How Poetry Can Heal
Psychologists and writers understand the healing power of writing. Here's how.
Posted April 11, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
April is National Poetry Month—perhaps a good time to review the positive aspects of reading and writing poems. Poetry is a genre of writing in which succinct, vivid, and intense language is given to feelings, images, and ideas. It is a snapshot written from the inside out. William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility…”
Typically, a poem has a distinct rhythm. Poetry can also share transformative moments or revelations. Regardless of the type of poem, poetry uses an economy of words; therefore, every word is important. The more specific the poem, the better it is. The best poetry inspires readers to reflect, dream, reminisce, observe, and fantasize. Poems are written in fragments, and each line should have a singular image and feeling.
Reading and writing poetry encourages a certain interconnectedness and helps establish a sense of community between oneself and others. In other words, poetry can help us feel as if we’re part of a larger picture and not just living in our isolated little world. We learn that other people have embarked on similar journeys and have similar feelings about where they’ve been and where they’re going.
As most writers and therapists know, writing and reading poetry can be a springboard for growth, healing, and transformation. When we read a good poem, we have the opportunity to be forever changed by the poet’s words and message. We tend to be most transformed by poems where the poet expresses emotions or feelings we might be experiencing ourselves. For the most part, poets help us see a slice of the world in a way we might not have in the past. Poetry also offers insights into both the human psyche and human behavior, and it’s a place where the imagination can roam free.
Writing poetry can be healing and transformative because poems reflect the voice of the soul. Writing poetry is also a way to nurture a mindfulness practice because when writing poems, we have the chance to unleash the unconscious mind. Sculpting our feelings and thoughts into a poem can take us on a journey where the conscious mind actually takes a little holiday. Writing poetry is a time to loosen up and allow the freedom of self-expression at a time when it is often needed the most.
Writing poetry allows us to tap into our authentic voices, which can lead to self-realization. It can also be a form of meditation because it encourages a sense of mindfulness and the ability to tap into what we’re feeling, seeing, and experiencing at the moment of writing. Henry David Thoreau once said that if we sit in a clearing long enough, the animals will come out of the woods and present themselves. Figuratively speaking, this also happens when we write poetry: all sorts of surprises can come to light.
For those who need to be heard, writing poetry can be an excellent outlet. An icon in the field of writing for healing is poetry therapist and lecturer John Fox. He teaches in the California Poets in the Schools Program. One of my favorite books of his is called Finding What You Didn’t Lose. In it, he helps readers get in touch with the poetic voice within and its ability to heal. He teaches about metaphor, image, sound, and rhythm while leading readers into their inner psyches. He also provides questions that could serve as good prompts or seeds for poems, such as:
- What scares you?
- What saddens you?
- What delights you?
- What intrigues you?
- What do you appreciate about the person you are?
Using these questions as inspiration for writing poetry can help poets tap into their emotional selves. Poets and those in the helping professions often tend to be more in touch with their deepest emotions than others.
Years ago, before becoming a research psychologist, I was a registered nurse. During my practice, I learned that the most gifted doctors were those who were able to tap into the deepest part of the psyche. They were physicians who had the innate ability to connect emotionally with themselves and their patients. Over the course of history, there have been a number of doctors who were also poets. William Carlos Williams is a physician who comes to mind as someone who wrote poems in between seeing patients to put into words the agony and ecstasy of his work. He wrote on the prescription pads he kept in his pocket. Other physician-poets include John Keats, Anton Chekhov, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Reading and writing poetry is good for healing and transformation—and it’s also good for the soul.
Fox, J. (1995). Finding What You Didn’t Lose. New York, NY: Inner Work Book.
Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.