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The Secret to Writing Transformative Poetry

National Poetry Month is a great time to discover the joys of writing poetry.

"Musicians must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he's to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be."

Abraham Maslow

April is National Poetry Month and a good time to discover the joys and transformative powers of this art form. People have asked me exactly what is poetry and my answer is that it has a great number of details and is focused on specificity, is vivid and strong. When writing poetry it is important to be in touch with and use all five of your senses—seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, tasting, and smelling. In this way, the reader will be able to imagine alongside you what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch. For example, when you are talking about a perfume, describe whether it is musty, floral or pungent. Detailed writing also uses metaphors and refrains from using clichés. In the writing world this is called, “showing,” not “telling.”

Writing poetry requires as sense of fearlessness and courage. In fact, you need to be even more brave in poetry because the best poetry, than other forms of writing because it is written from the heart and every word counts. Each word has to be specific and clear. The best poets master details in their writing. For example, instead of saying “tree,” say “elm tree,” or instead of saying, “bird,” say “robin.” The idea in poetry is to create an image with words and this is sometimes difficult for beginning poets. If you want to create an image then begin with an idea or thing and take it from there.

Poetry can be powerful because it succinctly puts a voice to innermost feelings. It helps provide a dialogue for what we are going through. People tend to write poetry when in the midst of powerful emotions. Some of the best poems incorporate deep emotions and/or poignant images. Modern poetry, in particular, does this. Poet Stanley Kuniz says that, “the poet writes his poems out of his rage.” In essence, this rage is important to ignite the poet’s passion as a way to bring forth deep insights.

In Poetry and Story Therapy, Chavis says that the mere act of putting words on the page can encourage self-esteem and be way to tap into one’s inner truth. From a transpersonal perspective it can sharpen your awareness and significantly help connect the past, present and future. Also, writing sometimes simplifies what seems to be a complicated situation.

This healing power of poetry has also its roots in American history. During the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman read poems to wounded soldiers. His poems highlighted war, courage, and the military life. There have also have been many physicians who were poets. William Carlos Williams comes to mind as a physician who wrote poems between patients on the prescription pads he kept in his pocket. Other physician-poets include John Keats, Anton Chekov, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Poets tend to be in touch with their deepest emotions and the best physicians are those who are also able to tap into the deepest part of the psyche. In other words, they have the innate ability to connect emotionally with themselves and their patients.

In more recent years, poetry has been incorporated into a number of medical school programs, including Yale and Harvard School of Medicine. An article by Pauline Chen, M.D., published in the New York Times a few years ago, called, “The Doctor as Poet,” explained how poetry can help physicians empathize and understand what a patient is going through. Dr. Rafael Campo of Harvard Medial School, who is also an award-winning poet, discusses Marilyn Hacker’s “Cancer Winter” which helps her colleagues understand a patient receiving a cancer diagnosis. Carpo says, “In poetry we discover courage, comfort, and ultimately precious wisdom.”

Poetry therapy has become more and more commonplace over the years, mainly because writing poems is a wonderful way to get your feelings on paper as a way to tap into what is going on inside of you. Confessional poets are ones that use poetry in this way and is a great container for your feelings. The reason for poetry says humanist psychologist, Rollo May is that it’s for our delight and deepening, and as a way to enlarge the meaning in our lives.

Perie Longo, Ph.D., a Santa Barbara psychotherapist has been involved in poetry therapy for more than two decades. She says that it is important to remember “the focus of poetry for healing is self-expression and growth of the individual, whereas the focus of poetry as art is the poem itself.” Longo had been in executive director of the National Association for Poetry Therapy. In her poetry for healing groups, she has many techniques and tips to help participants write poetry. For example, sometimes she takes a phrase from a poem and reads it out loud for each group member. She asks them to fill in their thoughts out loud before writing their own poem. Once she used the phrase, “I have a right,” and she was astounded where each member took that phrase, and the impact of that exercise.

Using poetry as a way of healing and transformation can help us return to wholeness, and this is done by both reading and writing poems. In many indigenous and tribal cultures, illness amongst its members is considered a community issue and proves that when healing occurs as a group it can be even more powerful. In How to Read a Poem, Peacock says that we are sometimes “attracted to a poem because it makes us feel as if someone is listening to us.” What the reader feels is, “wow this poem is about me; it’s expressing exactly what I’m feeling.” This opens up a certain magic to the reader.


Chavis, G. G. (2011). Poetry and Story Therapy. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Chen, P. (2011). “The Doctor as Poet.” The New York Times. December 20, 2011.

May, R. (1975). The Courage to Create. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Peacock, M. (2011). How to Read a Poem. New York, NY: Riverhead Trade.

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