Why poetry is one of the most powerful forms of therapy
Posted by Bijal Shah on
April is National Poetry Month and naturally a great time to explore the immense therapeutic powers of poetry. Reading and writing poetry both engage our senses along with our emotions, making the art form experiential and hugely effective in connecting with our minds.
Both writing and reading poetry, through their expression of feelings and words have highly therapeutic effects on the mind.
The structure of a poem favours brevity yet the best poems also capture succinct detail, making them incredibly powerful in getting a message across to the reader. Writing poetry requires the poet to be extremely disciplined with his choice of words and the number of words, to create a sharp and accurate snapshot of what he or she is feeling. This combination of brevity and detail gives the reader open access to the poet’s mind and enables the reader to truly connect with the poet.
Writing poetry as therapy
Writing poetry requires us to be open and honest about our feelings so that we can voice them through pen and paper, which is the first step to truly expressing ourselves.
This acknowledgement of our innermost thoughts allows us to be true to ourselves and boosts our self-esteem (as beautifully explained by author Geri Giebel Chavis in Poetry and Story Therapy: The Healing Power of Creative Expression (Writing for Therapy or Personal Development) which I highly recommend).
The best poetry is written when we are truly in the midst of our emotions and struggling to gain clarity. This is when the cathartic release of emotions to pen and then paper as an outlet calms us, gives us clarity and enables us to move forward.
Poetry’s powerful healing qualities have been documented during both world wars and the American civil war: poems were read to soldiers to help them cope with trauma and the brutalities of war. In fact doctors would write poems for their patients, emotionally connecting with them. A striking example of this is John Keats who also trained as a doctor.
Poetry has also been used by modern-day doctors and physicians at Yale University School of Medicine and University College London School of Medicine. Yale actually has a committee that maintains a required literary reading list which includes poetry. Poetry allows both the doctor and the patient to understand the emotions that the patient might be going through which adds another facet to their overall care.
The use of poetry continues to grow as a recognised form of therapy. More and more psychotherapists across the US, UK and Europe continue to use poetry therapy as part of their practice. Globally the International Federation for Biblio / Poetry Therapy sets standards of excellence in the training and credentialing of practitioners in the field of biblio/poetry therapy, qualifying them to practice.
Writing Confessional Poetry
Writing confessional poetry specifically, which gives writers the opportunity to make a confession about something private or difficult is a great way to focus your mind, express your emotions and bring some clarity by writing down your feelings and thoughts in a poetic format.
Often the best poems are written from the heart, raw, emotional and to the point. A mindful exercise, it truly is game-changing. After the poem is written there is a certain sense of calm as we no longer hold the burden of our confession. We feel lighter and relieved.
You may initially struggle with starting a poem, however it does become easier with practice. The key is to let your thoughts wander and write what comes to mind. Do not hold back, let go and allow the emotions, words and images to unfold. Sometimes it is easier to write it all down and then piece it together using line breaks (pauses), restructuring paragraphs and sentences, pulling it together into a coherent form. A great book on writing poetry is The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio which includes helpful techniques, suggested themes, how to deal with self-doubt and writer’s block and the highs and lows of writing life.
For me personally poetry has been a lifeline and literally a saving grace. Below I share a poem I wrote that is very personal to me and something I wanted to express to my own mother before it was too late:
So much in my heart I want to express.
At one I wanted to sleep next to you all night.
At two I wanted to hold your hand and never let it go.
At five, I wanted to share my daily stories from nursery.
At ten, I wanted to hang out with my girlfriends.
At twelve, I wanted to do my own thing.
At sixteen, I kept secrets.
At twenty, I had found my own. Life was busy managing social affairs.
At twenty five, I was consumed with career ambitions, men and big life plans.
At thirty, I was getting married and wanted you to celebrate in my joy.
At thirty five, the grandkids had arrived. I felt what you felt when I was born.
At forty, I missed you. Wished to see you more.
At fifty my heart ached, for the pain you were suffering. I really missed you.
At sixty, I was nostalgic, revering in my childhood memories of you and daddy.
Dear mother, your presence makes life worthwhile.
It blooms hope in every dark corner.
It allows us to truly experience and give unconditional love.
You make my soul feel warm.
May our souls be entwined forever, knotted together.
I normally write poetry when dealing with confusing situations or when dealing with loss or pain. It has really helped me during difficult transitions in my life such as dealing with illness, loved ones who were suffering, moving countries and losing people close to me. The transformation from difficult emotions to lighter ones, post writing, is one of the reasons that makes me reach for the pen every time. Here are some suggestions to get you started with your poem if you find yourself stuck.
- Name the emotion you are feeling and describe it in a four line stanza
- Talk about your fears
- Talk about your losses
- Talk about your dreams
- Focus on a powerful image and describe it
- Write about what inspires you.
Hopefully these tips will help you get started.
Reading poetry as therapy
We are often drawn to a poem when we connect with the poet’s feelings, either feeling the same as the poet or empathising with him/her. It feels like a 2-way dialogue, where there is a sense of mutual understanding. In How to Read a Poem…: and Start A Poetry Circle, Molly Peacock makes a great observation that readers often feel a poem is about them because it captures exactly how they are feeling. This has a profound, almost cathartic impact on the reader.
Reading poetry is apt for expressing emotions and perhaps the the reason why it has been so popular as therapy through the ages. Images and metaphors embedded within a poem in a rhythmic pattern create a similar effect to music: the poetic format enables the expression of emotion that might otherwise be hard to verbally express or may have felt too threatening to do so in a direct way.
Reading poetry for stress relief, in particular, has been the most beneficial for my clients. One of my all-time favourite poems for stress relief is ‘Leisure’ by W H Davies:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
What effect did the poem have on you? As we read the poem, it imposes a sense of calm; conjuring up images of spring time and happy-go-lucky wildlife, connecting with nature. The poem gives us a stark realisation of how quickly life passes us by and how sad it is when we are not truly living but just passing time. It nudges us to stop and reconsider our lives. The feelings of sadness and ‘emptiness’ that it provokes, makes us acknowledge the feelings held within us. It also encourages us to enjoy the present moment and be more mindful.
Another one of my favourite poems of all time is by Robert Frost called ‘The Road Not Taken’:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The poem resonates with us all — making life-changing decisions and when faced with two different choices, which one is the right one? Do we go down the safe path (taken by many others before us?) Or do we forge our own path, no matter how difficult this might be in the anticipation that a unique, independent choice might make life that much better. What are your thoughts about this poem?
Tell us what you thought of the poems above and do share your writing/poems in the comment section below!
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