- Poetry therapy dates back to 400 BCE when Egyptians used writing as a form of medicine.
- Poetry therapy is about exploring feelings and memories.
- Therapists can encourage clients to keep journals and make note of where their words capture true feelings.
It’s already April, which means that National Poetry Month is upon us once again. This is a time to celebrate poets and poetry. While those in the literary and poetry communities are honoring this month, how can therapists help their clients benefit from poetry writing as part of their treatment?
Well, both the reading and writing of poetry can be therapeutic, because whether we’re reading or writing poems, they help us engage our senses and our feelings. This provides a good merging of poetry and psychology. In fact, in 1993, a number of psychologists gathered in San Francisco with contemporary poets such as Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, and Sharon Olds for a symposium called “Poems Aloud.” James Hillman was the keynote speaker and claimed that “psychotherapy has its roots in poetry.”
What Is Poetry Therapy?
Poetry therapy is a form of expression in the same way that art therapy is. It involves the therapeutic use of narrative poems to promote a sense of healing and well-being. When writing narrative poetry, there needs to be cause and effect: something happens, and as a result, something else happens. Poetry is often used in conjunction with therapy because everyday occurrences and events become transformed in a poem. This occurs through the use of vivid language.
The Healing Power of Poetry
Poets have known about poetry’s healing powers for a long time. In fact, poetry therapy dates back to 400 BCE, when Egyptians wrote to those who were ill as a form of medicine. In more contemporary times, writing and poetry have been used to help those experiencing emotional distress. As poetry therapist John Fox says in his book Finding What You Didn’t Lose (1995), “There is something deeply personal and private about poetry-making. It is a journey into the depths” (p. 185). This journey is for both the poet and the reader.
During the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman took care of wounded soldiers and read them poems when they were being treated in the field hospitals. He read about the brutality of war and the courage to fight and survive. Author D. H. Lawrence believed that writing poetry leads to self-understanding, and called writing a way to “shed one’s sicknesses.”
When we set out to write for healing or engage in poetry therapy, it’s primarily about exploring feelings and tapping into memories that might be hidden in the psyche. In the process, individuals can engage in self-discovery and increase their sense of self-awareness. In addition, when we write down our feelings, we’re giving a voice to them as well as validating them.
The best poems are written from the heart and are most often written when we have a sense of heightened emotions about something. They are raw, and the poems serve as forms of release. Writing poetry also helps us achieve a sense of clarity about our situations.
As poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her book Ten Windows, “A good poem is comprehensive and thirsty. It pulls towards what is invisible to an overly directed looking, toward what is protean, volatile, unprotected, and several-handed."
How to Use Poetry Therapy
If you’re a therapist, here are some ways to help your clients embark on the poetry-writing process:
- Encourage them to keep a journal and to highlight important entries.
- Make note where words “sing” and where there are true feelings to capture.
- Have them tell stories with the poems or to choose themes.
- Encourage them to paint images with their words.
- Suggest that they read their poems out loud to hear and fix the rhythm.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Fox, J. (1995). Finding What You Didn’t Lose. New York, NY: J.P. Tarcher.
Hirshfield, J. (2017). Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. New York, NY: Knopf.