I know a few poets who I think could use some therapy (including myself), but until recently I'd never considered the art as a serious therapeutic tool. Some therapists, it turns out, find poetry to be highly effective in helping patients to cope with and overcome mental illness. In an article for the Psychiatric Centers Information Network, registered poetry therapist Perie J. Longo instructs us that "the word therapy, after all, comes from the Greek word therapeia meaning to nurse or cure through dance, song, poem and drama." I had no idea.
There are a few basic, accepted methods of poetry therapy. In one group method, the therapist selects a poem that highlights a problem that the patient group is dealing with, and that might help open a dialogue on the subject. Reading Emily Dickinson, for example, might help patients realize that loneliness isn't unique. Reading Roethke's "The Waking" might serve to focus a discussion on taking life one step at a time. Of course, this has to be carefully managed: poems mean different things to different people, and a poem that uplifts one patient might depress another.
A second method of therapy calls on patients to write their own poems. Longo holds poetry workshops for patients which are structured a lot like workshops in academia. When a patient's poem comes up for discussion, a couple of people read it to let the rhythms and the music sink in, then the group silently considers it until someone offers up a question or opinion. Of course, in poetry therapy, poems aren't looked at for their value as art, but as a window into the psychology of the poet and, by extension, as a means of healing. According to Longo, there are two major facets to such healing: defining the self, and helping to make connections between the self and others.
If you've ever written a poem, you know that the act of writing a poem can certainly achieve that first facet. Every poem I've written has given me at least some sense of defining myself. For a patient with mental illness, this act can take on particular importance. Longo once asked a patient how it felt to hold a published copy of a poem he'd written. The man simply replied, "I feel like I am somebody, finally."
As for the connection to others, Longo quotes the poet Stephen Dobyns, from his book Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, in which Dobyns wrote, "I believe that a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms. " Longo described one workshop in which such a connection was hauntingly made:
Often I will take a phrase from a poem and repeat it for each group member to orally fill in their thoughts, before they write their own poem. One day I began with such a phrase, "I have the right." As we went around the circle seated in the living room, most touching lines were being spoken: I have the right to get a cup of milk in the middle of the night; I have the right to breathe; I have the right to play my guitar; I have the right to comb my hair, etc. Suddenly one young man who was suicidal said, "I have the right to get a gun to shoot myself." A woman, who had sat quite silently lost in herself each time she came to group, which was not often, spoke up. Turning to him she said softly but firmly, "And I have the right to take it from you." In that moment the silence was stunning.
Longo also speaks to a third potential benefit of writing poetry: that writing a poem can help to clear up one's emotions on a complex issue. Form plays a key role here since it necessitates that you manipulate your thoughts into a structure--I occasionally feel that in writing a poem I've forced chaotic ideas into a sort of stillness. Longo mentions one radical formal technique: drawing "a box in the middle of the page and limit[ing] words to that space. Emotion will not run amok in this way, but be protected in the frame natural to the order of poetry."
It makes sense that poetry could have significant healing effects, and I wonder if those effects might actaully draw some poets to the art. I know poets who insist, with seriousness, that if they didn't write regularly, they'd go mad. And there are famous examples--like Plath--of those who wrestled with their demons on the page. In some cases, one could argue, poetry may have made matters worse.
Experts are careful to stress that poetry is a tool, which, wrongfully employed, can hurt rather than heal a patient. But many feel that it has significant potential. In a Time Magazine article on poetry therapy, Yale Psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg offered that "poetry by itself does not cure," but noted the benefit of its unique focus on verbalization, which, he offered, is "the lifeblood of psychotherapy."