Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Poems Soothe Broken Hearts

Why do people turn to poetry after public disasters or when mourning?

For centuries we have turned to poetry in times of crisis, to help us make sense of unthinkable events. "Traditionally, poets functioned as the memory of the tribe," says poet Martin Newell. "Instinctively, we are aware that poetry is a salve on human hurt," he adds, pointing out that events like 9/11— or the death of Princess Diana over a decade ago — produced outpourings of poems scrawled on walls or safety-pinned onto teddy bears and bouquets.

So why do so many people feel cut off from poetry?  Clever rhythmic language has the force of electricity at poetry slams and among rappers, but most people can't get past a few lines learned in childhood — or the lyrics of a favorite Bob Dylan song.  Only a handful of poems are well-known today:  W. H. Auden's "Funeral Blues" captured a wide audience when it was recited in the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Another popular poem is Rudyard Kipling’s "If."

Still, many people who do not ordinarily read poetry turn to it when mourning a death or lost love. Lily, a 45-year-old psychologist, discovered the Robert Frost poem "Reluctance" during a painful break-up in her twenties. When a recent relationship ended, she found herself repeating its conclusion like a mantra, and sent the poem to her ex to explain her feelings. ‘Ah, when to the heart of man/Was it ever less than a treason/To go with the drift of things/To yield with a grace to reason/And bow and accept the end/Of a love or a season?’

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"There is a history of metaphor being used therapeutically,’ says Dawn Blasko, a research psychologist who specialises in poetry in therapy. ‘It is difficult to face your demons, while talking hypothetically helps people get to things they’re not thinking about consciously." Repetition of words or sounds can also be soothing, like the rocking of a chair or a child’s lullaby. "That’s why we say 'there, there,' instead of just 'there,' says the poet Kate Light.

When you're in need, specific poems, not just any poem, will speak to you more directly than you may realize at the time. When 36-year-old diabetic Carmela discovered her condition meant she’d have to have part of her foot amputated, she returned to a poem she had read as a student, "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost, and took comfort in the famous lines, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference."

She was thinking that the poem helped her value that she would experience an event that had not happened to anyone else she knew. It didn't even occur to her until later that the poem was about walking...and that she didn't know whether she would be able to walk in the woods after her amputation. Reciting the poem to herself was her unconscious way of hoping that she would.

So if you feel a poem drawing you, let it take you. This old cure still works.  

A portion of this article appeared in Psychologies.

For editing and writing coaching, contact me at expertediting.org.  

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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