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How Poetry Can Change Your Life

Poetry's creative force can help clarify and unload the issues that plague you.

Key points

  • Relatable poetry is recognized by health professionals as a valuable healing tool.
  • Poetry can help those with mental health issues find words to express their emotions and experiences.
  • Poets themselves often provide a form of counseling by opening up and unloading the minds of their readers.
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In early 2023, the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) decided not only to include poems in their highly respected professional publication, but also to publish commentaries that examine each poem’s theme, context, and relationship to physical or mental health. The decision was based on the results of several studies showing that, in addition to enjoyment and entertainment, both patients and their healthcare providers can find comfort and meaning in poetry.

Multiple research projects have confirmed that reading and writing poetry have the potential to help people express their feelings, emotions, and creativity and also feel a sense of empowerment, recognition, and renewal. Poetry can help patients and their caregivers find meaning in their existence and in the illnesses and losses they’ve experienced throughout their lives.

While poetry belongs to the humanities, and often focuses on the subjects of love and nature, there is also a strong, historic connection to science and medicine. In fact, several well-known poets have also been practicing medical doctors, most notably John Keats and William Carlos Williams, transforming the pain they witnessed and experienced into written forms of beauty. Likewise, more than a few writers of novels and other prose have turned to poetry to express themselves when they fell ill, including John Updike and Clive James. This history of patient-poets and care-provider-poets led to the creation of the popular, annual Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, with cash awards for writers of previously unpublished poetry with a medical theme.

In one study designed to promote an empathetic attitude and approach to mental health care, more than 90 psychiatric nursing students were asked to write simple poetry that represented their feelings about mental health and mental health services. Their writings most frequently reflected feelings of sadness, fear, love, suffering, anguish, and hatred. Some of the words used to describe such feelings included emptiness, loneliness, crying, and helplessness. The students’ work often reflected an association between mental health and suicidal ideation. At the same time, the researchers found recurring themes of peace, respect, empathy, pride, affection, and love in the students’ poetry.

Such an assessment of student work helps medical educators understand how to improve students’ overall perception of mental illness, convey the deep emotional needs of mentally ill patients, enhance student empathy, and support students’ personal and professional growth by suggesting patient interventions that can address not only clinical concerns but also their patient’s deep-seated feelings and emotions.

Alma Maria Rolfs, a mental health counselor and poetry therapist in Seattle, uses the power of poetry to help clients heal from difficult life events and painful emotions while, at the same time, helping them use their imaginations to rediscover their sense of wonder, beauty, and vitality, and, often, emerge as a newly competent and eloquent self. Using the relatable words of others, she uses poetry to nourish and hold hope for clients until they can’t find and sustain it for themselves.

“The one recurring experience that fills me with a mixture of humility and satisfaction has been watching my clients’ positive reactions to their own written words, their pride and pleasure, in response to poetry,” she reflects. “So often clients see themselves as inadequate when it comes to language and when we can help them find the words they need, it not only promotes insight but builds much-needed communication skills for all aspects of their lives.”

As a form of artistic expression and emotional disclosure, poetry encourages introspection, helps build self-identity, promotes self-awareness, and lightens negative emotions. Poetry therapist Geraldine (Geri) Giebel Chavis, former president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, has long used reading and writing poetry and other forms of literature to help clients express and identify their feelings and actively participate in creative problem-solving of their issues. In her book, Poetry and Story Therapy: The Healing Power of Creative Expression, Chavis writes 'poetry therapists recognize that an untold number of poets are unwittingly acting as counselors for people they will never meet or see.”

One of these “poet-counselors” is Diego Perez, otherwise known as bestselling author Yung Pueblo. Perez’s family emigrated from Ecuador to the United States when he was a child and quickly found themselves caught in a trap of poverty. In his interviews and writings, he has publicly shared how the anxiety, fear, and continuous struggle his parents endured instilled some of the same in him, and brought him to a breaking point where he began mediating his pain with alcohol and drugs.

Ultimately, Perez found his way to meditation, which he credits for alleviating the density of his mind and opening up his creativity, which ultimately led to his healing and professional writing success. His messages are simple and include this: Unloading the weight from your mind through some form of therapy, including meditation, can release your creativity and help you learn to feel your emotions without feeding them. In his latest book, The Way Forward, Perez shares a collection of poems and musings that encourage readers to carve their own authentic path in life by relying on their self-knowledge and intuition to stay focused and grounded in an ever-changing world.

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