The Motive for Metaphor: Brief Essays on Poetry and Psychoanalysis, by Henry M. Seiden

How the poetic and psychoanalytic processes illuminate each other


The Motive for Metaphor can be thought of as a small anthology: each chapter a kind of meditation (perhaps to start the reader on a longer meditation). Each focuses on a poem, sometimes two; on poetry in general; on poetry and psychoanalysis; on thought itself. The poems are beautiful and would be even in the absence of discussion.  But I hope the discussion will deepen the reader’s appreciation – of both the poems themselves and of the way the poetry sheds light on the psychoanalytic process.

“The motive for metaphor” is the title of a short poem of Wallace Stevens in which he says he is “happy” with the subtleties of experience.  He likes what he calls the “half colors of quarter things,” as opposed to the certainties, the hard primary “reds” and “blues.”  To grasp and make sense of what is elusive (and beautiful), that is, for the essential and puzzling condition of poetry, we are obliged to make metaphors.  The same, I think, is true of psychoanalytic truth.

The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,

Desiring the exhilarations of changes:
The motive for metaphor …

from Wallace Stevens, The Motive for Metaphor


“The obscure moon lighting an obscure world”

The chapters reflect the poems and poets that interested me or came across my consciousness over the years in which I was writing a column on poetry for the Psychologist-Psychoanalyst and for the Division/Review, both of the Division of Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association.  The arrangement of chapters is alphabetical by poet but otherwise follow no conceptual order.  I would expect that they will be read that way too—the book to be picked up, a few chapters read and thought about, and then put aside for reading more at another time.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral …

from W.H. Auden, Lullaby

Auden’s Lullaby is widely regarded as one of the great poems of the twentieth century. The poem is informed by a sceptical psychoanalytic vision. Auden was a close reader of Freud, an admirer of Groddeck, and is said to have undergone a brief analysis with him in 1928. Lullaby is informed by a profound distrust of sentimental idealisation. The poem has the intimacy of a love song but the conceptual power of a manifesto. It’s brave enough to state the facts, brave in the way psychoanalysis wants to be brave, which is to say, unsentimental. “Sentimentality”, says Winnicott, “is the denial of hate” and as such is “useless”. When (and if) we get real about it, we know that love is never simple and that the comfort love brings is more comforting, not less, when we acknowledge its complexity.

I’m a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist and have been for thirty-five years.  I’m also a poet.  I hope the reader will find my writing pleasurable and alive and sensitive to the way meaning is made and transformed in both arts.

37225Henry M. Seiden, PhD, ABPP, is a psychologist and psychoanalyst who lives and practices in Forest Hills, New York. He has published poetry in a number of journals including Poetry, Literal Latte, Passager, Midstream and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He has also published a chapbook called Tinnitus. His published professional papers include articles on Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, the longing for home, the use of metaphor in psychotherapy, on using poetry in psychotherapy with children, and on mindfulness, among other subjects.

He is co-author (with Christopher Lukas) of Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, which was originally published by Scribners and is now in its fourth printing. It has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese and Russian and has been in English as well as American editions. Seiden is a member the Board of Editors of Psychoanalytic Psychology. He has been a member at large of the Board of Directors of Division 39, the Division of Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association, and is currently its Publications Chair. His book The Motive for Metaphor: Brief Essays on Poetry and Psychoanalysis, is published this week by Karnac Books.


Reviews and Endorsements

‘Henry M. Seiden’s The Motive for Metaphor exemplifies Freud’s admonition that the best way to deepen our appreciation of psychoanalytic process is through intense study of the arts, in this case, poetry. Both poets and psychotherapists will find sustenance in these essays. Seiden brings a deep respect for both the poetic and psychoanalytic process allowing each perspective to refract and illuminate the other.’
– William A. MacGillivray, PhD, ABPP, Past President, Division of Psychoanalysis, American Psychological Association

‘Like Walt Whitman, Henry M. Seiden is “large and contains multitudes” – taking on poets of various times and places, finding unexpected and delightful links to psychoanalysis, and sharing honest and personal reflections of his responses as a reader and fellow poet. All of the pieces in this volume are short and succinct; they invite rereading, and are well worth savouring. Indeed, I read many of the pieces in this book when they were originally published, and it was a pleasure to find that I appreciated them even more the second time around. Anyone who is interested in the intersection of the humanities and psychoanalysis will learn a great deal from reading Seiden’s work.’
– Elliot Jurist, PhD, The City College of New York and Graduate Center of the City University of New York

‘Psychoanalysis and poetics have been joined since Freud noted Schiller’s letter to a young poet to illustrate the state of mind conducive to psychoanalytic reflection. Psychoanalysts like Sharpe, Lacan, Bion, and Winnicott have reflected on this link and indeed have built their theories of the clinical process on it. Henry M. Seiden’s lively and evocative essays, collected in this volume, stand firmly in this great tradition, and contribute new perspectives to it. He generally approaches the link from the side of poetry and then examines the interplay with the psychoanalytic process. The results frequently shed new light on both psychoanalysis and poetry and the cumulative effect is to enliven our appreciation of their common roots.’
– David Lichtenstein, PhD, co-founder, faculty, and supervisor at the Apres-Coup Psychoanalytic Association; editor, DIVISION/Review: A Quarterly Psychoanalytic Forum


2 thoughts on “The Motive for Metaphor: Brief Essays on Poetry and Psychoanalysis, by Henry M. Seiden

  1. Pingback: The Topological Transformation of Freud’s Theory, by Jean-Gerard Bursztein |

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