The use of poetry for therapeutic purposes goes back to primitive rites in which shamans would chant poems for the welfare of an individual or the tribe, according to the National Association for Poetry Therapy
. Its use as a supplemental treatment for mental disorders can be traced back to a Greek physician named Soranus in the second century AD. Today, some therapists use poetry reading or writing to facilitate healing or promote personal growth in their clients. And many more English teachers exhort their students to express themselves in a poem.
On one hand, then, we have a long tradition of viewing poetry writing as a healthy mode of self-expression and a useful adjunct to mental health treatment. On the other hand, there's a prevalent stereotype that poets are mad - and research suggests that this stereotype isn't totally unfounded. Studies have shown that mental illness is more common in people from artistic fields than in creative people from other fields. And within the arts, poets - especially female poets - seem to be the most vulnerable to mental illness and suicide, a tendency that has been dubbed the Sylvia Plath Effect.
Fortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean that writing poetry will be hazardous to your health if you're a more ordinary versifier. Research has focused on eminent published poets, a highly select group who may be a breed apart in numerous ways. If a budding creative genius also happens to think in a distorted or fragmented way, it's easy to see how he or she might be drawn to writing poetry, with its rich opportunities for distortion (unusual metaphors, strange imagery) and fragmentation (choppy phrases, incomplete thoughts). But that doesn't imply that the poetry writing caused a mental illness in our poetic genius. If anything, it's probably the other way around.
For the rest of us, it seems likely that penning a poem won't do any harm and might be some help.
Elegy for a Loss
Back in 1982, the first piece of writing I ever sold was a poem called "The Miscarriage," which originally appeared in Mothering magazine. The poem was a simple but heartfelt response to my own pregnancy loss. It had been a first-trimester miscarriage, so medically and societally, it was almost a nonevent. But emotionally, it felt like a significant loss, and this poem was my way of mourning it. Apparently, the poem spoke to other women as well, because it has been widely republished ever since, appearing in magazines and anthologies, on websites and blogs, and, most recently, in condensed form in Twitter tweets.
Did writing this poem help me feel better? Absolutely, and that was true from the moment I put it to paper, which was well before I ever showed it to anyone or submitted it for publication. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was instinctively practicing poetry self-therapy as a means of helping myself grieve.
In an article in the Journal of Poetry Therapy, Lea Tufford, a doctoral student in social work at the University of Toronto, argues that poetry writing may help synthesize and release the intense emotions aroused by another, closely related experience: infertility. She notes that capturing difficult emotions on a page may help people get a better grasp on them. When it comes to dealing with infertility or miscarriage in particular, the creation of a poem may also offer the author a different kind of birthing experience.
Ode to Expression
There are a number of reasons why poetry may be particularly well suited to emotional expression. The use of metaphor and imagery may help the writer give voice to emotional undertones that would otherwise be hard to put into words. The use of rhythm may tap into powerful nonverbal responses, much the way music does. And the abstract nature of poetry may make it easier to take a close look at painful experiences, which might feel too threatening to approach in a direct, literal manner.
Over the past 25 years, more than 200 studies have investigated the mental and physical health benefits of expressive writing. This research is rooted in the belief that disclosing emotions - a core component of much psychotherapy - is beneficial even without the aid of a therapist. Studies have shown that disclosing challenging experiences in personal writing can lead to improvements in a wide range of health outcomes, such as self-reported moods and symptoms, doctor visits, immune cell counts, liver enzyme levels, and antibody response to vaccines. These studies have generally looked at structured, narrative prose, however, so it's unclear whether waxing poetic would have similar effects.
But that's not going to stop me from speculating that it might. Like narrative writing, poetry writing can help reframe thoughts about a challenging or unsettling experience, especially when multiple poems explore the same theme from different angles. Ultimately, this may lead to a reappraisal of the experience as less arbitrary and overwhelming, and more meaningful and survivable.
To cite a pretty fair authority on the matter: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." - William Butler Yeats
Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health/psychology journalist with a master's degree in psychology. She's author of 14 books and close to 3,000 articles, but her most reprinted piece of writing to date is that first little poem.