How Does Poetry Therapy Work?
What does a poetry therapy session consist of, and what can the trained practitioner bring to the creative encounter? To mark National Poetry Day in the UK, writer and trained poetry therapist Victoria Field considers how both reading and writing poems can promote health and wellbeing – and suggests we psychotherapists pick up our pens.
Poems are everywhere. They are hidden in handbags and pinned up in kitchens. People read them at funerals and baptisms, circulate them on social media and share them with friends. Sales of poetry books have never been higher thanks partly to young performance poets but also, some say, because increasing uncertainty in the modern world draws us to writing that moves beyond the everyday.
A poem is typically concise, often memorable and can sometimes say what we are feeling better than we can ourselves. The words may seem simple but there’s usually a hinterland of emotion and association that connect with us at a deep level.
Writing our own poems can also be therapeutic, whether or not we choose to share them. The work of James Pennebaker on expressive writing has demonstrated that putting pen to paper can have multiple benefits. His subjects not only had better mental health, but showed improvements in conditions as varied as asthma and arthritis. There’s a natural tendency to want to write poems at times of heightened emotion, and many people who don’t consider themselves writers will do so. It might be in response to happy events such as falling in love or the birth of a child, or in the face of tragedy, such as school shootings or the death of Princess Diana, where numerous poems are placed among the piled-up flowers.
How does poetry therapy work?
The practice of poetry therapy harnesses these natural impulses to engage with words that are meaningful and to express what’s in our hearts. A typical session might last an hour or two and include some warm-up writing to get the pen moving on the paper, something many of us do less and less of in this age of screens and keyboards. We’ll then read a poem, out loud and often several times. The human voice is a beautiful instrument and infinitely varied and the poem on the page becomes a living entity when we hear it in the moment.
Then there’s discussion. Reading is an active process where the reader brings all of their experience, ideas, emotions and assumptions to someone else’s words. It gets interesting when people disagree, some saying the poem is sad or bitter, another thinking it’s nailed the truth, and someone else finding it comforting or humorous. And as we get older, we often find new depths in familiar poems.
After the reading, participants in a poetry therapy group are invited to write their own poems in response. ‘Poem’ is used loosely to mean a short, emotionally meaningful text and the emphasis is on spontaneity, typically writing for no more than 10 minutes. We share our writing orally so concerns about grammar, spelling or literary merit can be safely forgotten. There are often profound insights at this point, as if the writer, to paraphrase a famous essay by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, has lowered a bucket into the well of the unconscious and brought up clear water or treasure. Of course, sometimes the bucket might be full of weeds or murky water and that’s when having a trained practitioner to hold the space and work with what appears is recommended.
A poem, whether our own or someone else’s, can act as a mirror. What we see may be challenging. Someone trained in poetry therapy might suggest further writing to deepen a response, or perhaps creating a new version of the poem and seeing how that sits with the writer. An important message is that our writing is always provisional, reflecting a particular moment in time, and we can always find new meanings or different ways of storying our experience. This can be helpful when people may have a tendency to ruminate or feel stuck in some way. A poem can offer a new way of looking at life and a chance to experiment with alternative courses of action.
From practitioner to poet…
So on National Poetry Day, I would encourage everyone working in psychotherapy and related fields to seek out a poem and read it aloud. If there’s someone nearby, ask them to read it too, and have a conversation about how it speaks to you. Perhaps there’s a line or an image that particularly strikes you. Use that as the opening line for your own poem, and see what emerges. Treat your writing with tender curiosity – don’t judge it but ask what you notice and what that might suggest, about either your own inner world or that of your clients.