Hugeln, M., & Clark, B. B. (2005). Poetic Healing: A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey from a Communication Perspective. Parlor Press: West Lafayette, IN.
Bryan Moe and David Tarvin, Louisiana State University
A GRENADE EXPLODES FEET FROM Private Basil Clark while trucking through the jungles during a tour of combat in Vietnam. The blast sends shrapnel, force, and sound through his body, doing irreparable violence. For Clark, medical professionals were able to repair the visible wounds only leaving behind scars, but it was the invisible wounds that caused the most damage. The blast presented unique challenges to his healing and recovery process. Even after the diagnoses of tinnitus and subsequent medical treatment there has been little relief to the persistent ringing in his ears. The ringing experienced by Clark is similar to the ringing we may experience after going to a loud rock concert. The difference is that the ringing for us will last only a short time. For Clark the ringing has lasted over fifty years with little chance of ever disappearing. Coupled with the “ringing” are the emotional and psychological damages caused by the war.
The inability for conventional medicine to heal his wounds led Basil Clark to a new form of treatment: “poetic healing.” By giving form to his traumatic experiences through art, Clark strives to “propel the understanding and helps to explain the free flow of one human’s emotion” (xvii). Poetic Healing: A Vietnam Veteran’s Journey from a Communication Perspective, written in cooperation with Clark’s friend and communication scholar, Mark Huglen, is an exploration of the effort to use art as equipment for living. Their goal is to provide an example of how one veteran was able to heal, through poetry, in the hopes that “people would relate the insights to their own experiences” (xxi). It is a “chronicle of Professor Clark’s successful self-help methods through a miraculous journey of ‘poetic healing’” (xiii). Primarily through Burke’s redemption cycle, also known as terms of order, Huglen argues that Clark was trying to find a way to pull the memories of war and experiences thereafter together to make some kind of sense for his future. Huglen claims, “The process of questioning and the acts of communicative battling were themselves teaching the poet something about himself” and “also teaching others. . . . What was the poet doing? He was teaching, and he was healing” (281) By outlining the process of healing it became clear to both Huglen and Clark that this process was also about teaching others a method of coping with psychological and physical trauma.
Burke’s redemption cycle provides the theme for their method of overcoming and transcending pain. The first five chapters can be categorized as one of the five categories in the cycle: order (chapter 1); pollution (chapter 2); guilt (chapter 3); purification (chapter 4); and, redemption (chapter 5). While “Basil’s phases are unique to Basil,” Huglen shows how “the poet took us through a sense of order to a period of disorder, and then back to order” (286). To show this cycle, Huglen gives narratives of evenings spent with Clark in the scenic Appalachian Mountains dominating the Kentucky landscape. These narratives provide metaphors to the redemption cycle and other concepts discussed in each chapter.
The chapters begin with an introduction from Huglen, proceed with Clark’s poetry and prose, and conclude with analysis from Huglen inspired by the work of Kenneth Burke. For instance, chapter 4, titled “Burning the Postwar Terrain,” provides an example of how the authors layout this process. The chapter begins with Huglen’s narrative of a day sitting on Clark’s porch looking out at the “gorgeous” mountain landscape. Pointing out to a particular area upon the mountain range, Huglen says to Clark, “that mountain range looks so picture perfect. It looks like has been cosmetically altered” (185). Without delay Basil grabs Huglen, driving off in the car to investigate this picturesque mountain. Upon arrival they discover the range is a reclamation project. Huglen states, “The mining reclamation projects are analogous psychologically to the veteran’s tasks” (187). Like the mountain, Clark had been stripped of something – silence. Like the coal, it will never return. However, upon restoring the area around the mine beauty begins to overcome the effects of the mining. In Clark’s case, his poetry serves as this restoring device. The poetry in chapter 4 deals with death and shows how Clark is coming to function with his pain. For example, Clark’s poem Some Folks Kill Themselves reads “Some folks kill themselves by hanging. / Some folks use a gun. / Others kill themselves by living. / Waiting ‘till it’s done” (195). Huglen suggests the dichotomy between being killed and living is important in the purification stage. He states, “The veteran places incongruous things side by side, suggesting that some kind of movement is going to take place for resolution” (192). In the end, Basil will rise anew, from the grave to solid footing upon a living soil.
The poet’s ability to transcend the pain of tinnitus through poetry provides useful insights for the Communication discipline. The book serves as a “focus upon the conflict and consequences for interpersonal relations” (xvi). The interpersonal struggle Clark went through shows the power of communication because it “both reflects and creates at the physical and symbolic levels and carries our attitudes, actions, and beliefs in the spirit and orientation that we espouse” (xvi). In the introduction, the authors suggest, “College and university professors may use Poetic Healing as a supplementary text in the following courses: Communication in Human Relationships, Interpersonal Communication, Rhetorical Theory and/or Criticism, Oral Interpretation, and Acting/Theater” (xix). Huglen and Clark’s book works well with these courses because it shows the power communication has to transform pain.
Poetic Healing should be placed in the communication discipline as both a case study of Burke’s redemption cycle, and, more importantly, as a tool for interpersonal conflict management of traumatic suffering. The book serves a rhetorical function as it acts as a microcosm of sorts; here we are suggesting the power of art. The poetry allows Clark to reorient his life and heal through a poetically constructed understanding of pain as it relates to experiences in Vietnam War and return home to the United States. The poetry helps him transcend the ringing in his ears to a life with purpose: “God is simply giving him some powerful experiences to write about” (126). Understanding the rhetorical functions of art provides a paradigm for reading Poetic Healing. The process of writing these poems and prose was like the stitching of the flesh wounds caused by shrapnel.
Many scholars in Trauma Studies have discussed overcoming and transcending pain caused by traumatic experiences at length. Huglen and Clark add to the current literature by extending the scope of research to documenting the poetic process of an American Veteran over an extended period of time with rich and ample texts. By observing the emotional struggle in Private Clark’s writing and matching it with Burke’s critical eye, the audience is grasped by aesthetic pleasure and enriched with the wealth of knowledge in Communication and Trauma Studies. Scholars in these fields, coupled with students studying Burke and victims of similar traumas, will find Poetic Healing useful for demonstrating the rhetorical potential of art and its ability to help transcend pain.
*Bryan Moe is a Communication Studies Doctoral Student in Rhetoric at Louisiana State University. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*David Tarvin is a Communication Studies Doctoral Student in Rhetoric at Louisiana State University. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.