Transcendence and Transformation with Poetry
Here's to honoring April as National Poetry Month.
Posted April 19, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Poetry is the voice of the soul and offers insight into the human psyche and human behavior.
- Poetry therapy can be a powerful tool for psychotherapists.
- Poetry for healing has deep roots in American history dating back to Walt Whitman reading poems to wounded soldiers.
April is National Poetry Month and as a poet and research psychologist, it’s my favorite time of year to discover and promote the joys and transformative powers of this art form. After all, poetry is the voice of the soul.
What Is Poetry?
Reading and writing poetry offers insight into the human psyche and human behavior. Poets help us see a slice of the world in a way we might not have viewed it before. Poetry provides a place for our imagination to roam free. Our life experiences give us plenty to write about. The fact is, that without our bodies, we would not exist if we were unable to imagine who we are, and who we could become. It’s been said that if we kill the imagination, then our psyches are also at risk of dying.
Why Poetry Is Powerful
Poetry is powerful because it succinctly puts a voice to innermost feelings, and thus can be a great tool for psychotherapists. People tend to write poetry when in the midst of powerful emotions. Poetry helps provide a dialogue for what the poet is experiencing. Some of the best poems incorporate deep emotions and/or poignant images. Many poets write poems to help them navigate challenging times or times when rage might emerge. For some poets, it’s the rage or life challenge that ignites their passion for writing poetry and also serves as a way to bring forth deep insights.
In Poetry and Story Therapy, Chavis tells us the mere act of putting words on the page can encourage self-esteem and be a 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 can help simplify what seems to be a complicated situation.
The Healing and Transformative Power of Poetry
The healing and transformative power of poetry has many roots in American history. During The Civil War, Walt Whitman read his poems to wounded soldiers. His writing highlighted war, courage, and military life. There have been many physicians who were also poets. William Carlos Williams 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. In an article published in the New York Times, writer Pauline Chen, M.D., referred to “The Doctor as Poet,” and explains how poetry can help physicians empathize and understand what a patient is going through.
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 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.
Poetry therapy has become increasingly more commonplace in clinical practice, mainly because writing poems is a wonderful way to get feelings on the page as a way to capture and tap into what is going on inside. It’s especially useful for those who tend to be more introverted and have difficulty verbally expressing themselves. Humanist psychologist Rollo May says in his book, The Courage to Create, that we write poetry for our delight and deepening, and as a way to enlarge the meaning in our lives. It is also a powerful means of self-expression which can lead to transcendence, transformation, and growth.
Tips on Writing Poetry
The best poems begin with a powerful feeling, image, or event. The specificity and vividness of the language in a poem are what make it poignant to read. It takes a lot of courage to write poetry because it’s writing that comes from the heart. It’s about letting go of the rational mind and allowing sensations and emotions to take over. To do this, it’s important to be in touch with all five senses when writing; readers should be able to imagine what the poet sees, hears, smells, tastes and touches. For example, when describing a perfume, consider whether it’s musty, floral, or pungent. Detailed writing also uses metaphors and refrains from using clichés. For writers, this is known as showing instead of telling.
Poets sometimes refer to the word duende, which is a Spanish word referring to the spirit or quality of passion and inspiration. When it comes to writing poetry, duende is about writing with soul or in a heightened state of emotion. Poems written with duende can make you laugh, cry, or reflect, and in one way or another give you a sort of bodily reaction (e.g. chills).
In poetry, every word is critical. The best poets master details such as specificity and clarity in their writing. For example, instead of using “tree," they’d write “elm tree.” Or, instead of saying, “bird,” they’d use “robin.” The idea in poetry is to create an image with words. If you want to start creating these images, then begin with an idea or thing and take it from there.
Writing Prompt: At the top of your page, write, “I confess” and write a poem on something you feel strongly about, incorporating into your words a deep sense of that passion. Remember to create an image with your words and try to include all of your senses and just keep writing to see where the poem goes.
Chavis, G. G. (2011). Poetry and Story Therapy. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Freeman, M. (1993). Rewrite the Self. London, England: Routledge.
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.
Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss: A Seven Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.