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Diana M. Raab Headshot

Poetry and Healing

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When I was 6 years old, I wrote my first poem in a letter to my parents. I was at sleepaway camp and extremely homesick. The form of my poem was different than those I would read years later during elementary school. That first poem was informal and formless, and in today's literary terms, it would probably be called a narrative poem. Narrative poems tell a story in the narrator's voice and are often written in metered verse. Often, they originate from an emotion or image.

For most of my writing life, which has been nearly six decades, I have written narrative poetry either from a place of darkness or pain or a place of extreme joy. Typically, my poems are inspired by something immediate to what is happening in my life at any given time. As a child, I wrote poems about my grandmother, who committed suicide. During adolescence, I moved on to poems about being misunderstood by my parents and all the restrictions they put on my life. As a rebellious teenager, most of my poems were in the form of rants, except when writing love poems about, and to, my boyfriends. When pregnant with my first daughter, I was summoned to bed rest and wrote poetry as a way to help me cope. I again turned to poetry as a young mother in an effort to let my voice be heard, focusing on the trials and tribulations of parenthood.

Using poetry as a way to be heard or to heal is quite common. An icon in the field of writing for healing is John Fox, a poetry therapist and lecturer. He teaches in the California Poets in the Schools Program. One of my favorite books of his is called Finding What You Didn't Lose. In it, he helps the reader get in touch with their poetic voice and its ability to heal. He teaches about metaphor, image, sound and rhythm while leading the reader into their inner psyche. He also provides questions that could serve as good prompts or seeds for poems such as: "What scares you? What saddens you? What delights you? What intrigues you? and What do you appreciate about the person you are?"

Using these questions as prompts for a poem can help an individual tap into their emotional self. Poets and those in the helping professions tend to be in touch with their deepest emotions. In my years as a practicing nurse, I have learned that the most gifted physicians are those who are able to tap into the deepest part of the psyche. These are the physicians who have the innate ability to connect emotionally with themselves and their patients. Over the course of history, there have been a number of physicians who were also poets. William Carlos Williams is the physician who comes to mind as someone who wrote poems between patients to put into words the agony and the ecstasy of his work. He wrote on the prescription pads he kept in his pocket. Other physician-poets include John Keats, Anton Chekhov and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

It is encouraging that poetry has been incorporated into a number of modern medical school programs, including Yale and Harvard Schools of Medicine. A few years ago in an article in The New York Times entitled "The Doctor as Poet," (December 1, 2011), Dr. Pauline Chen explained how poetry can help physicians empathize and understand what a patient is going through. This can be done by both the reading and writing of poetry. Dr. Rafael Campo of Harvard Medical School, who is also an award-winning poet, talks about Marilyn Hacker's "Cancer Winter," which has helped her colleagues understand a patient receiving a cancer diagnosis.

In his poignant book, The Call of Stories, writer and physician Robert Coles discusses how over the centuries, poets who became ill were also inspired to share their experience through poetry. He says, "It prompted them to look not only inward but also backward and forward -- to ask the most important and searching questions about life's meaning." Coles is an advocate of all narratives and in his book, he accentuates the power of poetry and how he admires poets and the merging of poetry and medicine. "Like patients," he says, "poets are probably holding on for dear life to some words." And for writers like myself, the use of language sustains us, as we have a deep-seated love for language and stringing words together.

In 1966, the Academy of American poets designated April as National Poetry Month, resulting in celebrations around the country. According to the academy, the purpose of National Poetry Month is to highlight the legacy of poets, introduce Americans to the joy of poetry, bring poets and poetry together as a form of community, incorporate poetry into school curriculums and to encourage the distribution of poetry books. It is a testament to the poetic form that such a celebration has been in existence for nearly 40 years.