Questioning and poetry – Margaret Little (part 1)

In the previous posts I was looking at the connection between contemplation and poetry where silence and the stripping down of words required in poetry seem to come from the same source. There is also a connection between emotional pain and the distillation of such inner distress; sometimes poetry can be the best means of trying to find the words to express what is happening.

Margaret Little was a British psychoanalyst and advocate of the object relations school. She wrote especially about the counter transference, and her published works include one fascinating paper about her analysis with D. W. Winnicott in the early 1950s. This was her third analysis and it took place 13 years after first seeking psychiatric help. She also published later some of her poems which were written during this time.

One is called Questioning and the second verse is quoted here:

How can I loose my grip

Lest I lose all?

Let slip

That which I have

Lest it should fall

Shattered, to the ground. 

During her analysis with Winnicott, Margaret Little regressed deeply to a state of dependence although, remarkably more or less continuing her own work as an analyst. On the surface all appeared normal: ‘I had attended school, passed exams, even won scholarships; I had qualified in medicine, run a successful general practice and trained and qualified as a psychoanalyst.’ Yet in the first year of her analysis she wrote this poem: The Cold Lover

 Loneliness was my bed-fellow,

His child I bear.

His chilly arms enfolded me;

His icy hand played with my breast.

His clay-cold lips sought mine;

His frozen breath stirred my hair

Played on my cheek, and pierced my heart.

So the soul’s death is born, that solitary child,

By Loneliness, out of Despair.

Her self- diagnosis was that she was in a ‘borderline’ state between neurosis and psychosis and during this analysis with Winnicott suffered three periods of serious depression. Early in the analysis alongside her breakdown she became physically ill with gastroenteritis and so could not get to her sessions. She describes Winnicott’s devotion, (something you would be extremely unlikely to find today):

 ‘D.W. came to me at home – five, six and sometimes seven days a week for ninety minutes each day for about three months. During most of these sessions I simply lay there crying, held by him. [Winnicott held her hands under a blanket]. He put no pressure on me, listened to my complaints and showed that he recognized my distress and could bear with it…, Psyche and soma for him were not separable, they were ‘body and spirit which deep down are interdependent aspects of the same reality’ (Van der Post)’.

At times she often had to ring him every night, ‘ringing repeatedly until he answered’ before she could go to sleep. It was, as she later describes through writing poetry that she could begin to contain and understand for herself the depth of her distress.