Example poetry

Poetry: the healing power of words


One of the best breakup tips my friend Genna gave me during a tumultuous end to a long-term relationship was to write poetry.

Desperate in my grief, I was ready to try anything. As Emily Dickinson wisely advised:

Not knowing when the dawn will come

I open all the doors

I wrote over two dozen poems in the following weeks. Artistically speaking, they were very poor, but as a tool for dealing with the great emotions of a difficult time, the poems were very successful. Writing them was cathartic and sometimes revealing.

Many years later – and with a completely healed heart, I am happy to report – emerging scientific research on the wellness potential of poetry supports my personal experience.

Interested in the effectiveness of poetry in combating loneliness, especially at the start of the isolation period of the Covid-19 pandemic, David Haosen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi wrote a 2020 article in the Journal of Medical Humanities inspired by their experience in leading poetry workshops.

Xiang and Yi, then students at Harvard Medical School and Harvard College, respectively, cited a number of studies (some with small sample sizes, admittedly) showing various health benefits of reading, writing, and listening to poetry and creative non-fiction. They have been shown to combat symptoms of stress and depression, as well as reduce pain, both chronic and post-surgery, the authors pointed out. Poetry has also been shown to improve mood, memory, and job performance.

Separately, a 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that a group of 44 hospitalized children who were encouraged to read and write poetry saw reductions in fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue. Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for introspection, the researchers concluded.

Speech poet Sekou Andrews demonstrated the power words can have in difficult times when you may feel broken, at the recent Life Itself conference, a health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN . In a “poetic voice” presentation, he shared with the audience a story about his and his wife’s struggles and loss of infertility. As Andrews explained on stage:

All inspiration is truly a peephole into possibility.

There is a wall and then ssuddenly something shakes him, disturbs him,

And there’s a crack that appears

And you can see something on the other side.

And there’s power in just being able to say,

“I see him!”

“Whether coping with pain, managing stressful situations, or embracing uncertainty, poetry can benefit a person’s well-being, confidence, emotional stability, and quality of life. ‘a patient,’ Xiang and Yi wrote.

Poetry’s ability to provide comfort and lift the mood during times of stress, trauma, and grief can have a lot to do with framing and perspective.

As a creative device, poems slow our reaction to an experience and can alter our perception of it in ways that help us find new angles, go further. It can strengthen our sense of identity and connect us to the experiences of others to foster empathy.

“I always say you don’t hire the poet to hit the bull’s eye for you,” Andrews explained in an email. “You hire the poet to whisper in your ear, tap you on the shoulder, make you turn around and see an unexpected, surprising and inspiring version of yourself.”

The medium also has a unique way of getting to the heart of the matter – “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes”, wrote the French poet Joseph Roux – because metaphor and imagery are uniquely suited to capture and synthesize emotions.

“And the abstract nature of poetry can facilitate the careful examination of painful experiences, which might seem too threatening to be addressed in a direct and literal way,” wrote Linda Wasmer Andrews in an article on the practice of poetry therapy. poetry in psychology today.

Poetry can also elicit peak emotional responses. In 2017 studythe researchers measured 27 people for their psychophysiological responses (such as chills or goosebumps) hearing poetry read aloud. These physical responses are linked to the area of ​​the brain that detects rewards, the study explains.

In his poem “For the Interim Time”, John O’Donohue describes this kind of cerebral alchemy:

What transfigures here in your mind,

And it is difficult and slow to become new.

More faithfully you can endure here,

The more refined your heart will become

For your arrival in the new dawn.

Read, write and listen. These are the main options to infuse your life with more poetry.

To expose yourself to something new, visit open-mic nights (real or in-person), or try the daily (and short) poetry podcast The Slowdown from American Public Media and the National Endowment for the Arts, or subscribe subscribe to its newsletter. There are other poetry podcasts as well.

And try an accessible collection. Actor John Lithgow has compiled an introductory primer in the book “Poets’ corner: the unique poetry book for the whole family.” Personally, I like Shel Silverstein, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds, and John O’Donohue if you want to go deeper with a poet and be perpetually entertained and enlightened.

And to write it, you don’t need any formal training to begin with. You may like to try different styles (like haiku) and experiment. The Read Poetry community site has a charm guide to some creative exercises you might find some inspiration.

“Write. Just talk. Don’t worry about it being good for you, you’ll get there. First of all, let it be good for you,” Andrews said.

But no matter how you engage, just walk in and start looking for what you need. Or as the poet Billy Collins wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:

…walk inside the poem room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

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