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Poetry as an expressive art form allows us to heal by opening our voice to articulate our deepest and most intricate truths, writes Elli Jacobs.

The historical foundations of poetry therapy trace back to ancient Greece when Apollo was worshipped as the god of both medicine and poetry, while during the time of Aristotle the use of words to express feelings was considered to effect emotional healing and catharsis.

Poetry therapy has also been used in more recent times for mental health purposes, especially as part of interactive bibliotherapy – a form of literary therapy which involves the reading, discussion, and writing of poetry to promote healing and growth. Dr Nicholas Mazza, psychologist, editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapy and author of Poetry Therapy: Theory and Practice, explains: “When we read an existing poem which relates to our pain or suffering, it acts as a springboard for self-reflection, discussion, and self-disclosure. When we hear from someone else who has had a similar experience to ours, this can provide solace, because we realise we are not alone in our experience and our emotions are universal. This eliminates feelings of isolation and can be very soothing and supportive to our healing journey.”

On the flip side, when we write our own poems our feelings are expressed in a more focused way and we start to get some control over our emotions. “This is empowering, as it allows us to understand our own story in a different way - and we can begin changing it to build a new, more positive one,” says Mazza. If writing an actual poem feels impossible, don’t worry - poetry therapy can take on various forms of poetics, like letter-writing to heal grief, journalling to express emotions and even somatic movement to heal the body. “Whatever is meaningful and it allows you to express and connect deeply with yourself,” he says.

Word wonderment

Studies on the therapeutic use of expressive writing show that, with as little as 15 minutes over four days, positive physical, mental, and behavioural changes can be experienced. Other anecdotal studies show poetry therapy as useful in reducing anxiety, guiding patients through addiction and depression, strengthening self-esteem; and promoting comfort for people facing a chronic illness; it is also a great mindfulness tool.

John Fox, founder of the Institute of Poetic Medicine and author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, says: “Poetry therapy helps us express what is going on inside of us, especially during difficult times. It helps us create mental and emotional space, and lends voice to us when we feel we have lost our own. And when we are able to make contact with what we are experiencing, no matter how painful or difficult it is, and release those emotions outwards instead of holding them in, this has incredible medicinal qualities.”

“Reading other people’s poems is a beautiful source of delight and wisdom”, adds Fox, “but it’s your own poems that will be the most satisfying and feed you the most.” He suggests: Find a poem which reflects what you are experiencing, take a line from that poem, and use it as a prompt to express what you feel, by making it more personal. Alternately, choose words from an existing poem, creating a word pool, and use those to shape your poem. Have someone you trust read what you have written. This will give you an opportunity to witness yourself and provide a sense of self-development.

Case studies

“I was able to release the past”
When her mother passed away, Linda MacDonald, Melbourne-based fulfilment coach, mentor and healer, used poetry to write a letter to her expressing how she felt. “It was about forgiveness of everything,” she says. “I was with her during the transition, but there were things that hung around. So, just to let her know that I loved her, I spoke of my emotions on paper, which then flowed into poetry. It was a great way to release my emotions and say goodbye to her. Today I write poems when there are emotions dwelling inside of me or if I am second-guessing things. I allow the words to intuitively flow onto the page and - once I get myself out of the way - the old emotions begin to release and new feelings begin to emerge, revealing new and better ways to feel and think.”

“It opened up my life”
Keith Mac Nider, a writer, from South Australia, first experienced Poetry Therapy on retreat at the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Although not a novice at writing poetry, the idea of joining others to write was still challenging. “I was worried that I would not be able to write anything, or that I would not be any good and that everybody else would be great,” he says. “However, what I experienced was an opening; I learned that if you speak from your heart you will be respected and that when you are received by people in a non-judgemental context, it is very liberating.” While on retreat he overcame another personal barrier - that of a man who always had to be right. “Returning home, I no longer had to have the last say. Poetry Therapy changed my tone of voice, and revealed a type of connective tissue between my heart and mind. It helped me open up to life, in ways that were always there, but I kept at a distance. Being able to speak from the heart has been one of the most beautiful and majestic moments of my life.”