Through 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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