How Can Poetry Heal Us?
By Nicole Bouchard
Poet Diane Ackerman has been quoted as saying- "Because poets feel what we're afraid to feel, venture where we're reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the same dramatic risks. Think of all the lessons to be learned from deep rapture, danger, tumult, romance, intuition. But it's far too exhausting to live like that on a daily basis, so we ask artists to explore for us."
Poetry might well be one of the more daunting of mediums due to its famed practitioners and often precise rules, but it’s also one of the mediums most conducive to personal, emotive expression. It’s a commonly held belief that the shorter a piece of writing must be, the more difficult it is, but with poetry, short and sweet can be just enough to touch upon the core issues and exit stage left before the scene changes. When writers choose an intimate perspective, they have to be careful not to go so deep as to sound overtly subjective about their content and to also avoid opening old wounds.
In the current summer edition of Writers’ Craft Box, a section of The Write Place at The Write Time devoted to professional essays, tools and resources for our writers, poet Vince Corvaia cautions writers against going past their boundaries by expounding upon a quote from Pablo Neruda in his essay, “Random Notes for the Beginning Poetry Writer”:
“Pablo Neruda wrote in a poem called “Return to a city,” ‘It is dangerous / to wander backwards, / because all of a sudden / the past turns into a prison.’ I have found that some aspects of my past are unreconciled to the point where trying to write about them only upsets me and destroys what should be a poem's objective tone. I'm not saying to avoid your unreconciled past. Some great poems (I think again of Plath's “Daddy”) are about just that. I'm just saying, for your own sake, don't go so far backwards that you end up in Neruda's prison. No poem is worth hurting yourself.”
Being conscious of your limits will shield you in your descent toward the emotional journeys Diane Ackerman describes above. All this being said, poetry, when used for expression and therapeutic purposes, can open doors to healing that were previously barred. Another piece from the Writers’ Craft Box is a feature on the Pongo Teen Writing Project. Reaching out to children and young adults in juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, and other organizations, founder Richard Gold and his team of Pongo volunteers use a carefully constructed model to encourage written expression that will target those areas which are most affecting the youths’ circumstances (early childhood trauma, such as abuse, rape, addiction, death and violence). In a post on the Pongo site blog, entitled “Poetry Saved My Life”, (a line excerpted from a fourteen year-old’s poem), Gold writes, “I've seen that life's worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don't know and don't want to know. Yet these worst experiences remain our passionate life companions. I've seen that our emotions after life's worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly, some that exist only in the public realm, some that exist only in private, some that exist in one part of ourselves and not in others. But I've also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.”
Though issues of our literary magazine do not have planned themes, a theme will typically arise of its own volition and in the Summer 2012 issue, it was the power of poetry to heal and raise awareness. A book review of The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism by Kate Winslet and Margret Ericsdottir, tells the incredible story of Keli, a bright young boy diagnosed with severe non-verbal autism who was thought to be unreachable through the first ten years of his life. His mother’s quest, portrayed in the fascinating documentary A Mother’s Courage (aka The Sunshine Boy), led him from Iceland to Austin, Texas and the HaloCenter where his communication began via the Rapid Prompt Method. This educational approach, developed by Soma Mukhopadhyay, works with the immense potential of autistic children. Keli, now fourteen, is able to convey his views through profound poetry. One of his poems serendipitously coincided with the formation of The Golden Hat Foundation.
As eloquently expressed by poet, Audre Lorde, “. . . poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we can predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” There was a topic on the poetry forum featured within the WAE (Writers, Agents and Editors) Network founded by agent/authors Jeff and Deborah Herman, whose headline read "Why do some people think poetry is boring?" Different people wrote in with thoughts on attention span and reluctance towards vulnerability and I got to thinking about what I've found in my experiences as an editor and a reader.
Poetry can take the most extreme emotions and bottle them like tinctures that can be used to heal the reader; it is expression- giving a voice to that which we need as human beings to express, that gives poetry its strong influence. As an editor, I look for poetry that tells a dynamic story- one that the reader will undoubtedly walk away thinking about long after they've read it. The plight of the older homeless man in the city who contemplates his mortality and wants nothing more than to find comfort in what 'home' means; the mother who lost a child and thinks in the years to come of what could have been; the man who watched his father fear death all his life until the day he took his own; the joy of healing after facing a life-threatening illness... These are only a few examples of the truths that I've seen conveyed in poetry.
When poetry examines life, when it reaches people on an intense level, when the voice of one tells the story of thousands, poetry can be anything but dull. Just as the poet will find the right words, the poem will find the audience that most needs to hear it.
It is up to the poet to determine what use they will have for poetry- what story do you need to tell to heal, to express, to motivate? What do you need in order to be able to tell that story?
In a 2008 interview, Nancy Slonim Aronie, founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop and author of Writing from the Heart, discussed the importance of a writer feeling “safe”. “When people are safe, they can go anywhere. If you have a ski instructor who encourages you, you take a risk. If a painting teacher is telling you that you're using the wrong brush, are you going to feel flowy and free? There is no wrong in creative art. Any negative remark is going to stop you. Model a human being who suffers and laughs in the same paragraph. Go deep. Think, 'This is what terrifies me. This is what I love.'”
In regard to the question of whether there was an emotional healing effect from the openness of the workshop participants’ writing, she responded, “Absolutely. Whole lives change. Married people go home to their spouses able to truly talk to them. Behavior changes because there are no more angles. Major life transformations are able to take place. There is complete clarity. Instead of going to a shrink, nine out of ten people say that they powerfully acknowledge their humanity through writing...”
Something to try:
Take the following phrase to use as a beginning for a conversational poem (in the intimate, declarative style of a personal letter); don’t be afraid to delve deep and address an issue that you feel you want to express. This could be a poem dedicated to a loved one, someone you’ve lost or someone that you’ve always wished to have closure with. “I’ve wanted so much to tell you…”
Something for the road:
When you find yourself caught up in the nets of comparison, form or subjective content, keep in mind that the fluid language of poetry will help you find a way through and the journey will be worthwhile. The power of poetry is found in how you custom-build your relationship to it; how you define it, how you execute it and how you utilize it all so that it meets your individual needs.
~Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer
~Poets Market 2012 (Writers Digest)
~Magnetic Poetry Kit (original version). Can also "play" with different versions digitally on the website.
Nicole M. Bouchard is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, The Write Place At the Write Time. This publication features fiction, poetry, non-fiction, book reviews, craft essays, resources, fine artwork and numerous NYT best-selling author interviews including Janet Fitch, Alice Hoffman and Arthur Golden as well as interviews with additional creative professionals. For her work on the literary magazine as well as her journalistic and fiction work, Ms. Bouchard was profiled on the cable television program, Creative Women Today. She is a Letters member of the National League of American Pen Women and recently joined the Women's National Book Association. This spring she served on the Small Press Panel: How Online Journals and Social Media Transform Poetics at the Fourth Mass. Poetry Festival. She was also the creator and instructor of a four week online intensive creative writing course in 2011 affiliated with The Write Place At the Write Time, entitled, "Passion, Philosophy and Prose: The Power of the Pen". Her publication is now partnering with the esteemed, independent Milken Community High School creative writing program to donate their time and resources this summer to take a few select students through the online creative writing course. She lives in New England and relishes the power of gray, rainy days for writing.