About Poetry Therapy

The term Poetry Therapy refers to the use of poetry
to promote healing and personal growth

 

 History

The use of language for the purpose of healing has a chequered history – a case of ancient wisdom having been discarded in favour of more advanced or ‘civilised’ practices, only to be rediscovered in modern times and found to have a firm basis in science.

Primitive societies made use of rituals in which shamans chanted runes or spells for the wellbeing of their community or an individual. The ancient Egyptians showed that they knew the power of the Word when they wrote healing remedies on papyrus which was then soaked in water and the liquid drunk by the patient so as to accelerate healing.

In Greek and Roman myth, Apollo was the god of both poetry and medicine (among other attributes), suggesting that the two arts were linked from earliest times. The Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote that ‘Words are the physicians of the mind diseased’, and the first known use of verse to treat the mentally ill was by the first-century Roman physician Soranus, who prescribed comic (verse) theatre for patients who were depressed and tragic for those afflicted by mania.

From the fall of the Roman Empire until modern times the Christian church exploited the power of language to an extraordinary degree in the form of collective recital of prayers in the Mass, hymns, litanies, rosaries, blessings, and absolution of sins in the Confessional – part of the ostensible purpose of which was the purification of the soul, but with the undoubted side-effect of healing psychological distress and even alleviating physical pain.

An interesting early revival of literature and poetry therapy occurred in 1751 with the foundation by Benjamin Franklin of the first hospital in the United States, the Pennsylvania Hospital, where reading and creative writing were prescribed as ancillary treatments for mental illness.

In modern times recognition of the power of poetry began with the psychologists Freud, Adler, Jung and others – it was Freud who said ‘It was not I, but the poet who discovered the subconscious’ – though only later did physicians identify the use of poetry in medicine as ‘poetry therapy’. In the USA in the 1960s and 70s ‘group therapy’ became popular, along with group discussion of therapeutic poetry, and in 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was founded (now the National Association for Poetry Therapy).

British healthcare was slow to catch up with the American movement, but since the 1990s the arts (including poetry) have found their place in hospitals and now in humanities courses in medical schools, and the Poetry Society’s ‘Poetry Places’ scheme has facilitated many innovative poetry-in-health projects in hospitals, care homes and GPs’ surgeries.

 

What is Poetry Therapy?

There are two distinct forms of poetry therapy normally used in healthcare. The first involves reading and discussing poems carefully chosen to reflect or focus on a person’s or group’s psychological state or needs. In the second, participants write their own poetry, putting in tangible form their thoughts and feelings so as to ease their anxieties and further their understanding of and confidence in themselves. Both forms are normally conducted by a ‘facilitator’ or ‘poetry therapist’.

But there is a third way of making therapeutic use of poetry. It involves spending time alone with a poem that is relevant to the reader’s situation, and contemplating or meditating on it many times over a period of time. A good poem is the distillation of a poet’s highest thought and imagination, expressed in the most potent words he or she can command, and it can often take many readings for the reader to absorb its full meaning. If it is a poem you respond to strongly, the more often you read it – especially if you can read it aloud – the more it will enter your memory and subconscious mind, until it becomes almost part of your own emotional experience. You may find yourself entering into a hypnotic exchange with it, not only enlarging its meaning as it makes more and more connections with your experience and imagination, but making it increasingly powerful whenever you return to it. It will strengthen your emotional reserves and induce in you a state of calm, acting as a restorative in times of distress.

 

Sources of therapeutic poems

This website aims to support the therapeutic use of poetry in relation to illness in two ways:
1) by identifying poems which I and others have found most helpful in coping with our illnesses, listing those that are contained in my anthology Through Corridors of Light (many of these are also on the internet);
and 2) by displaying poems suggested by visitors to this site which they have found particularly helpful. You can see those sent in so far by going to the Visitors’ Page, where you can also enter your own Poem Suggestions.

For further sources of therapeutic poetry, and books about the use of poetry in therapy, go to Books & Links.

 

Through Corridors of Light jacket

Through Corridors of Light

Poems of Consolation in Time of Illness

Royalties to be donated to ME Research UK

232pp attractively illustrated throughout with line drawings.
Published in the UK by Lion Hudson @£9.99 and
in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing @$14.00
or order direct from me @£7.99 post free (UK customers).
To pay by cheque, or for overseas customers to ascertain postal cost, please contact me.