My purpose in this paper is to help you experience for yourself the potential of poetry to heal by feeling its power through your own voice. Many people have an intuitive sense that voice in general and poetry in particular can be healing. We have all experienced the comfort of soothing words. Finding the words to articulate a traumatic experience can bring relief. A letter between friends who are fighting can heal a relational wound. People are frequently moved to write a poem in times of extremity. In mainstream culture there are subjects that are not talked about. They are taboo. For example, each of us is going to die, but we do not talk about dying. We are all in the dialogue of illness, death and dying, whether or not we are talking about it. Poetry gives us ways to talk about it. Multiple ways of utilizing poetry for healing, growth and transformation will be presented including the Poetry and Brain Cancer project at UCLA. Particular attention will be given to issues of Palliative care. The reader will be directed to the scientific evidence of the efficacy of utilizing expressive writing. The developing professional field of Poetry Therapy, and The National Association for Poetry Therapy will be discussed.
Keywords: poetry therapy, poetry and healing, voice and healing, poetry and medicine
My purpose in this paper is to help you experience for yourself the potential of poetry to heal by experiencing the power of poetry through your own voice.
In the United States many people are scared of poetry. They have had bad experiences with it in school. People often believe that poetry is difficult or inaccessible or not relevant to them.
Modern poetry is based on voice, and must be passed through our ears. This is where the sense is made. So, when you read this article and you see poetry
Read it aloud
pass it through your ears
the difference between poetry and prose
is that poetry is broken
that is all.
When we speak, we use pauses and phrasing. When we speak, we breathe. When we write poetry, we have punctuation and line breaks. The line breaks are there to help the reader find the natural flow of poetry based on voice.
As you read poetry aloud
do it so that you are breathing
Let the sense of the poetry emerge
from your response to the rhythms
and tonal variations of the sound
as well as the meaning of the words.
The passage below is derived from a conversation I had with poet Li-Young Lee on the relationship between poetry and breath and life and death. When you read the passage, pause after each line and take a breath in. Feel for yourself the emergent meaning.
All of language is spoken on the out breath
All of life begins on the in
All of death is spoken on the out breath
All of life begins on the in
Poetry as a Natural Healing Practice
Many people have an intuitive sense that voice in general and poetry in particular can be healing. We have all had the experience of the comfort of soothing words. Finding the words to articulate a traumatic experience can bring relief. A letter between friends who are fighting can heal a relational wound. Poetry can spring from us naturally in times of need. People are frequently moved to write a poem in times of extremity.
In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, poetry sprang up everywhere. A New York Times article on October 1, 2001, documented the phenomenon: “In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way … Improvised memorials often conceived around poems sprang up all over the city, in store windows, at bus stops, in Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Heights, and elsewhere. …”
Some catastrophes are so large, they seem to overwhelm ordinary language. Immediately after the recent tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, the Los Angeles Times reported the witnesses were literally dumbstruck. Words failed them. They had lost their voices.
In mainstream culture, there are subjects we do not talk about. They are taboo. For example, even though each of us is going to die, we don't talk about dying. Instead, we avoid it. Even physicians are reluctant to talk with terminally ill patients about the patient's experience, however,
We are all in the dialogue
whether or not we are talking about it.
Poetry gives us ways to talk about it. My job as a poetry therapist is to use poetry and voice to help people get access to the wisdom they already have but cannot experience because they cannot find the words in ordinary language.
William Carlos Williams was a poet and a physician. He is credited with making voice the basis of modern poetry. He wrote in his poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower (1 )
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Two years ago, I was asked to pair poets with brain cancer patients at UCLA in the Department of Neuro-Oncology, so that the poets could help the patients find the words to articulate their experiences. One patient reported his dilemma following brain surgery to remove his cancer,
I felt I lost my edge
and then I lost my place
but the tragedy is
I have so much to say.
Although illness is usually discussed in terms of a patient's symptoms, deficit, or impairment, it is also about how people respond when faced with extreme
circumstances and what they have to tell and teach us. One of the poems that came out of the poetry and brain cancer project was “Amazing Change” (2 ).
We can go through amazing changes
She and her husband and the guides
She struggled and struggled.
Eventually she won the guides over
and everyone was rooting for her
but there came a point when
she couldn't go on, so
she laid down on the grass
and when she did, the gorillas
came out of the jungle
If you didn't read this poem aloud, do so now. What is your experience of reading this poem? How is it relevant to you? Do you identify with the woman or, perhaps, the husband or the guides or even the gorillas? Can you visualize the images, see the people trekking along, then lying down in the grass? What sounds can you hear? What is the smell of the jungle? What physical sensations do you feel in your body as the poem unfolds? What happens to your breathing when you read the last lines? How did the transformation that happened at the end of the poem affect you? Did you have any associations to the poem about a situation in your own life?
Whatever your experiences of reading this poem, they are examples of the ways that poetry works. It gets into us and plays through our psycho/neuro/immuno-sensory selves.
In other words
poetry has ways of working
that get under our skin,
which is to say
it has ways
to get in.
All of my professional life, I have used language embodied in voice as part of my medicine. Whether it was an attempt to talk someone through a traumatic experience or to help them understand the implications of their diagnosis or to aid them in finding the words to write their own stories and poetry, I have encouraged patients to speak and write their truths. At the same time, I have learned from them. One of the privileges of being clinicians is that we have a place in our patients' lives as they live through experiences that we may have yet to face ourselves.
It is becoming more and more common for people dealing with serious illnesses to write and publish their stories and poems as their own healing practice (3 –11 ). Many physicians and other health care providers have joined in writing their own personal experiences with illness, death and dying (12 –19 ).
So, it may be difficult
to get the news
but it is becoming
more and more
Poetry and Therapy
In my private practice of family psychiatry, I often ask whether my patients do any writing and for what purpose. In my work with them, I support their writing and encourage its use whether it is through poetry, journals or personal letters. I encourage bringing the writing in as material for discussion, and I may make suggestions. For example, Writing in the third person gives distance to your voice, so try writing in the first person. I also sometimes gives assignments. For example, write what you are having difficulty saying, or bring in a poem which is particularly meaningful to you. This can then become a springboard for discussion and exploration. The poem “I Can't” by Carlene Shaff represents a turning point in her treatment, facilitated by using poetry therapy, and documented in her poem “I Can't.”
I can't. I just can't. I can't do it all.
I can't be all things to all people
At all times and under all circumstances.
I can't be the one to always change my plans to suit another's.
I can't be the one to pick up after others all the time.
I can't work all day and stop at the grocery and cook dinner
And have it ready by 6:30.
I can't carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.
I need some support, too, and a rest.
I can't; can't, can't cantaloupe, can't canticle, can't cantilever,
Cantina, cantata, cantankerous, cannon,
Canape, canard, candelabra, can… can…,
Can I? Can I just do it? Can I do it all?
Can I ration my time to allow for my priorities?
Can I ask others to share the burdens?
Can I refuse this role of superwoman?
Can I just ‘say no?’
I can. I can just say no. I can just say,
“I'm out of the business of doing it all.”
I can take time for myself to breathe
And dream or just sit quietly.
And I will!
Did you experience the change that Carlene went through? Poetry therapy is not only used with individuals. It is frequently used in groups. Shahin Sakhi, a psychiatrist who attended a poetry therapy seminar, told me he had never previously written a poem or any other type of expressive writing. The first words he wrote were (19 ):
I am tired.
I have died so many times in so many ways.
I am tired of dying, dying again and again… .
The first death I remember is the beheading
of my pet pigeon
By my father
In the basement.
It was the first time he had shared this experience. Finding the words to express it was a deeply healing experience for Shahin, and his relief was palpable.
If the group's focus is on a particular theme, for example, cancer, I might use poems that relate directly to the illness. My poem “Eileen” is an account of an incident related to me by a friend that occurred between a mother and her daughter.
for the next six months.