Back in May 2014, I gave a whole afternoon of talks on behavioural addictions (including gambling and gaming addiction) at Castle Craig, an inpatient addiction treatment centre in Scotland. One of the most interesting people I met there was the psychotherapist Christopher Burn who on the back of his latest book Poetry Changes Lives describes himself as “a history addict, grandfather, recovering alcoholic, and poetry fanatic”. Maybe I’ll write a blog on what it is to be a “history addict” in a future blog, but this article will briefly look at an article just published by Burn on ‘poetry addiction’.
Anyone that knows me will tell you that writing is an important activity in my life. Many of my friends and colleagues describe me as a ‘writaholic’ and that I am addicted to writing because of the number of articles that I have published. Regular readers of my blog will also know that I have written articles on obsessional writing (graphomania), obsessional erotic writing (erotographomania), diary writing, excessive blog writing, and excessive (productive) writing.
Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘poetry fanatic’ I do love writing poetry myself and have had a number of my poems published. In fact, in 1997, I won a national Poetry Today competition for the best (20 lines and under) poem for An Alliteration of Life. Burn’s article on ‘addiction to the act of writing poetry (like his latest book) is an interesting read. Burn has even coined a new term for addiction to poetry – ‘poesegraphilia’. Burn notes that the Irish dramatist George Farquar said that poetry was a “mere drug” and that:
“Many poets, great and not so great, have suffered from addiction to mood altering substances – Coleridge, Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas (‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’) spring to mind. Many great poems have been written about addiction too. It seems however that very little attention has been given to the addictive power generated by the act of writing poetry itself. One thing is for sure – poetry has a power to alter our mood – not normally in the pernicious or directly physical manner of say, a line of cocaine, but in a pervasive and generally enjoyable way that can usually only be helpful. This mood changing effect can come from either reading or writing poetry but of the two, it is poetry writing that is the most dramatic”.
As an amateur poet myself, I know only too well the emotional power of words and that words can have a mood altering effect (both positive and negative). There is even ‘poetry therapy’ and (in the USA) a National Association for Poetry Therapy and an Institute for Poetic Medicine that advocates the “intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth”. (For a concise overview of ‘poetry therapy’ check out this article on the GoodTherapy website). Burn says that “writing poetry may not affect a person’s life with the degree of powerlessness and unmanageability that say, alcohol does, but it can still have a very marked influence”. He then includes part of an interview transcript from BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme with Les Murray, an Australian poet:
“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form”.
I’ve always argued that anything can be addictive if it is something that can constantly reinforce and reward behaviour. Theoretically, there is no reason why writing poetry could not be mood modifying and potentially addictive. As Burn observes:
“Many poets talk about the dream-like trance that envelops them during the act of creating poetry and how this can last sometimes for days. This is not a simple cathartic event, which can happen too, but a state that affects mind, body and spirit. Here is poet and author Robert Graves on the subject: ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance, out of which you can be wakened by interruption as from a dream. In fact, it is the same thing’. All this trance-like sensation sounds to me a bit like the effect that certain mood altering substances can have, and we know how addictive they can be”.
Burn then goes on to question whether the act of writing poetry can be clinically classed as an addiction. To do this, he uses criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] and argues that the act of writing poetry could potentially meet some of the criteria for addiction including: (i) persisting with the habit to the detriment of other activities and relationships, (ii) increased tolerance, (iii) unsuccessful attempts to stop, (iv) increase in time spent on the activity, and (v) persisting with the habit despite knowledge of negative consequences. Based on this he then goes on to argue:
“It seems to me that there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that for some people, poetry, in particular the act of writing poetry, is a powerful and addictive behaviour that meets at least a few of these [DSM] criteria…Problem gamblers often talk of the trance-like state they get into when for example, playing slot machines; reality and awareness of the world around them disappears and everything is focused on them to and the moment. As in poetry writing. British poet JLS Carter describes poetic creation as ‘An addiction – you can go for days thinking of nothing else, in a kind of trance where all other thoughts and considerations are sidelined. That way madness lies’. By its very nature, poetry puts a special power into words that affects us in a way that most conversation or written narrative does not. Poetry gets under our skin, alters our moods and stays in our head in a special way”.
Much of Burn’s admittedly anecdotal argument that poetry can be addictive all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place and also takes the implicit view that some activities can be what Dr. Bill Glasser would call ‘positive addictions’ in that there are some behaviours that can have positive as well as negative consequences. However, for me, there is also the question of whether positive addictions are “addictions” at all. Have a quick look at Glasser’s criteria for positive addictions below. For an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, Glasser says the behaviour must be:
- Non-competitive and needing about an hour a day
- Easy, so no mental effort is required
- Easy to be done alone, not dependent on people
- Believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual)
- Believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result
- Involve no self-criticism.
Most of these could apply to ‘poetry addiction’ but to me, these criteria have little resemblance to the core criteria or components of addictions (such as salience, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). My own view is that ‘positive addiction’ is an oxymoron and although I am the first to admit that some potential addictions might have benefits that are more than just short-term (as in the case of addictions to work or exercise), addictions will always be negative for the individual in the long run. Although no-one is ever likely to seek treatment for an addiction to writing poetry, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use activities like writing poetry to help us define and refine how we conceptualize behavioural addictions.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Burn, C. (2015). Poetry Changes Lives. Biggar: DHH Publishing.
Burn, C. (2016). Poesegraphilia – Addiction to the act of writing poetry. Poetry Changes Lives, May 27. Located at: http://www.poetrychangeslives.com/addiction-to-the-act-of-writing-poetry/
Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions, Harper & Row, New York, NY.
GoodTherapy.Org (2016). Poetry therapy. Located at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Trangressive Culture, 1, 7-28.
Klein. P. (2006). The therapeutic benefit of poetry. The Therapist. Located at: http://phyllisklein.com/writing-for-healing/the-therapeutic-benefit-of-poetry/
Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.