The Poetic Peak-Experience

It goes without saying that poetry is a foci of my life. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that I wondered how Maslow’s peak-experiences might relate to poetry. As such, I was particularly intrigued when the author of What are the Peak Experiences of Self-Actualization? suggests

Peak experiences have been given many different names by many different people, including ecstatic experiences, peak experiences, spiritual experiences, and in Buddhism it is called Santorin. In Psychiatry, they are sometimes called bipolar manic episodes.

This passage immediately brought to mind William Witherup who I just finished reading and, of course, Theodore Roethke. A quick glance on the internet produced a much longer lists of poets who are often thought to be bipolar: Bipolar poets. Why is that so many of the poets I love were bipolar? Surely not because I’m bipolar. If anything, I tend to be rather even keeled. (I like to say that’s ’cause I’m just deeper than most people 🙂 I wonder if these poets help me to better see moments in my life that I’ve actually shared with them. Or, is it simply a desire on my part to be more emotionally involved than I really am?

I think it’s also significant that Maslow found himself resorting to “poetic,” rather than more traditional objective, scientific language as he pursued his research.

In trying to elicit reports of peak-experiences from reluctant subjects or from non-peakers, I evolved a different kind of interview procedure without being consciously aware that I had done so. The “rhapsodic communication,” as I have called it, consists of a kind of emotional contagion in isomorphic parallel. It may have considerable implications for both the theory of science and the philosophy of education.

Direct verbal description of peak-experiences in a sober, cool, analytic, “scientific” way succeeds only with those who already know what you mean, i.e., people who have vivid peaks and who can, therefore, feel or intuit what you are trying to point to even when your words are quite inadequate in themselves.

As I went on interviewing, I “learned,” without realizing that I was learning, to shift over more and more to figures of speech, metaphors, similes, etc., and, in general, to use more and more poetic speech. It turns out that these are often more apt to “click,” to touch off an echoing experience, a parallel, isomorphic vibration than are sober, cool, carefully descriptive phrases.

Not surprisingly, figures of speech, metaphors, and similes are also used to describe religious experiences (unless you believe that all such descriptions have to be taken literally) because they cannot be described “directly.”

Maslow goes on to describe how he even became a “teacher” in his research:

We are taught here that the word “ineffable” means “not communicable by words that are analytic, abstract, linear, rational, exact, etc.” Poetic and metaphorical language, physiognomic and synesthetic language, primary process language of the kind found in dreams, reveries, free associations and fantasies, not to mention pre-words and non-words such as gestures, tone of voice, style of speaking, body tonus, facial expressions-all these are more efficacious in communicating certain aspects of the ineffable.

This procedure can wind up being a kind of continuing rhapsodic, emotional, eager throwing out of one example after another of peaks, described or rather reported, expressed, shared, “celebrated,” sung vividly with participation and with obvious approval and even joy. This kind of procedure can more often kindle into flame the latent or weak peak-experiences within the other person.

The problem here was not the usual one in teaching. It was not a labelling of something public that both could simultaneously see while the teacher pointed to it and named it. Rather it was trying to get the person to focus attention, to notice, to name an experience inside himself, which only he could feel, an experience, furthermore, which was not happening at the time. No pointing is possible here, no naming of something visible, no controlled and purposeful creation of the experience like turning on an electric current at will or probing at a painful spot


Despite what Maslow says, I think that this is precisely the kind of teaching that English teachers, and art teachers, and ?, do. Perhaps that’s why it’s so tough and why so many kids resist it. What other way is there to teach poetry or art? The attempt to use rational, analytic, linear language to “explain a poem” destroys the poetry for many readers – including myself.

Naturally, I also found this statement

The ethologists have learned that if you want to study ducks and to learn all that is possible to know about ducks, then you had better love ducks. And so also, I believe, for stars, or numbers, or chemicals. This kind of love or interest or fascination is not contradictory of objectivity or truthfulness but is rather a precondition of certain kinds of objectivity, perspicuity, and receptivity. encourages B-cognition, i.e., unselfish, understanding love for the Being or intrinsic nature of the other, makes it possible to perceive and to enjoy the other as an end in himself (not as a selfish means or as an instrument), and, therefore, makes more possible the perception of the nature of the other in its own right.

by Maslow particularly intriguing. We don’t think of “love” when we think of “scientist,” but once we start to think about it we realize that the great scientists are those who love their subject, though it’s often restated as “having a passion” for their work.

I’m sure that my increasing understanding of birds and my ability to get better and better shots has flowed from my love for them. I no longer bother claiming that a particular bird is a a “favorite.” I love them all; they’re all favorites. I’m not sure if they know that or not, but without a doubt it has improved the quality of my photographs.

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