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Knots: The Poetry of R. D. Laing


In the pre-psychotic realm of my youth, I discovered the works of Scottish (anti) psychiatrist R. D. Laing. His seminal offering, The Divided Self (1960), became for a time, my Bible, offering me reassurance that my deeply held fear of madness was proof of my sanity. A few years later, I remember, during my chaotic career as an undergraduate, sitting at a table of my university refectory, smoking and drinking an innumerable coffee. Poised on a wave of my own sense of urgency, I knew not whether to retreat from or entreat with words the grizzled middle-aged, presence who reclined in the seat opposite me. Soon, my dilemma was resolved; the presence spoke. Complete with perfectly crumbled Scottish vowels and the scrag-end of a roll-up, he introduced himself and told me that he lectured in psychology. Immediately interested, I began to converse and confessed to him my fascination with all things Laingian. To my great delight, he claimed that he had worked with Laing and eyes twinkling, rasped, “The trouble with Ronny was…like many of us, he couldn’t resist a pretty girl.” I never spoke to the man again, confining him to the annals of lecherous old devilment. However, whenever I ruminate about my first and only hero of psychiatry, I smile at the memory of meeting someone who had known him, smug in the knowledge that we all are only one handshake away from greatness.
Whilst, R. D. Laing’s (1927-1989) most widely read writings are books detailing psychological analyses of psychosis. He, also, intruded upon the sacred soil of poetry. His 1970 volume, Knots, operates most successfully as an encoding of his ideas in the loosely defined form of poetry. The text is divided into five sections which can be read as individual dialogues or mini play-lets. Ultimately, a deconstruction of relationships, the “knots” of the title connote impasses; the conflicting passage of the Western interpersonal being. For in our relationships with others, subjectivity is both defined and denied.
Stylistically dense to the point of being terse, on first reading Knots may appear irritatingly abrupt and lacking in the artifice of rhythmic mellifluousness and beauteous language. However, the circuitous dialogue merely reinforces Laing’s notion that relationships are constricted by the production of thoughts, which lead to neurotic beliefs, which, eventually become interpreted in our behaviour and ensuing relationships. Although, the book is not entirely successful as a work of poetry, it offers many insights into the psychology of relationships. As someone who has been profoundly affected by Laing’s theories about the, “family nexus,” whereby family life was deemed accountable for the presence and sustenance of psychosis,
I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book. For, here, his views about the injunctions of the family are most fully transcribed.

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