What did Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Pope John Paul II and Marilyn Monroe have in common? As you may have guessed, they all wrote poetry. The question one could ask is – why? All were highly successful in their chosen careers which were demanding, stressful and far removed from literature. Did they see writing poetry as a therapy? Perhaps a relaxation, a means of expressing their true feelings, a way of coping with life’s difficulties, a way of defining who they really were, or what? All the above mentioned experienced great personal stress during their lives.
Can people use poetry to help them in such times of crisis? The ancient Greeks certainly believed so; one of the earliest Greek playwrights wrote that “words are the physician of the mind diseased”. And it’s surely no coincidence that Apollo was the god of both healing and the arts – these two things, the Greeks believed, go hand in hand.
People turn to poetry in times of trauma and great emotional upheaval; history is full of examples of this, from Homer’s Troy to the World War I poets. After 9/11 thousands of poems were written and posted at the site of the Twin Towers. After the school shootings at Columbine eyewitnesses and others closely affected were encouraged to use poetry to begin the healing process.
Poetry has been around since recorded history began; in fact, written history began with a poem. The very first poem was written on a clay tablet about 2000BC:
Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
You have captivated me,
Let me stand trembling before you;
I would be taken to your bedchamber.
It is not such a big jump from there to Sylvia Plath’s words, 4000 years later.
The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
Both these poems, I like to think, were written not just to give pleasure, but also to help the writer deal with their own emotions – a kind of therapy.
Here is another example of what I mean. This poem by Billy Collins is I think, a beautiful example of how the writer changes his own attitude and manages to turn a difficult situation into a joke:
Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House (part)
The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.
The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast….
……When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton
while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.
A poem that can make a chronically barking dog seem funny has got to be powerful therapy. It shows us that poetry can change the way we feel. The act of reading or writing poetry can either bring us an acceptance of our situation or it can be a catalyst for change. And acceptance and change are the basic processes of therapy.
Some practitioners in the field are coming to realise the importance of poetry as therapy; Sean Haldane, a poet and clinical neuropsychologist, says
‘I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy. If you read a poem and it gets to you, it can shift your perspective in quite a big way, and writing a poem, even more so.’
The power of poetry to calm, to inspire, to express feelings and to change them, and ultimately to heal, should not be underestimated. In our troubled world we need all the help that we can get.
Writing, reading or visualising poetry are methods being used increasingly in therapy, particularly in trauma cases. In Europe, using poetry as part of the addiction treatment process is less common than in the United States, where The National Federation for Poetry Therapy, incorporated in 1963, sets standards of excellence in the training and qualifying of practitioners.
Sir Thomas More. Fragment
Sumerian Clay Tablet – Istanbul Archeology Museum
Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath. First published in the August 1953 edition of Mademoiselle
Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House by Billy Collins. Publisher: University of Arkansas Press; 1 edition (February 1, 2006)
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