Poetry as Therapy: Healer or Hype?

“Let me see what I wrote so I know what I think.” – W H Auden

Think back to a time where you felt lost. Perhaps you’d gone through a break-up. Lost a job. Perhaps you just couldn’t explain why; your mood was just low. How many times, feeling helpless, did you seek comfort in books? Films? Music? (Don’t try and hide the break-up playlist – I promise you it won’t be as bad as mine).

When we’re sad, we need that human connection; that reassurance that someone has been there and felt it too. In my late teens, I read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Intensely autobiographical, the poems were a startlingly honest and powerful expression of the poet’s own mental anguish. I remember at the time quietly finding release in those words – Lady Lazarus, who makes “the theatrical / Comeback in broad day /To the same place, the same face, the same brute / Amused shout” and the girl in in Tulips, who sees herself as “flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow / Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips”. The experiences weren’t the same as mine; everyone’s situation is of course unique. But the knowledge that another human had felt lost, and transformed that negative feeling into art, helped me to feel less alone in working through difficult emotions. To this day, Plath remains one of those poets whose words I return to over and over like a trusted friend.

With every piece of art produced, there’s human expression in it. For every emotion, there’s a poem or a song that can offer us comfort or perhaps capture those hard-to-describe feelings of being in love or trap the essence of a fleeting childhood memory. There’s something in art that we can connect with on an emotional level. Just as traditional talking therapy does, art helps us work through challenging and overwhelming feelings.

And perhaps this is why poetry has long been a means of celebrating, mourning or marking events in society. It connects people through shared experience.
“At a local level, the village poet might be called on to craft an englyn for someone’s gravestone or might turn his or her hand to the making of a humorous cywydd, for recitation at a gathering in the pub, to celebrate Mrs Jones passing her driving test at the umpteenth attempt,” the late and great poet and lecturer Nigel Jenkins once told me. “At a more elevated level, the National Poet (currently Gillian Clarke) might be expected to voice the nation’s grief at a mining disaster or to echo its joy at winning the rugby Grand Slam.” Poems such as these have what Nigel refers to as a “ritualising power” in times of celebration and are just one example of how poetry can distill and express the emotions of a community as a whole.

“Frequently, poetry is a catharsis or a form of – not always self prescribed – therapy, often associated with moody teenagers, (one of which I can claim to have been),” agreed poet and lecturer Alan Kellerman. “How often, when faced with difficult circumstances, have people turned to verse? How many times has Dylan Thomas’s elegiac Do not go gentle into that good night been read at funerals?”

I was recently asked whether I agreed with a view that was expressed at this year’s Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine conference: that poetry is no more than a placebo or whether it can improve health and wellbeing. One view was that if poetry provides a language for illness, then it cannot be thought of as a cure. Personally, I would challenge this view. My poem, Gestalt Therapy, was commended for the Mental Health category at this year’s awards and the very act of writing that poem itself was an example in itself of how poetry can sometimes provide relief when traditional talking therapy fails to engage a patient. During an appointment, I was asked to take part in an ‘empty chair’ exercise, a form of Gestalt therapy which involves projecting the cause of your feelings onto an inanimate object. You must then tell that object exactly how you feel as a way of expressing your emotions in a safe environment.

All that happened was that I turned red, refused, and could barely speak for the rest of the session. However, upon reaching my car I began to scribble poetry onto the back of a receipt and by lunchtime I had my head stuck in a poetry book again, seeking comfort. I wanted to know that someone had felt the way I was feeling that day. The result was that I ended up working late into the night editing the poem, feeling lighter and more accomplished once it was complete. It was imagistic, it was slightly abstracted, but the words were a snapshot into what was happening within my own brain: confusion, disorder, frustration. It was something I could never have expressed verbally in any therapist’s office.

I have since continued to write in this style throughout the past year and the result is that I’ve become stronger, more clear-headed and able to cope better with difficult emotions. For me, as someone who has always turned to books and diary pages for comfort ever since I could read, connecting creatively with poetry has always been the thing that allows me to channel hard-to-express feelings into an art form I can feel proud of. Talking is something I often find difficult for fear of sounding ridiculous. But bit by bit, along with the support of people I love and a passion for running, literature has been one of my greatest healers.

This won’t be the same for everyone. Some people need more traditional psychological therapy. Some might see poetry as something of a supporting tool to have alongside medication, in the same way exercise can complement depression treatment for example. Some may instead turn to music or visual art. Others may get nothing out of poetry, music or art at all. It all depends on your unique situation and personality. There is no one magic pill; no one-size-fits-all solution.

In one psychological study, “brain scans are said to have revealed striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia. Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.” This is apparently a clue as to how creative people are able to think “outside the box”. And whilst studies are conducted and results often found to point towards a strong link between creativity and mental illness, it is important not to romanticize psychiatric disorders. While it is true that some people do find that their psychology enables them to create visions, it could also be that creativity serves as an outlet; a place of sanctuary when the mind is at its most chaotic. We could debate all day as to whether creativity is the cause or the cure, but it’s unfair to generalise. Art has a different significance to each individual. And I think that’s what makes it so beautiful.

So is poetry a healer or is it all hype? Are we wasting our time bringing art therapy to prisons, care homes, schools and counsellor’s offices? Can it really replace traditional psychological therapy or medication?

As fellow prizewinner and doctor Jonathan Richards said in response to the debate, poetry – like any art form – can be part of a personalised prescription rather than a sole cure. It’s important that we never lose sight of the fact that every individual is different and every situation unique. It’s what makes us human.

One response to “Poetry as Therapy: Healer or Hype?”

  1. An insightful post, thanks. I agree, words and the rituals we assign to them are not inert – they are prayers, spells, wishes, protective or damning or cathartic; to unite the self, or bring many people together; an invitation or invocation – or even a form of channelling.


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