Though poetry as therapy is a relatively new development in the expressive arts, it is as old as the first chants sung around the tribal fires of primitive peoples. The chant/ song/poem is what heals the heart and soul. Even the word psychology suggests that, psyche meaning soul and logos speech or word. In mythology, Oceanus told Prometheus, "Words are the physician of the mind diseased."
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. But both use the same tools and techniques; language, rhythm, metaphor, sound, and image, to name a few. In the end, the result is often the same. The word "therapy," after all, comes from the Greek word therapeia meaning to nurse or cure through dance, song, poem and drama, that is the expressive arts. The Greeks have told us that Asclepius, the god of healing, was the son of Apollo, god of poetry, medicine and the arts historically entwined.
The term "bibliotherapy" is a more common term than poetry therapy, which became popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which literally means the use of literature to serve or help. Freud once wrote, "Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious." Poetry writing more than any other genre, resists the mind of everyone but the individual, the creative Self, the "I." In the years that I have been writing poetry with many different individuals and groups, I have come to respect more and more the indefinable place from which the poem comes, and the ability of each individual to travel to that source of creativity easily and naturally. A poem has much to teach us about ourselves and the world, as form and sound give rise to silence. One of the benefits of poetry reading and writing is not only does it help define the "I", but strengthen it. This is necessary if we are to be a part of the world. The process attaches us to the greater part of ourselves, to all that is whole and good and beautiful. And when we feel ourselves as not alone in the world, but a part of and integrated with all that exists, self-esteem grows.
In looking at a poem from a therapeutic view, the emotional issues in a poem are explored and discussed. The poem is not evaluated from a literary perspective, however the music of the language and the ability of the poem to communicate from one person to another is very important. When people are closest to their hearts speaking their truth, the poetry therapist will write down what they say and give them their words as a poem to be cherished and valued. There is no judgment or criticism, only a listening. In poetry as therapy, people learn to listen to themselves more and more, and to respect their voice. When we hear another’s words that meet our experience, there is comfort in that. How often have we said to another, "I have often felt that way but could never find the words."
There are many ways to be with poetry in a healing way: to read another’s poems, discuss how they speak of your experience, and to write your own words and explore the issues, spoken or hidden. Often in discussion, another feeling will rise which gives thought to the next poem. In poetry, images rise from the unconscious which often gives birth to memory and words come. This process brings clarity and order to what is chaotic or not understandable. When we are able to connect with something deep within and express it, there is a sense of relief and satisfaction in communicating first with ourselves and then another person. You are invited to check out The National Association of Poetry Therapy web site at www.poetrytherapy.org, the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy (www.infbpt.com) or contact Perie at Perie@west.net.
Other articles and interviews by Dr. Longo about poetry therapy can be found on the internet at the following links:
Huffington Post "Can Poetry Heal?" (Nov. 23, 2008)
Following is an excerpt from the introduction of her chapter in the text book titled Introduction to Alternative and Complementary Therapies edited by Anne L. Strozier and Joyce Carpenter (NY and London: Haworth Press/Taylor and Francis Group, 2008) titled “Tearing the Darkness Down: Poetry as Therapy.”
I didn’t trust it for a moment
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.
It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.
—Lalla, 14th century, Persian
From the time we are conceived in our mother’s womb, we are born to the rhythm of the heart, the movement of step. We grow in the fluid darkness taking nourishment from the placenta, stretching and kicking until one day we work our way into light, a fully formed human being ready to take on life. Already the makings of poetry are part of our nature. With our first cry we make our first poem, with one breath and the next, a sound that reverberates in our mother’s heart and when she cries in response, we hear our first poem. And so it continues, the voices of those who care for us convey all the emotions we will come to know as our own, words that if written down would be poetry. It’s that simple. Poetry is giving sound and rhythm to silence, to darkness, giving it a shape, turning it to light. When we read a poem that speaks to our experience, there is a shift, a click within. Someone has understood our darkness by naming their own. We feel less alone. When we harness emotion to the page, we understand ourselves better, and eventually others. Therapeutically, the “I” of us gathers energy and insight. Our world expands.
When I was very young, my father would sit me on his lap before bedtime, bounce me on his knee and recite Longfellow’s “Listen my child and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” I can still feel the rhythms burrowing into my body. I would take this pleasure into sleep, no longer afraid of the darkness, and listen to my thoughts. Later on, in early elementary school days, when I would get bored in school, I would start moving my feet to some rhythm and words would come to me. Though I didn’t write them down, I would be comforted and able to return to the moment. It is poetry’s nature to comfort and sustain, through rhythm, which has the power to unlock emotion. Poetry has been my friend, and guide, and fortification ever since. Through writing poetry, I have come to know myself.
I have learned to speak my voice. Only a few hours after the tragedy of 9/11, I heard Billy Collins, the United States Poet Laureate at the time, interviewed on NPR. As I drove my car to school in a fog, the billowing smoke I saw on television still in my vision, feeling numb, I heard the interviewer say that it is during times of tragedy we turn to poetry. Was there one he would recommend? Collins replied he would read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” which contains the line “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” (Oliver, 1993). With these words I took a deep breath, relieved that what we all felt was being honored. We would speak our despair and speak our stories in an attempt to assuage our shock and loss, to try and understand, make sense of the impossible, to look for the meaning in such horror. We would try to find words for the mystery. That is what has drawn many of us to the field of poetry therapy. . .
I had been working for a year through California-Poets-in-the-Schools and was so taken with the therapeutic benefit of children’s written response to hearing good poetry, that I returned to school to get my degree in psychology. I wanted to know how poetry helped children shine. Each week when I came to teach a class, they would applaud and yell “Poetry Time.” One child wrote, “Poetry is better than Disneyland.” Often I would observe the shyest children transform until s/he couldn’t wait to read a personal poem. Children often wrote about poetry that it “makes me feel better about myself.” Teachers often commented to me how children who often had the most difficulty with language in school are the ones who gain the most from the poetry classes…Often I have heard people say “poetry saved my life.” Dr. Jack J. Leedy has said,
Poetry is the royal road to the unconscious and a natural healing vehicle to encouraging communication…a secret power and an untapped national resource for healing. Poetry is a guide to the hidden mind and to a more creative and enriching life. (Leedy, p. xxii, 1985)