Book review: Freud celebrated in new anthology of poetry

"Climate of Opinion: Sigmund Freud in Poetry," edited and with an introduction by Lenox poet and writer Irene Willis, is an anthology of 70 poems where each poem mentions the name, Sigmund Freud, or otherwise gives testimonial and homage to psychoanalysis.

The volume is remarkable for its breadth of representation from famous poets past and present as W. H. Auden, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Anna Freud, Dorothy Parker, Philip Larkin, Alicia Ostriker, Stephen Dobyns, Louise Gluck, Ann Sexton, as well as our own Berkshire poets Cynthia Gardner, Lisken Van Pelt Dus, Richard M. Berlin, Zara Raab and David Giannini.

It is an astonishing achievement in its focus, wide-ranging representation and, while ostensibly about Sigmund Freud, blossoms into celebrations of psychoanalytic theory in the human experience, exploring what psychoanalysis was and is today. Whimsical, alarming and enlightening on the subject of psychoanalysis, Ellis perceives Sigmund Freud may be having "a moment" in the way modern poetry has addressed the famous Austrian neurologist who is the founder of psychoanalysis.

The collection opens brilliantly with W. H. Auden's "For Sigmund Freud" (d. September 1939), a heart-felt and gorgeous homage, where the title of the anthology appears in reflections on Freud in his historical context with the lines: For one who'd lived among enemies so long: / If often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, / To us he is no more a person / Now, but a whole climate of opinion.

In testimonial to how important Freud was in helping H. D. in finding her identity, her poem, "The Master," gracefully documents, through this flowing 12-part poem, how artful, even mystical, Freud was in his guidance of her development as a poet and in resolving her sexual identity. In part IV of the poem she writes: I was angry at the old man, / I wanted an answer, / a neat answer, / when I argued and said, "well, tell me,/ you will soon be dead,/ the secret lies with you,"/ he said,/ "you are a poet."

Getting a response from your analyst is famously impossible however, and Louise Gluck represents the power of that silent attentiveness when she writes very personally and beautifully of how supportive and productive that quiet space can be during the analytic process in her poem, "The Sword in the Stone": So in my imagination, a mother stares at her sleeping child, / forgiveness preceding understanding.

Richard M. Berlin likewise portrays that productively liminal space in his poem, "Transference" with the lines: And I feel closer to him than 50 minutes / should allow, a puzzled sensation / I've known him all my life. The poem ends with a classic "Freudian slip" signaling an elusive breakthrough when he says good-bye to the analyst calling him by his father's name. The often complicated nature of analyst/patient relationships is represented in Cynthia Gardner's poem, "Accused," where the analyst is revealed as highly flawed and disappointing, yet the patient has actually made good progress in her work, the whole experience deftly contained through the symbol of losing an old, but cherished umbrella.

"Climate of Opinion" is inhabited by wonderful poems, made so much richer by the subject of psychoanalysis, which, of course, is enormously absorbing for the conscious and unconscious, the proving ground of all the poets.

A book event for "Climate of Opinion," with editor Irene Willis and Berkshire poets included in the volume, will take place at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at

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"Climate of Opinion: Sigmund Freud in Poetry"

Edited and with an Introduction by Irene Willis

Publisher: International Psychoanalytic Books

182 Pages