Can a Poem Be Healing? Writing Poetry Through the Pain

Photo of legs and feet of person who is holding a journal on lap and writing on sandy beachThrough my years as a therapist, I have been amazed at how frequently people who come to see me for therapy write poetry. Yet, this should not be surprising. As Hoffman and Granger (2015) wrote, “Before there was psychotherapy, there was poetry, which can be recognized as one of the oldest healing arts that has been utilized across many different cultures throughout history” (p. 16).

As long as people suffer, there will be poetry. But why are people drawn to poetry when they hurt? As I will discuss, there are many ways poetry parallels traditional therapy. Even if you have never written poetry before or do not feel you are a good poet, you may find there are healing and growth benefits from engaging in this practice.

Release

One of the reasons therapy is effective is it provides an emotional release. When emotions are held in, they do not go away and may impact individuals more than they realize. It is common to hear people report feeling relief or even a lightness after a therapy session. Much of this has to do with the release.

Poetry is often written during times when people are feeling intense emotions. In fact, the emotions often drive the poetry. Much like a good conversation or therapy session, poetry can provide a release. It is important, though, to not mistake an emotional release with solving the problem. While the release may help get to a place where the problem can be seen and experienced differently, the release rarely solves the problem.

Processing Emotions

Therapists love to talk about “processing emotions,” yet even therapists often struggle to explain what they mean by this. The master therapist James Bugental (1987) described processing as involving going in and out of the emotional experience while connecting this to meaning, or making sense from the emotions. In this conception, there are two parts of processing emotions. First, it is important to feel or experience the emotion. Second, it is important to think about the emotions and make meaning of the emotional experience.

This, too, closely parallels the experience of many people who write poetry, especially when the poem begins with an experience of suffering. Poems often emerge in the midst of strong emotions. While part of what the poem does is describe the painful experience vividly and creatively, there is often a component of trying to make sense of the experience through understanding it more fully or through finding meaning in the suffering. When this second component is part of the writing process or the reflections on the poem, it closely parallels therapy.

There are therapists who specialize in what is called poetry therapy, which is one avenue to use poetry toward healing. However, even if poetry is not the primary focus of therapy, it can be incorporated into the process if the therapist is open to this.

Awareness and Insight

Processing emotions often leads to greater self-awareness and new insights. There are many ways poetry can bring new insights. For example, when I write a poem from a strong emotional experience, I generally try to lay it aside for at least a day or two and then return to it. Often, when I return to it, I discover new elements of the poem that I had not originally considered. For example, I might reflect more on a word choice or a symbol that emerged naturally in the creative process. Through this, I might consider new meanings in my experience.

Similarly, sharing a poem with a close friend or therapist may lead to feedback that fosters new insights. When sharing a poem written for healing purposes, it is not about seeking feedback on the artistic or writing quality; rather, it is about exploring the meaning and significance of the poem in one’s life.

Using Poetry for Healing and Growth

There are many ways individuals can use poetry intentionally for healing and growth. There are therapists who specialize in what is called poetry therapy, which is one avenue to use poetry toward healing. However, even if poetry is not the primary focus of therapy, it can be incorporated into the process if the therapist is open to this.

Poetry also can be used toward healing and growth on one’s own. Here are a few suggestions for those who want to be more intentional about using poetry for healing and growth:

  1. Do not worry about the quality of the poem. If your focus is on creating a great poem, this may interfere with the healing quality of the poem.
  2. Try to deeply engage your emotions when you begin writing the poem. Let the poem emerge from the emotional space. This can be a beautiful way of inviting your emotions to be more present in your life without any judgment of the emotions.
  3. Try writing different styles of poetry. You can try out different books of poetry for healing and experiment with the varied styles of poems you find in these books.
  4. Explore your expressions with others. You may share your poems with a trusted friend or your therapist, inviting their reflections on the meaning or significance of the poem.
  5. Write and rewrite a poem over time. If you keep the different versions, you can compare them and see how they reflect different places in your journey with the issue you are struggling with.

References:

  1. Bugental, J. F. T. (1987). The art of the psychotherapist: How to develop the skills that take psychotherapy beyond science. New York, NY: Norton & Company.
  2. Hoffman, L., & Granger, N., Jr. (2015). Introduction. In L. Hoffman, & N. Granger, Jr. (Eds.), Stay awhile: Poetic narratives and multiculturalism and diversity (9-17). Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Louis Hoffman, PhD, therapist in Colorado Springs, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Vik

    Vik

    February 2nd, 2018 at 12:00 PM

    Ok for real though, poetry saved me. I was writing poems for high school English. I had one of those hippy teachers who lets kids sit on the floor, has Friday journal time, yada yada. I thought the assignment was a joke, so I wrote down whatever. I thought the teacher would be mad, but he called me after class and asked if i was ok. I’d written a lot about how stupid everything was and life was pain. I was millenial Holden Caufield. He asked if I was depressed, and i said no, i didn’t care about anything. He said that was a sign of depression, recommended me to the school counselor, who had already been itching to send me to a therapist. I got some treatment, and I actually feel like life has a point again.

  • Bethany J.

    Bethany J.

    February 5th, 2018 at 11:08 AM

    When I’m stressed I write Haikus as a way to be mindful and center myself
    I like focusing on nature and beauty in my poems to shut out the negative. Sometimes I will write 10 or 15 poems a night before bed as a way to relax and clear my brain clutter.

  • aspiring writer

    aspiring writer

    February 6th, 2018 at 11:20 AM

    The answer is definitely yes, poetry can help :)

  • John

    John

    April 17th, 2018 at 5:45 AM

    My brother died last week. Writing helped. Writing poetry helps in certain ways that essays do not.
    I’m moving forward
    Flying on
    Putting the past
    Behind me now
    Letting
    Go of all the pain

    I’m moving forward
    Up into the blue
    soaring
    Beyond limits
    holding me back
    Kaleidoscopic
    imperfections
    I live within
    To survive

    I’m moving forward
    Honoring the cuts & the scars
    Without staring at them
    Ever revising the world anew
    Out of the black
    & into the blue

    Embracing fear
    All of the dark that is near
    & the light buried there
    Grounded by poetry
    & love
    & those with me on this crazy
    Amazing journey

    He’s moving forward
    Beyond the tree tops
    The clouds, the sun
    & the stars, time & space
    Into memory to
    The myths & legends
    Of the mind

    He has flown
    Where he never
    flew before
    Where ever
    he wants to go
    now
    Braver
    Than I
    could’ve wished for
    Gone
    Out of sight
    Into the light
    Done
    with the good fight
    Good
    while the desire lasted
    And that spark jumps
    Out of the fire
    Igniting
    Another dead soul into action
    Evidence of a life lived

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