You may be wondering what poetry has to do with therapy, other than producing a nice little rhyme.
For me, the two have a lot in common. Both are interested in understanding something about ourselves and our relationship to others and the world we live in.
Both are driven in a certain way by the desire to have new, fresh, interesting insights which in turn help us to not only navigate a life, but also to open, expand, amplify and come at our experiences from different -often startlingly different- angles.
Both are born out of free-association, letting the mind wander and play with an idea or an experience, following it faithfully with the expectation or assurance that our own inner wisdom will lead us to the answers we are seeking.
Both poetry and therapy can help us to see ourselves and our place in the world from a new, perhaps more flexible vantage point which can also be very healing. This can help us to break out of some of the mind’s ruts that we often get stuck on and in. But it is also a source of great joy, and if there’s one thing that unites everyone who comes through the portals of poetry or therapy, it is this desire for more contentment and ease.
My Experience of Poetry
In 2010 I read a book by Kim Rosen called Saved By A Poem, in which Kim talks about the way poetry healed and made her life whole, both through writing and reading, but also “by taking a poem I love deeply into my life and learning it or speaking it aloud causing a profound integration of every aspect of me – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. I felt a wholeness I had never before experienced. I felt like I was flying. I was speaking the truth, and the truth was setting me free.”
Up to this point, I think I had had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with poetry, even though I had enjoyed reading, writing and studying it at school and University (many of us feel this way towards poetry), but Kim’s ethos really spoke to me, and so I started using some of the practices described in her book – predominantly learning by heart a whole bunch of poems that felt as if they had something to teach me, my Poetry Koans as I like to call them. I also started exploring other ways of bringing literature into the realm of therapy and daily life.
This involved doing a bibliotherapy training with The Reader Organisation and working with them for a few years running therapeutic reading groups in libraries and other settings. I also did a PGCert in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. Through this I kept on coming back to two fundamental experiences:
1) How poetry, learnt and recited when in need or on a daily basis, calms settles and revitalises us. Like extended mantras, or other forms of inner-vocalised meditation, poems often contain a riddle or message that we often need to hear or grapple with on a daily basis. Engaging with poetry in this way offers the whirring mind something to focus on, whilst at the same time, filling or refilling it with a “medicine” not unlike a kind of secular prayer, or a magical-psychological spell. And we could all do with more of those.
2) When encouraging clients to write poems or short pieces of prose either as a means of self-exploration, but also for publication, I found that our sessions would usually become different, richer, more profound (dare I say it) as opposed to conversations without this weekly writing practice. People who had never written poetry before were suddenly producing personal as well as enlightening pieces, a tangible souvenir of our work together. For clients who had struggled in the past with more formal CBT-style ways of taking stock and monitoring feelings and thoughts, poetry offered a flowing, more creative practice for addressing the challenges and surprises of life.
Poetry Koan Therapy vs. Traditional Therapy
I think you would get a lot from engaging with this form of therapy, if you fall into one (or a combination of) these categories:
1) You have had some counselling or psychotherapy in the past, but feel that its premises and approach is a sometimes circular one in which you are able to gain some insight into yourself and your life, but don’t feel that it offers a way for you to engage with broader existential questions: the kinds of issues that don’t always fall neatly into the forms of enquiry that traditional talking therapy provides.
2) You are drawn in some way to poems and poetry (reading, as well as writing) and would like to have some kind of poetry “practice” which allows you to engage with yourself through certain poems, both in writing, but also in learning and reciting verse. As with all spiritual/therapeutic practices, the hope and prospect of this approach is one of working towards greater insight into your thoughts and emotions, improvements in attention and concentration, and transformations in your relationship to yourself, others, and the world around you, especially the natural world. Or maybe some other benefits which you are yet to unearth by writing or reading certain poems.
3) You’re agnostic about poetry but intrigued by the premise of poetry being “the most ancient form of prayer: a companion through difficulty; a guide when we are lost; a salve when we are wounded; and a conduit to an inner source of joy, freedom, and insight.”
Please feel free to get in touch either by email or telephone (07804197605) if you would like some more information about how this all works.