the personal and wider historical circumstances of his/her life and to mourn for his/her losses. Ogden (1992, 82) finds this process so significant, that he suggests calling the depressive position "the historical position." This parallels the historical dimension which characterizes the prosaic mode, as opposed to the focus on the present in the lyric mode. Object relations: In the p-s position, objects are seen as 'part objects' instead of 'whole objects'. They are often perceived subjectively, and sometimes even split into 'good' versus 'bad', whereas in the depressive position, attitudes are based on recognizing the other as a separate, whole and complex being. All this corresponds to 'subjective', one-sided relations to objects in the lyric mode, as opposed to more objective, full and complex relations in the prosaic. In addition, object-relations in the p-s position are often characterized by suspicion, withdrawal and loneliness, in accordance with the feelings of loneliness so often described in poetry (Parkinson [1980] and Roth [1983], for example, stress the relationship between poetry and loneliness). In the depressive position and the prosaic mode, in contrast, there is often a tendency to relate to objects in a more realistic and reconciled way.

    Passivity versus activity: In the p-s position, feelings or thoughts occur rather automatically, matching the element of 'inspiration' in poetry. In the depressive position, by contrast, the person initiates and controls his/her mental operations, as in the prosaic mode. Besides, the 'brevity' of poetry may be related to the 'fear of giving', which is typical of the p-s position (originating in the infant's feeling of emptiness when his/her mother does not fulfil his/her demands, and his/her fear that s/he might empty the breast or that s/he him/herself might be emptied) - as opposed to the more substantial 'giving' of the prosaic mode.

    Characteristic feelings: The characteristic feelings in the p-s position are merger wishes on the one hand, and emptiness, despair, and suffering on the other, often leading to death wishes, since death is perceived as a redemption from suffering, a rebirth or a return to a symbolic womb. All these often find expression in poetry. Hall (1965), for example, who examined poets' references to death and life - as manifested in 686 quotations on these subjects - found that poets expressed more positive than negative attitudes towards death, and more negative than positive attitudes towards life. The characteristic feelings of the depressive position, on the other hand, are of loss, guilt, pain, empathy and willingness to 'preserve' objects - which often find expression in prose.

    The defenses: The characteristic defenses of the p-s position are the 'early' ones - such as projection, splitting, denial, idealization, omnipotent thinking, etc., while those of the depressive position are primarily manic ones, and sometimes there may also be regressions to earlier defenses. This corresponds to the greater use of defenses, especially 'early' ones, in the lyric mode, as opposed to lesser use in the prosaic mode (see further on this in part 4c below).

    Klein (1952) and especially her followers (such as Bion 1955, 1963 or Ogden 1986, 1989) stress the dialectic relations and the interchanges between the two positions throughout life, arguing that each of us may temporarily regress to the p-s position, especially in the face of anxiety or stress situations. Ogden, for example, holds that the different positions always coexist and that human experience is a result of the dialectic play between these modes. This is again in accordance with the interchanges and dialectic relations between the lyrical and the prosaic positions which are so prevalent among writers, as was said above.

    Ogden's autistic-contiguous position Thomas Ogden introduces another position, prior to the two Kleinian positions, which he terms 'the autistic-contiguous' position. He describes it as a psychological organization existing since birth, and related to the pre-symbolic realm of experience. In this position the baby responds mainly to sensations like touch, heat, taste, smell, rhythm and sound. Ogden stresses that the autistic-contiguous mode, like the two Kleinian positions, exists throughout life for each of us, in a dialectic way, each mode having its own typical modes of symbolization, anxiety, defenses and so on. Ogden's description of the earliest autistic-contiguous position sheds light on the sensual, rhythmical elements inherent in the lyric mode - i.e. sound, rhythm, rhyming, alliteration, repetition, and so on.

     3d. Lacanian and French feminist theorists' perspectives:

The transition from poetry to prose writing may well be explained in terms of the theories of Lacan and his French feminist followers - Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous. In Lacan's terms, the lyric position may be related to the early developmental position, occurring between 6 to 18 months, during which 'the mirror stage' takes place: in this stage, the subject's ego begins to form through identification with his/her 'specular image' (Lacan does not refer to a real mirror necessarily, but rather to a mirror in the allegorical sense [see for example Barzilay, p. 79-83]). The subject assimilates with "jubilation" the image with its "ideal unity", which contrasts with his/her experience of his/her own body as split and uncoordinated. Yet, this stage also entails narcissistic phantasies and alienation (since the subject assumes an image that alienates him/her from him/herself). In this stage, which Lacan associates with the 'Imaginary' realm, the subject perceives him/herself through pre-verbal images, until s/he enters the linguistic or 'Symbolic' realm. However, according to Lacan, the early "mirror disposition" also constitutes a permanent structure of the psyche that exists throughout life.

    Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous elaborate the account of the early stage of development (mainly in criticism of Lacan's claim that women 'remain' in the 'imaginary' realm and cannot fully move to the 'symbolic' one). They stress the limitations of the 'symbolic' order, as opposed to the qualities of the 'feminine' use of language - which they relate to the earlier developmental stage: Kristeva (1980, 1981, 1984) describes the 'semiotic stage' (or 'Chora') - which starts a short while before the mirror stage (she relates this stage to Klein's paranoid-schizoid position). In this stage, in which primary processes are dominant, the baby's impressions are organized mainly through contact with the mother's body, focusing on senses like sound, movement, color and contact. Cixous (1980, 1991) similarly links the 'imaginary' realm to a feminine, heterogeneous voice, pre-verbal communication, lack of definitions and distinctions, the pleasure principle and poetry writing. Irigaray (1985, 1986) relates the early, pre-oedipal stage to mystical, incoherent, subjective, sensual, and flowing experience.

    The transition to prose writing may thus be related, in terms of the theories of Lacan and the French feminist theorists, to the entrance to the 'symbolic' realm, through the beginning of the use of language, around the age of 18 months, when the child begins to function as a 'subject'. This stage is characterized by the start of reality testing of earlier illusions and of keeping away from the mother and getting closer to the father, who represents the symbolic system. It is also characterized by separateness, postponement of gratification and making do with substitutes, through the use of language.

    However, both Lacan and French feminist theorists stress that the 'Symbolic' and the 'Imaginary' coexist throughout life, and that there are always dialectical relations between them.

     3e. 'Self Psychology' perspective:

1. Kohut's theory:The transition between poetry and prose writing may also be explained in the frame of reference of Kohut's 'Self Psychology'. It is rather accepted nowadays to perceive artistic creation as related to narcissism, as was suggested by Kohut himself (1966) and by many others (such as Kligerman 1972, 1980, Layton and Schapiro 1986, p. 23 and so on). Kohut describes various transformations of narcissism throughout life, which may be related to the transition from poetry to prose writing: poetry writing may be associated with the early stance of 'narcissistic injury', which stems from empathic failures in early childhood, not fulfilling the two basic narcissistic needs of the child - of a 'mirroring self-object' and an 'idealized self-object'. As a result, the child may not develop inner sources of healthy self-esteem, inner strength and self-integration, and may therefore invest substantial energy throughout his/her life in efforts to integrate the self structure, through constant search for approval and validation from others, idealization and merger wishes, as well as feelings of pain, anxiety, vicissitudes in self esteem, loneliness, emptiness, fragmentation in space and time and so forth. All these very often find expression in poetry writing. Later prose writing may be associated with later transformations of narcissism, which Kohut (1966) himself relates to achieved maturity, due to the strengthening of the ego and its capacity to tame narcissistic cathexes and use them for higher aims. Kohut notes five transformations, which may all be associated with the prosaic position: a) The acceptance of transience: Throughout life, the feelings of omnipotence are neglected and the narcissistic cathexes are shifted "from the self to a concept of participation in a supraindividual, timeless existence", recognizing the finiteness of life and mourning for the losses inherent in it (pp. 454-456). Indeed, in the prosaic position one very often accepts and mourns the limitations of life (in accordance with the Kleinian depressive position as well). b) The capacity for humor: Kohut relates humor to a sense of proportion and a touch of irony concerning individual achievements. He thinks it is "usually at its height during maturity", and that it may be achieved only by a well-functioning ego, and a turn of the cathexis from the self "to the supraindividual ideals and to the world" (pp. 456-458). Indeed, this kind of humor and irony often characterizes the prosaic position, due to the achieved distance and wider perspective of the author (of course, there may be irony in the poetic mode as well, but then it is often used to emphasize certain subjective meanings, whereas in the prosaic mode it is often used to give objective, multi-sided perspectives). c) Wisdom: Kohut defines 'wisdom' as "a stable attitude of the personality toward life and the world, an attitude that is formed through the integration of the cognitive function with humor, acceptance of transience and a firmly cathected system of values". It is related to "man's ability to overcome his unmodified narcissism, and it rests on his acceptance of the limitations of his physical, intellectual and emotional powers" so that "it can hardly be an attribute of youth" (pp. 458-459). This kind of mature wisdom is also typical of the prosaic position, as opposed to the brief brilliance which characterizes the lyric mode. d) The ability to be empathic: Kohut maintains that this ability exists already in the earliest mental organization, in the primary empathy of the child towards his/her mother, and that throughout development it usually becomes increasingly overlaid by non-empathic forms of cognition. Hence, he sees the adult capacity to choose between empathic and nonempathic modes of observation, depending on realistic requirements, as an achievement of the autonomous ego (pp. 450-454). In the prosaic mode there is indeed quite often empathy toward different characters. Thus, these four transformations of narcissism (in addition to the fifth one, creativity, which characterizes both poetry and prose writing) strikingly characterize the 'prosaic' position.

    It is important to note that Kohut maintains that the transition between psychological positions is not one-directional, but that they rather continue to co-exist throughout life, and the ability to move between them is an achievement of the mature personality.

     The transition between poetry and prose writing may also be described, in 'self-psychology' terms, as involving efforts to achieve greater cohesion and integrity of the 'self-structure' - through the assimilation of new experiences into the self-structure and the accommodation of the self to reality. Prose writing may help in all of these, by processing experiences in a fuller, more integrative way, in terms of time, space and causality, as opposed to poetry, in which various defenses often distort reality. The great majority of the first prose works are indeed to a large extent autobiographical - a fact that may be explained as stemming from efforts at self-integration.

    The need for self-integration may also account for the fact that the transition from poetry to prose writing often occurs following significant experiences or changes in life - such as a journey to another country (as in the cases of Elizabeth Bishop, Heinrich Heine, Yehuda Amichai and many others), the loss of a close person (as in the cases of Samuel Johnson or Robert Lowell, who started writing prose after their mothers' deaths) and so on - when a drive to process the experiences and integrate them into the self structure comes to the fore (in terms of Kleinian theory, this may be seen as stemming from the will to mourn for and preserve lost objects or experiences in the depressive position).

    Prose works may help in achieving higher self-integration also because they most often involve relations with other characters - even though fictional ones - which may function as self-objects, fulfilling the functions of mirroring and/or idealization, and which may be reinternalized as a source of strength. Rose (1980, pp. 73-74), for example, describes how artists may experience, through their works of art, mergers and separations, conduct dialogues with projected parts of the 'self' through other characters and create new balances between self and reality. Bouson (1989) emphasizes the status of the text as an omni-presence, which helps in creating 'communal feelings', thereby redeeming the characters from their narcissism, separateness and loneliness. Poetry, by contrast, is more solipsistic in nature.

2. Daniel Stern's account of the development of 'narrative ability'A very valuable contribution to the account of the transition from poetry to prose writing may be found in the writings of D. Stern - a development theorist, who leans on self psychology. Stern (1985, pp. 162-182; 1989, pp. 168-178; 1995, pp. 92-93) describes, based on a series of psychological and cognitive studies, five phases in the development of the 'sense of Self' - from birth until the age of 3-4 years - which he relates, respectively, to five stages in the development of 'narrative ability'. The latter he considers a universal trait, related to the mode of organizing experience: in the first stage (from birth to 2 months) the 'sense of the self', which is essential for the narrative ability, emerges for the first time; in the second stage (2-6 months) senses of agency, coherence, affectivity and continuity appear; in the third stage (9 - 18 months) appears the subjective sense of the self - which includes a sense of motives, intentions and intersubjectivity, and the ability and will to share subjective states; in the forth stage (18 months to 3 years) the 'verbal' or 'categorial' sense of the self emerges: along with the beginning of speech, children are gradually able to represent themselves and their experiences in a verbal, albeit primitive way, and to regard themselves objectively; in the fifth stage (between 3 and 4 years) a narrative sense of the self appears: the child is able to create narratives that comprise a sense of agency, awareness of feelings and intentions, sequence in time and causality.

    These stages in the development of 'narrative ability' may be associated with different phases in the development of narrative skills in adults; the transition from poetry to prose writing may be related to the transition between the third to the fourth or fifth stage in this development.

     4. Composite Aspects of the Various Theoretical Perspectives

    I shall now outline some major developmental aspects which are common to the various theoretical perspectives presented above, and associate them with the transition from poetry to prose writing. It should be stressed, however, that in reality these aspects almost never appear completely separately in poetry or prose, but are rather mixed:

4a. Primary versus secondary processes:

    In the earlier developmental position, there is a dominance of 'primary processes', whereas throughout development, there is a strengthening of 'secondary processes'. It is now generally accepted to see all creative works as combining primary and secondary processes (e.g. Kligerman 1980, Gedo 1996, Noy 1978), yet I argue that the primary processes are more dominant in poetry, whereas the transition to prose writing may reflect the strengthening of the secondary processes. The characteristics of the primary versus the secondary processes match those of the poetic versus the prosaic modes, respectively, which are: immediate versus delayed release; unity in time (i.e. ignoring the distinctions between past, present and future and lack of chronological order) versus a chronological and linear conception of time; unity of objects in space (i.e. ignoring the inability to be in more than one place at the same time) and the lack of definition of objects in space versus separation and clear definitions in space; associativity versus linear and logical connections; reacting to the 'subjective' meanings of objects and words versus responding to their 'objective' meanings; displacement versus relating to objects in their natural contexts; condensation versus relating to one meaning, and so on.

4b. 'Protosymbolism' versus 'symbolism proper':

    The transition from poetry to prose writing involves a transition between two modes of symbolization - equivalent to the one which takes place in early childhood. Werner and Kaplan (1963, p. 16), for example, in their comprehensive study on the development of symbolization, indicate a transition between 'protosymbolism' - which is characteristic of the age of 12-18 months - in which symbols are used to 'present' meanings in a direct way, with no differentiation between symbol and symbolized, to 'true symbolism' - which is characteristic of 17-22 months - in which there is a greater distinction between symbol and symbolized, a discursive speech, a fully developed logic and an intention of 'representing' (it is overwhelming to see that the terms Werner and Kaplan use to describe the differences between the two modes of symbolization - 'presentation' versus 'representation' - are exactly the same as those used by literary theorists such as Todorov or Pound to describe the differences between the lyrical and the prosaic mode). Werner and Kaplan indicate that throughout life there may be regressions from 'true symbolism' to 'proto-symbolism'. Several other psychoanalysts describe a similar transition: Milner (1952, 1957), for example, writes that the mode of symbolism that prevails in the earliest phases of development originates in the baby's turn of attention from the primary object to a secondary one, which is different, yet s/he develops an identical emotional attitude towards it. According to Milner, such a pre-logic mode of symbolism - of 'finding the well-known in the unknown' - subsides throughout life for most of us, but is often preserved by poets and creative scientists. Similarly, Segal (1991, pp. 35-48) distinguishes between two kinds of symbolism, which she relates to the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive position, respectively: in the earlier mode of symbolization, which Segal calls 'symbolic equation', the symbol does not represent the object but is perceived as identical to it, and is used to deny the object loss. In the second mode, which she terms 'symbolism proper' or 'symbolic representation' - the symbol represents the object, yet is not equal to it. The aim of symbolization at this stage is not the denial of loss but coming to terms with it and creating a symbol of the object in the inner world. According to Segal, during normal development there is a transition from 'symbolic equation' to 'symbolism proper', though one may always regress to the earlier mode of symbolism. Ogden (1992, pp. 224) believes that "The establishment of the distinction between symbol and symbolized is inseparable from the establishment of subjectivity." The earlier mode of symbolization may easily be associated with poetry writing - in which various emotions are presented through images, metaphors and so on, with a high degree of unity and with no connecting threads - which are often concealed even from the poet him/herself. This mode of symbolization may also be related to the treatment of words in poetry as concrete objects, which present (rather than represent) meanings through sound, rhythm and so forth. However, in the prosaic mode, we usually find 'true symbolism' - i.e. a clear distinction between symbol and symbolized, lexical and syntactic fullness and logicality.

4c. A change in the use of defenses:

    Defense-mechanisms appear at the beginning of the ego's development (around the eighth month of life), and at this stage they mainly include defenses like splitting, projection, introjection, idealization, denial, and omnipotent thought. Later, in normal development, as the ego develops, the infant is supposed to have gained more confidence in objects and in his/her capacity to deal with them, to move to the use of more satisfying defenses against anxiety and to be less in need of using defenses in general. Everyone may relapse into defenses mainly in states of anxiety, weariness, frustration or distress. Yet, people with lesser ego strength tend to relapse to defenses more often. The lyric mode is related to the excessive use of defenses, mainly early ones - such as projection, introjection, splitting, idealization, denial, omnipotent or magical thinking, and so on. Later defenses - such as abstraction, isolation, rationalization, intellectualization etc. - are often used in the lyric mode as well, instead of a more realistic, objective and fuller regard of the object. Harold Bloom (1975), for example, associates different kinds of 'tropes' which may be found in poetry with six kinds of defense and six different kinds of image, respectively. In the prosaic mode, however, there is less use of defenses in general, and of those related to the early stages of development in particular, because of the greater separation between subject (i.e. narrator) and object, and the more objective and integrative regard of reality.

4d. Approximation to the mother and to 'feminine' modes of being versus approximation to the father and to 'masculine' modes of being:

    The early developmental stage is characterized by unity and identification between the infant and the mother, while the later stage involves the approximation of the father and a break of the identification with the mother, as described in the theories above. The lyric position may thus be associated with the relationship with the mother, and the prosaic position with the relationship with the father, as has been suggested by several writers: Holland (1973, p. 51), for example, claims that the dominant psychosexual mode in the life of many lyric poets is the earliest one, i.e. that of oral relationship with the mother. He refers to the analysis of the poet Hilda Doolittle, carried out by Freud himself (Doolittle 1984 [1965]) - where he found that the most crucial phase in her development was that of the early relationship with the mother, which was fixated in a state in which she "wished and feared to fuse with, be devoured by, close the gap between herself and a mother perceived and felt as a timeless, uninterrupted, unbroken mystic level of experience." (ibid., ibid.) Holland writes that H.D. dealt with this "mingling of wish and fear, love and hate" which characterized her relationship with her mother throughout her life by "transforming everyday imperfections and frustrations of the outer world into a more perfect and permanent mythology." (ibid., ibid.) Staiger (1991, p. 83) also relates the lyric to the relationship with the mother and to the wish to go back to the womb: "Lyric remembering [...] is a return to the mother's womb." Kundera, in his novel Life if Elsewhere (1988a), describes the life of a young poet - based on his own former experience as a poet, and on the biographies of Rimbaud, Keats, Lermontov, Hoelderlin, Shelley and others - and emphasizes the central role of poets' mothers in their sons lives. He writes, for example: "Lyric poets generally come from homes run by women: the sisters of Esenin and Mayakovsky, the aunts of Blok, the grandmothers of Hölderlin and Lermontov, the nurse of Pushkin and, above all, of course, the mothers - the mothers that loom so large over the fathers." (p. 97).

    The prosaic position may be related to the later developmental phase - of keeping away from the mother and approaching the father. Greenacre (1956), for example, writes that the two most significant phases in artists' lives are the second half of the second year of life, and the phallic phase, which takes place in the fourth or fifth year of life, when the early union between the mother and child is replaced by a "love story" of the child with the world. These two phases may be related to the lyric and the prosaic positions, respectively.

4e. The transition from 'fantasy' to 'reality' or between different kinds of fantasizing:

    The earliest phase of psychological development is characterized by the dominance of fantasy, which is related to the pleasure principle and to primary processes, followed by a strengthening of the reality principle and of secondary processes.

    The lyric mode may be related to the phase in which fantasy dominates - manifested by ideas, images, wishes and so on, which originate in the 'unconscious' and may be seen as expressing fantasies. Bernfeld (1924, p. 238) and Kucera (1950), for example, relate poetry writing to fantasy; Arlow (1969, p. 7) associates the creation of metaphors, which is typical of poetry, with fantasy. Prose works may also express unconscious fantasies - as Lesser (1957) and Holland (1968) say - as every work of art does, yet on the whole there is more room for reality in them.

    The typical transition may also be formulated as a change in the contents of fantasies: Holland (1968), for example, claims that different literary forms give expression to different infantile fantasies, which may be divided according to the categories offered by classical psychoanalysis - i.e. oral, anal, uratheral, phallic and oedipal - and he specifies the typical kind of fantasy which characterizes each of these phases and its manifestations in literature. Considering the lyric genres, he writes that they inevitably give expression to fantasies related to the pre-oedipal phase of development, mainly the oral phase - whose typical expressions are in the images of loss of boundaries, merging, love, swallowing, seeing, and so forth, whereas narrative fiction, drama and films typically express oedipal fantasies, and their typical formulations are in the images of relationships between two people or more, and more realistic versions of mature love or hate, fantasies of pregnancy or birth and various incestuous fantasies.

4f. The differences in the 'psychological experience' in the two positions:

     The 'lyric' position is related, on the one hand, to feelings of mental freedom, inspiration, and fantasy, which stem from the ability to access and give expression to primary processes. On the other hand, this position involves a difficulty in creating a clear and continuous communication with the inner and outer world, and a feeling of being 'imprisoned' in the 'prison' of 'words' or of 'one-sided', 'subjective' perception. Kundera (1988a), for instance, describes the difficulties inherent in the lyric position: "Only a true poet knows the enormity of the longing not to be a poet, the longing to leave the mirrored house filled with deafening silence." (p. 167) Sylvia Plath writes in her diary: "If, IF I could break into a meaningful prose, that expressed my feelings, I would be free." (1982, p. 316). The prosaic position, on the other hand, is often related to a wider perception and clearer communication of inner and outer reality, though on the other hand it often involves the loss of feelings of 'inspiration' or 'fruition'.

5. The Expressions of the Positions throughout Life

    The two positions described above may find expression at different stages of life: the 'lyric' position' is more often expressed during adolescence - which in our era may stretch into the early twenties or even longer - in which lyric poetry is most often written. Then, there is often a growing dominance of the 'prosaic' position and/or interchanges between the two positions in adult life. I will now discuss the relationship between these periods and the activation of the different psychological positions:

5a. The relationship between poetry writing and adolescence:

    Adolescence is characterized by a high level of emotional pressure - due to high libidinal activity, the need to rebuild the personality and to adjust to various social commitments. As a psychological response to these pressures, this period is often characterized by a regression to earlier psychological positions, involving weakening of ego boundaries and the use of identifications, splitting, and so forth, on the one hand, and a progression - i.e. reconstruction and reorganization of the psychological systems, on the other. Both may find expression in poetry writing. Several scholars describe these psychological dynamics: Jones (1922, p. 509), for example, writes that during adolescence there is a regression to infancy, and the person relives experiences similar to those s/he had in the first five years of life. A. Freud (1958, 1965, 1966) writes that during adolescence there is a renewed struggle, related to the early objects of infancy and a regression from 'object love' to narcissism and to relations through identifications. Geleerd (1961) writes that because of the great intensity of inner and outer processes, adolescents experience partial regression to the undifferentiated stage of object-relations, in which there is a confusion of boundaries between the child and his/her love object, expressed in an extreme need to fuse with a love object, either by falling in love, or less directly by devoting oneself to artistic or intellectual pursuits, or in an unfulfilled longing. E. Jacobson (1964, p. 170, p. 185) writes that during adolescence, there is a temporary disorganization, regression and dismantling of old constructs, on the one hand, and an attempt to rebuild psychological constructs, on the other. She adds that during these courses back and forth, the person halts at different infantile positions, reexperiencing pre-oedipal and oedipal conflicts, reorganizing his/her defenses and reestablishing narcissistic forms of object-relations and identifications, and may relive fantasies of merging with objects. Blos (1979, pp. 142-154) writes that during adolescence there is a regression, leading to the re-experiencing of early traumatic states, the emotional contact with which helps one to move forward from them, and thus a second individuation process takes place at this age. Blos also writes that the movement back and forth may account for the creative achievements typical of this age, because the tension between self and reality enhances the individuation process. In Kleinian terms, the different characteristics of adolescence - i.e. the looseness of ego boundaries, the tendency to identify, the use of early defenses, and so forth - very well match those of the paranoid-schizoid position, which I associated above with poetry writing.

    It should be noted that all these processes are often stronger in people who have lower levels of ego integration to begin with, due to structural and/or environmental factors.

5b. The end of adolescence and the transition to the prosaic position:

    At the end of adolescence and the beginning of 'adult' years, due to natural maturational processes, there is usually a strengthening of the ego and of reality testing, which may be expressed in the cutting off of poetry writing and the start of prose writing (there are, of course, those who go on writing poetry during their adult years, to whom I'll refer later). Jones (1922) parallels the transition from adolescence to maturity to the transition from infancy to childhood. In both there is a transition from fantasy to reality and from being interested mainly in oneself to a stronger interest in the outer world. E. Jacobson (1964, pp. 192-194) also writes that after coping with sexual and narcissistic conflicts during adolescence, there is a crystallization of identity and a turn to dealing with aims concerned with other objects, such as self-fulfillment through work or sexuality. Spiegel (1951) writes that at the end of adolescence there is a transition from creativity that has a defensive function and is related to fantasy, to a more 'realistic' and 'communicative' creativity. Eissler (1967) and Gedo (1996, p. 80) even describe the differences between the two kinds of creativity as stemming from a structural change.

    The psychiatrist Elliot Jacques (1965), who indicates different stages in creativity, distinguishes between the kind of creativity typical of the late teens, twenties and thirties of a person's life and the 'maturer' kind of creativity, which usually begins in the third decade. Jacques describes the first kind - which he calls 'precipitate' or "Hot-From-The-Fire" creativity - as intense, spontaneous, and "comes out ready-made [...] Most of the work seems to go on unconsciously" - all features matching lyric creativity. Jacques' examples of this kind of creativity are the works of Keats, Shelley and Rimbaud - all of them poets. However, the 'mature' creativity - which he terms 'sculpted' creativity - is concerned with the elaboration and perfection of the product, as in prose writing. Jacques relates this kind of creativity to the 'mid-life crisis', which appears around the fourth decade of life, stemming from the feeling that half one's lifetime has gone by, often coping with the illness or death of parents and nearing one's own death. Jacques, whose approach is Kleinian, writes that the 'mid-life crisis' is an opportunity to reprocess the depressive position, and mourn for different losses.

    However, throughout life there are dialectical relations and interchanges between the positions, which may be manifested in different works or even in the same work of the same artist. Moreover, mature artists most often tend to reinclude lyrical elements in their works, even if their former works were more 'prosaic' in nature, due to the wish to give expression to different 'voices' in the writers' soul (see for example Joyce's Finnegans Wake). This typical development may well be described using the 'old' terms - from the 'Lyrical' via the 'Epic' to the 'Dramatic' - as proposed by the German Romanticists and modern thinkers such as Joyce, Staiger, and others: they suggest that the typical development proceeds from the 'lyrical', which is a personal expression, with no great distance between the subject and the object, to the 'epic', which is characterized by the presence of a narrating agency, describing reality at a distance and taking into consideration different dimensions - such as time, space and causality. The last phase, the 'dramatic', involves expressing different 'voices' of the human experience - including the 'lyrical' and 'prosaic', the 'personal' and 'universal' and so forth, out of tolerance, acceptance, lack of authority, and very often humor and irony (these features are very much in accordance with Kohut's description of the later transformations of narcissism, described above).

5c. Writers who go on writing lyrical works during their adult years:

    Many writers continue to write lyric works during their adult years. This may be attributed to their ability to reexperience early states of disorganization and weak ego-boundaries, which may stem from 'temporary' factors - i.e. states of high emotional pressure, anxiety or distress, which lead to the use of earlier modes of coping, and/ or from 'constant' factors - i.e. low levels of ego integration, due to structural or environmental influences. In most cases, there is probably a combination of these two kinds of factors.

    Several studies testify to 'low levels of ego-integration' of poets, in comparison to other professionals, including prose writers: Jamison (1989), for example, who studied patterns of emotional disorders in 47 British artists and writers, found that poets as a group turned more than any other group of writers to medical treatment for depression and were the only ones who asked for medical intervention in the treatment of mania, and that half of them were treated with medications, psychotherapy or hospitalization for mood disorders.

    Another study, conducted by Ludwig (1992), examined the psychopathology level of one thousand well-known personalities - whose biographies were reviewed in the New York Times Book Review during a period of thirty years - divided into eighteen professional categories. The study shows that poets showed the highest level of psychopathology in comparison to all other categories: first, they tended to commit suicide much more than any other category (18.9% suicides among poets in comparison to 3.9% among fiction writers, for example); secondly, the poets showed a much higher rate of psychopathology than any other category, in the following areas: alcohol and drug abuse, depression, mania, psychosis, anxiety, adaptation problems, somatic problems, suicide and so forth; thirdly, poets turned to professional treatment for psychological problems significantly more than any other category.

    Another study is that of Post (1996), who examined the level of psychological problems in one hundred British and American writers, divided into three groups - poets, novelists and playwrights - in light of their biographies, compared to the DSM3. His study shows that poets showed a greater tendency to affective psychoses, suicide and mood disorders in comparison to novelists and playwrights, though they tended less to depression, alcoholism and marital problems (however, this study is based on a very small sample, and the results were often influenced by individual differences).

    The well-known Israeli novelist, A.B.Yehoshua (1996), expressed a very similar insight into the psychological state of poets as opposed to novelists: "I believe that they [the poets - S.B.] pay a much higher price for poetry writing than we do for prose writing [...] when I look at my peer-poets, close friends with whom I have had close or intimate relationships, and others, whom I have watched from afar along the years, I cannot ignore the fact that on the whole, the lives of the poets were much more disturbed than those of the prose-writers [...]. Objectively regarding, and comparing with other friends, it always seems to me that the poets are like workers in an atomic pile, coping with radioactive materials, which emit poisonous materials at them, to shake the foundations of their soul, while many prose-writers use prose as a therapy for themselves [...] my friends the poets - and I mean mainly those who have remained faithful to poetry, without tempering their poetic energies by prose works - have become more and more weird, isolated and disturbed in their personal lives. It is true, people often bring out their strange and dark sides in their adult years, yet is clear to me that the prose-writers are those who have matured and become stabilized".

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Sagit Blumrosen-Sela "Psychoanalytic Explanations for the Transition of Writers from Poetry to Prose Writing ". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2002, Published: January 1, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Sagit Blumrosen-Sela