As an article or essay that I am writing is nearing completion, I take the essential step of reading it aloud to myself. I have found that this practice helps me identify phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that feel awkward in the mouth, which I then imagine to be awkward in the ear of the readers. In the ear of the readers? Readers read with their eyes. But I have come to know, to feel, that when writing truly works, comes alive on the page, a reader is listening as well as seeing, hearing my voice. It is so very easy when writing to get lost in/entranced with one’s ideas. Writing, especially professional writing as most of us have been trained to do it, can so easily fall into expressions of disembodied intellect—words on a page, thoughts with no voice, ideas with no body.
I have known that my sense and experience of writing have been deeply influenced by my experience of poetry—not only of reading poetry but also hearing it spoken by the poet. As a student at Reed College in the late ’60s, I had the opportunity to hear Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and other Beat poets read their work. Photographs of these poets hang on the wall in my office to remind me of what it means to listen, to write, to speak, and to stand outside the borders of the normative. Theirs were voices of challenge—whispering, laughing, shouting, weeping, protesting—so resonant and alive.
The structure and form of contemporary poetry is, in part, an effort to create on the page the quality of the voice. Stanza is derived from the Latin for room, and the stanzas of a poem are like separate rooms that a reader is invited into, a place to pause and listen. The line breaks mirror and evoke the pauses in the breath and the voice as one speaks. In hearing (and seeing) a poem read aloud, the “rooms,” the words, and the pauses on the page reverberate in the ear and through the body.
Recently, I heard an interview with the Vietnamese-American poet and author Ocean Vuong, entitled “A Life Worthy of Our Breath,” his voice tender, fierce, at times caustic, funny; the impact of his voice on both the interviewer and the audience was audible, palpable. He spoke of the nature of literature and language:
It [language] does begin and end in the body. Language is something we carry, and for a long time in our species we have been carrying it. Reading is fairly new. Even in the Library of Alexandria, people read aloud in it. So, if you went in the library there was a hum of voices. Being able to articulate and talk to each other face to face like this, having the sonic reality, to see how your words land in someone’s body, it is so important.
“To see how your words land in someone’s body.” This phrase left me breathless and took me to the edge of tears in a cascade of memories and associations. I was first flooded with the memories of writing eulogies in preparing for the deaths of my father and then of my sister, words that I was able to read to them before they died; these were eulogies that I hoped would land in and penetrate the hearts and bodies of our families.
Then, suddenly, I found myself thinking about how often I see, I feel, how my voice and words land in the bodies of my clients, how often their words and voices land in mine, and of how the unspoken language of our bodies informs and enlivens our words. Spoken words that land in the body of another or written words that can be heard in the voice of the author capture the fundamental physicality of language, the embodiment of speaking. Danielle Quinodoz (2003) coined the term incarnate language, describing “a language that touches as one that does not confine itself to imparting thoughts verbally, but also conveys feelings and the sensations that accompany those feelings.” Bollas (1999), in an essay on embodiment in psychoanalysis, speaks of the capacity for “sensualization” as “the realization of the body’s capacity to receive and convey such communications, expressive of one’s inner reality through incarnated being and also as a receiver of the other’s equally sensualized intelligence” (p 155). Listening to, or reading, Ocean Vuong is truly an immersion in a sensualized intelligence.
Ironically, as was pointed out by the interviewer, Krista Tippet, this was to be Vuong’s last public talk before the onset of the COVID lockdowns. And so, inevitably, I thought of what we have all lost this past year with our voices aimed at and filtered through screens rather than bodies. Family, friends, colleagues, clients suddenly held at a distance. Last March, as the lockdowns and quarantines were set in place, I made a decision quite different from that of most of my colleagues. I offered to each of my clients the option to continue in-person sessions at my office if they preferred that to remote sessions via phone or computer. To my surprise, the majority chose in-person sessions, and most of those who started remotely gradually chose to come in person, while all of my professional meetings and seminars remained remote. This arrangement allowed me the daily experience of the contrasts between in-person and virtual sessions. As a body-centered psychotherapist, I have come to learn of the vitality of therapeutic processes that actively, intentionally evoke and involve a full range of domains of experience (i.e., cognitive, emotional, relational, imaginative, tactile, motoric, sensate, visual, auditory, sexual, receptive, aggressive).
I could witness and feel how Zoom/Skype-mediated sessions (now anointed and sanctioned with the amazing term “telehealth”) strip away so many of the domains of experience, the multiple facets of incarnate conversation. In common with so many of my colleagues, I tried to minimize, apologize for the losses of speaking in seminars to postage-stamp-sized heads accompanied by sidebars of rolling “chats” as a substitute for spoken conversations. I have come to see the “Zoom fatigue” of which so many complain as a consequence of the efforts in virtual sessions—conscious, unconscious, and somatic—to compensate for the lack of spontaneous, bodily communication that foster sensualized intelligence.
In writing, in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy at its best, our words convey a voice—a deeply personal voice, a voice that both listens and speaks from one’s own body to the body of another, to land in the body of another, to take residence, to come more alive, to awaken, to challenge, to cherish one another. ■
William F. Cornell, MA, maintains a private practice of psychotherapy and consultation in Pittsburgh, PA. Bill is a founding faculty member of the Western Pennsylvania Community for Psychoanalytic Therapies. He is editor of the Routledge book series Innovations in Transactional Analysis and past editor of the Transactional Analysis Journal. Bill has written and coauthored numerous books in transactional analysis and psychoanalysis. He was the recipient of the Eric Berne Memorial Award and the European Association for Transactional Analysis Gold Medal, in recognition of his writing.
Bollas, C. The Mystery of Things (Routledge, 1999)
Quinodoz, D. Words that Touch: A Psychoanalyst Learns to Speak (Karnac, 2003)
Vuong, O. “A Life Worthy of Our Breath,” On Being, Podcast with Krista Tippet (March 2020)
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