The Q&A: Adam Phillips: Poetry as Therapy

When you speak of poetry making people feel something that they don’t necessarily want to feel, like music—are you implying that poetry has a therapeutic use?

Adam Phillilps: I do, I really think it has a use. There is a thing Kafka says in his diaries which is something like “literature is an axe to break the sea frozen inside us”. I think that we are very frightened of the intensity and the excesses of our emotional lives. And that the arts—and if you happen to like poetry, then poetry, but it could also be music—enable you to both bear and get pleasure from your feelings. And also to discover the things that matter most to you.


from “Ruins”

… This year will take from me
the hardened person
who I longed to be.
I am healing by mistake.
Rome is also built on ruins.

– Eliza Griswold

from “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.

– Ursula Le Guin

Card 19: The Sun

When you show yourself to the woman
you love, you don’t know your fear

is not fear, itself. You have never been good,
but now you are so good,

who are you? Is it the liquidity of her skin
that bathes the world for you,

or her face, captured like a she-lion
in your own flesh?

This summerbed is soft with ring upon ring
upon ring of wedding, the kind

that doesn’t clink upon contact, the kind
with no contract,

the kind in which the gold is only (only!) light.
Cloud covers and lifts,

and sleep and night and soon enough, love’s
big fire laughs at a terrible burn,

but only (only!) because pain absorbs excess
joy and you shouldn’t flaunt

your treasures in front of all day’s eyes.

— Brenda Shaughnessy


again and again

Above all else …

Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose …

– Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Water/The Smallest Ocean


In middle school biology, we were taught that the human body is 72.8% water. It was the end of the hour, at the lockers, it was all we could talk about. My friend Brittney asked, ‘how much blood do you think we have?’ Jenny suggested that Jordan, the heaviest kid in the class, might be 90% water. Somebody had the good sense to tell her that that’s not how it works. I was 13, and for the first time I understood why I always felt like I was drowning.


After the movie, she turns to me. Her softball glove is lying in the corner. I have never been in this room before. She is 20 years old, wearing footie pajamas with glow-in-the-dark stars in the knees, has wrapped herself in a fleece tied blanket, and there are tears in her eyes. She asks me if life was futile, interrupts herself, and apologizes for crying. I do not hold her. I do not touch her. I sleep on the bottom bunk, make eggs and coffee for breakfast, and leave while she is in the shower. Before I go, I write a note that reads, ‘They tell us that the people we love are 72.8% water. There is no such thing as crying, we are only trying to turn ourselves inside out, and that is a noble pursuit.’


We are in her bed again. We have been here so many times before, we’re close enough to breathe for each other. It is quiet. This moment is always quiet, and suddenly I find myself wanting to say ‘I am sorry because I am the smallest ocean, and you are the saddest moon.’ If we were closer in this moment, this moment, like a hundred other moments, I would tell her that there is so many things happening beneath my surface she could not possible see them so far away. I would remind her of divers. Remind her that if they rise too fast, their chest cavities will burst, lungs too excited to shout the things they have seen below. I would tell her that if not for gravity, I would reach out to her. I would shift and sway and leap toward her, cover her in stories of islands that no one is looking for. I would let her reach into me and touch dozens of rushing currents, show her that if she looks deep enough, there are creatures that over the course of millions of years have taught themselves to glow. I would let her reach into me and see that somewhere beneath all this heavy, there must be light. I should tell her all of this, but this moment is always so quiet. And I am sorry because I am the smallest ocean. I am so much water, but no warmth.

— Lewis Mundt