Book Therapy: Why poetry is one of the most powerful forms of therapy

Bijal Shah Monday 29th April 2019 11:58 EDT

April is National Poetry Month and naturally a great time to explore the immense therapeutic powers of poetry. Reading and writing poetry both engage our senses along with our emotions, making the art form experiential and hugely effective in connecting with our minds.

Both writing and reading poetry, through their expression of feelings and words have highly therapeutic effects on the mind.

The structure of a poem favours brevity yet the best poems also capture succinct detail, making them incredibly powerful in getting a message across to the reader. Writing poetry requires the poet to be extremely disciplined with his choice of words and the number of words, to create a sharp and accurate snapshot of what he or she is feeling. This combination of brevity and detail gives the reader open access to the poet’s mind and enables the reader to truly connect with the poet.

Writing poetry as therapy

Writing poetry requires us to be open and honest about our feelings so that we can voice them through pen and paper, which is the first step to truly expressing ourselves.

This acknowledgement of our innermost thoughts allows us to be true to ourselves and boosts our self-esteem (as beautifully explained by author Geri Giebel Chavis in Poetry and Story Therapy: The Healing Power of Creative Expression (Writing for Therapy or Personal Development) which I highly recommend).

The best poetry is written when we are truly in the midst of our emotions and struggling to gain clarity. This is when the cathartic release of emotions to pen and then paper as an outlet calms us, gives us clarity and enables us to move forward.

Poetry’s powerful healing qualities have been documented during both world wars and the American civil war: poems were read to soldiers to help them cope with trauma and the brutalities of war. In fact doctors would write poems for their patients, emotionally connecting with them. A striking example of this is John Keats who initially trained as a doctor.

Poetry has also been used by modern-day doctors and physicians at Yale University School of Medicine and University College London School of Medicine. Yale actually has a committee that maintains a required literary reading list that includes poetry. 

The use of poetry continues to grow as a recognised form of therapy. More and more psychotherapists across the US, UK and Europe continue to use poetry therapy as part of their practice. Globally the International Federation for Biblio / Poetry Therapy sets standards of excellence in the training and credentialing of practitioners in the field of biblio/poetry therapy, qualifying them to practice.

Writing Confessional Poetry

Writing confessional poetry specifically, gives writers the opportunity to make a confession about something private or difficult. It’s a great way to focus your mind, express your emotions and bring clarity by writing down your feelings and thoughts in a poetic format.

Often the best poems are written from the heart, raw, emotional and to the point. A mindful exercise, it truly is game-changing. After the poem is written there is a certain sense of calm as we no longer hold the burden of our confession. We feel lighter and relieved.

You may initially struggle with starting a poem, however it does become easier with practice. The key is to let your thoughts wander and write what comes to mind. Do not hold back, let go and allow the emotions, words and images to unfold. Sometimes it’s easier to write it all down and then piece it together using line breaks (pauses), restructuring paragraphs and sentences, pulling it together into a coherent form. A great book on writing poetry is The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetryby Kim Addonzio which includes helpful techniques, suggested themes, how to deal with self-doubt and writer’s block and the highs and lows of writing life.

Poetry has been a lifeline and literally a saving grace. I write poetry when dealing with confusing situations or pain. It’s really helped during challenging life transitions such as illness, moving countries and losing people close to me. The transformation from difficult emotions to lighter ones, post writing, is one of the reasons that makes me reach for the pen every time. And I thoroughly recommend the practice for a time when you’re feeling stuck and need clarity. To help you get started, name the emotion you are feeling and describe it in a four-line stanza. Alternatively talk about your fears or losses. Write about what inspires you. Focus on a powerful image and describe it. It doesn’t matter what you write. What matters is the practice and that you write.

Bijal is an investment banker and a book therapist prescribing literature for both personal interest and therapy.

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