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Poetry and its therapeutic use

In this article, PhD student Flora Sagers discussing poetry's therapeutic potential and mindfulness.
Image of an opening water lily in a pond

In this article, Flora Sagers, a PhD student at the University of York and one of our course educators, details poetry’s therapeutic potential.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours. (Alan Bennet, The History Boys, 2004)

Have you ever turned to literature in a time of need? Perhaps you’ve revisited a childhood favourite when you’ve felt down. Maybe you’ve escaped into a good book when you’ve felt overwhelmed, or browsed through an anthology of poetry hoping to find something that speaks to you, a hand to come out of the page and take yours. If you’ve ever used literature in any of these ways, you’re certainly not alone in recognising its therapeutic power:- readers have long appreciated the power of words to help and heal.

Whether you’re seeking comfort in the familiar, looking to escape into new worlds, or searching for that powerful feeling of recognition that lets you know you are not alone, literature has a home for you. Poetry, with its diverse expressions of a multitude of feelings has many homes for you to live in. This sense of comfort, escape, recognition – of home – is therapeutic.

Carefully chosen anthologies of poetry have been dubbed ‘prescriptions’, with poet Robert Graves writing in 1922 that ‘a well chosen anthology of poetry is a complete dispensary’. There are a whole host of anthologies, including William Sieghart’s well-known The Poetry Pharmacy (2017) that draw on this concept. The healing power of reading poetry has even been assessed and used by medical and scientific researchers and professionals: there is an entire journal dedicated to the research of this area:- The Journal of Poetry Therapy.

Therapy and poetry have long been associated with one another: the Greek god Apollo is the god of both medicine and poetry, for instance, and the Classical tradition is rife with associations between poetry and healing with authors such as the Roman poet Ovid writing poems with an explicitly therapeutic intent:

Una manus vobis vulnus opemque feret.

Terra salutares herbas, eademque nocentes

Nutrit, et urticae proxima saepe rosa est

[The hand that wounded shall your health restore.

One soil can herbs and pois’nous weeds disclose:

The nettle oft is neighbour to the rose.]

Here, in Remedia Amoris [Remedy for love], Ovid claims his is ‘the hand’ to heal readers from the wounds of love, as he ‘taught that art’ (being in love) to them, aptly displaying poetry’s capacity both to teach emotion, and to help to heal from it.

Throughout the centuries poetry’s therapeutic use has been expounded in many other ways. In Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1801) Wordsworth wrote ‘the power of the human imagination is sufficient to produce such changes even in our physical nature as might almost appear miraculous’. Other Romantic-era poets detailed the curative force of the imagination in poetry, which was positioned as intermediary between the body and soul.

The physician and poet John Keats focused on the role of the poet in mediating the ‘miraculous’, stating in The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1857) ‘a poet is a sage; /A humanist, physician to all men’. More recently, the restorative properties of poetry have been recognised in the Instapoetics of Rupi Kaur, who utilises social media and self-publishing to create a new space for poetry about ‘trauma, abuse, loss, love and healing’. The final section in her acclaimed collection Milk and Honey (2014) is titled ‘the healing’, and details Kaur’s own experiences.

Kaur has spoken widely about the therapeutic process of creating her poetry, and recently held a series of writing workshops during the Covid pandemic. The aim of these workshops was for participants to explore poetry writing as a ‘meditative and therapeutic process’. Much of the scientific research on the healing power of poetry focuses on a variety of interactive engagements with poetry: reading poetry, discussing poetry, and writing poetry. The positive effects of writing poetry for self-expression are documented across cancer patients, in-patients at mental health facilities, and in the cognitive development of teenagers and young adults.

Poetry has a long and complex relationship with therapy, and we hope that in this course you discover this for yourself – whether you unearth a new poem to delight in, or savour the process of writing your own poetry, in the ‘creative exercise’ section of this week.

Over to you

Head to the list of related links for more on this topic.

What poetry do you find yourself turning to, and why? Let us know in the comments below.

© University of York
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