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Poetry Therapy and the Impact of Poetic Dialogue
by Phyllis Klein, LCSW and Perie Longo, PhD, LMFT
courtesy of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists


Editor's Note from Barbara Lazarony: Are you telling yourself you're not not a poet? Consider reading this article and try your hand at making a poem using ten of your favorite words from this article. 

From the starting of time, poetry has been a means for citizen to express their deepest emotions and generate curative in ritual and ceremony. In Greek mythology, we know that Asclepius, the God of Healing, was the son of Apollo, god of poetry. Hermes served as messenger between the two worlds to divulge between the gods and humanity. He carried the caduceus, “the winged rod with two serpents intertwined, which has come to be a fastener of the curative profession” (Poplawski, 75). Poems have also been viewed as carriers of messages from the unconscious to the conscious mind. Wherever citizens regain to mark a moment, they speak from heart to heart, with poetry.

In the counseling office, perhaps you have read a poem to a client that seemed to capture an issue she/he was struggling with, gift not only understanding, but hope. After the tragedy of 9/11, the airwaves and internet rang with poems of solace. When war in Iraq was imminent, a website industrialized where citizen could send poems expressing their feelings: Poets Against the War. Within days, thousands of poems were posted.

Mary Oliver, in her poem, “Wild Geese,” says, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” (Oliver, 110) Joy Harjo, in “Fire” says. “look at me/I am not a isolate woman/I am the continuance/ of blue sky/I am the throat of the mountains.” (Harjo, 25)

The fourteenth century Persian poet Lala speaks about poetry:

I didn’t trust it for a moment
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.

It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into wee pieces. (Barks, 11)

These are lines to carry in our hearts, because they open us to beauty, a sense of self, healing, truth, and human connection, and all this in just a few words!

At conception, we are born to the rhythm of the heart, growing in the fluid darkness until one day we stretch our way into light. With our first cry, we make our first poem, a sound that reverberates in our mother’s heart, and when she cries in response, we hear our first poem. And so it continues, the voices of those who care for us transport all of the emotions we will come to know as our own, words, that if written down, would be poetry. It’s that simple. Poetry is giving sound and rhythm to silence, to darkness, giving it a shape, turning it to light. When we read a poem that speaks to our experience, there is a shift, a click within. Man has understood our darkness by naming their own. We feel less alone. Therapeutically, the “I” of us gathers power and insight. Our world expands.

The following poem illustrates the idea of writing a poem to give darkness and suffering a voice. It was written by a participant in Phyllis’ poetry therapy group, part of an arduous day treatment schedule for women addicted to alcohol and drugs. This poem states the truth of the author’s palpate in a haunting and beautiful way, giving the reader the chance to divulge to what it feels like to be “broken.”

Today I didn’t care
whether or not they stared
didn’t have time to put on airs.

Yesterday was a separate story
wanted to look like a morning glory
fresh and entertaining couldn’t tell
I was up all night.

Sometimes I can hide behind
my colored lines other times
I feel like a stained glass
window that’s just been shattered
pretty pieces everywhere. (Klein, 16)

Rather than diminish the excellence of the poet’s art, the poetry therapist enhances it. Poet Gregory Orr, in his book Poetry and Survival says “…the elaborative and intense patterns of poetry can…make citizen feel safe…the colossal disordering power of trauma needs or demands an equally remarkable ordering to contain it, and poetry offers such order” (Orr, 92). Poetry structures chaos.

Dr. James W. Pennebaker, one of the most widely published researchers on the benefits of writing, says in his book, Chance Up: The Curative Power of Expressing Emotions, that writing about emotional topics improves the immune principles by reducing “stress, anxiety and depression, improves grades in college (and) aids citizen in securing new jobs.” (Pennebaker, 40). “Disclosing secrets beneficially reduces blood pressure, heart rate, and skin conductance.” (Pennebaker, 52). Gregory Orr says that when we share secrets “we take a small step from survival to healing; a step analogous to the one a poet makes when he or she shares poems with an additional one reader or an audience.” (Orr, 88)

In a therapeutic environment, the trained facilitator addresses the curative elements of poetry: form and shape, metaphor, meta-message, the words chosen, and the sounds of the words together (alliteration and assonance). These elements, in relationship with each other, carry the weight of many feelings and messages at once, creating a link from the secret internal world to external reality, from the unconscious to the conscious.

Because a poem has a border, a frame, or structure, as opposed to prose, the form itself is a protection net. Strong emotions will not run off the page. A poetry therapist might ask his/her clients to draw a box in the town of the paper and write the words inside. Meta-message implies the potential to carry some messages in one line that “strike at deeper levels of awareness than overt messages” (Murphy, 69). Straight through the capacity to transport multi-messages, clients are able to palpate merging as well as individuation/separation. The poem allows for a trial disunion and then a return to the therapist for merging and “refueling” Straight through the therapist’s understanding of the poem. If the therapist says he/she appreciates a single metaphor and how the words flow, the client feels loved and heard. In reading a poem aloud, the client may come to be caught up in his/her own rhythms and feel caressed.

An foremost demand students of poetry therapy ask is how to find the right poem to bring to a group or individual. The best poems to start with are those that are understandable, with clear language, and a strong theme, as well as emotions that reflect some hope. An additional valuable element is that the poem must resonate with the mood and/or situation of the group or individual. This is called the isoprinciple, a term also used in music therapy for the same purpose. Dr. Jack Leedy says that “the poem becomes symbolically an understanding- someone/something with whom he/she can share his/her despair” (Leedy, 82)

A woman in Perie’s cancer/poetry retain group recently published a book of her poems and writings titled, I Can Do This: Living with Cancer-Tracing a Year of Hope. This title contains the valuable word hope, for that is what we need in our lives to retain us and heal. In her poem, “The Uninvited Guest,” Beverley Hyman-Fead writes:

I feel fortunate my tumors came to me
in the fall of my life…
I’m grateful for this uninvited wake-up call,
Would I have appreciated the beautiful
images the moon makes in the still of the night?
No, I have my tumors to thank for that. (54)

She was able to write this poem in response to a Rumi poem called “The Guest House.” This poem, written so long ago, reframes the meaning of suffering saying:

This being human is a guest house,
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness….

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows…

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. (Barks, 1995, 109)

Perie chose this poem to bring to the cancer retain group because it might engage the attentiveness of the group members, perhaps to think about how their illness was a “guide,” and what they had learned about themselves in the struggle, an additional one foremost response might be: “This makes me so angry! How could I ever want to request in the darkness?” anyone the emotional reaction, the poem is a catalyst for helping the reader to passage and express feelings in a supportive, safe environment. Reading a poem a second time helps the client feel even more deeply the content and emotion. Also, lines spoken easily will often form the first lines of poems.

After a poem is read, the therapist might then ask participants for lines in the poem that speak to them, or to which lines they are most drawn. This might be followed by questions for discussion of an emotional nature. Considering the Rumi poem, the therapist might advise they discuss: What am I to palpate in this life? What am I not entertaining in? How can my place of work or home be a Guest House? How is the Guest House like your heart? Comments town around what the poem emotionally means to the reader, not what the poem means intellectually. Straight through group discussion, time to write and read what was written in the group, both members and facilitator can learn to think differently, perhaps applying newly formed concepts to existing behaviors and attitudes.

For instance, if one has felt like he/she was victimized by illness, straight through discussion and writing of this or an additional one pertinent poem, she/he might be enabled to begin reasoning about how to move toward acceptance. Even writing about rage toward illness is a foremost step. There is a starting of some resolution within the poem. Rumi says to be grateful, and in her poem, Beverley, who is far along in her emotional curative process, is able to thank her illness, which gives her hope.

Another kind of curative that poems can supply is graphic by poems written in response to the other. Here are excerpts from poems that Perie and Phyllis wrote:

Maybe angels are

old times resurrected, misguided love
back on policy to lift the inner flute…
The moon is ripe with hope

but don’t look there, angels hover
at elbow bend, between your toes
rows of them, wings of leaves or breeze…
Notice when they arrive
how their wings vary,
some traditional-fully feathered…
others blossomed like heather…

There are those with only goosebumps
not all the time on the back,
and some no wings at all,
just scratched knees trying to get off the ground.
--Perie Longo

Phyllis responded:

Maybe angels
were with me the day
my sister and husband were run down
on the road in New York, guided my
thoughts to what it would feel like to get hit
as I crossed the road in San Francisco.

Surely angels, well-known with misfortune
and accident rooms,
watched as my sister and her husband,
almost as big as a small
bear, stepped off the curb, his size what saved them.

Accident angels hovered, caressed, willed them
to survive. Saw the ambulance come.

Did friendship angels,

well-known with compassion and coincidence,
know I wouldn’t be told for a week?
Did they bring me to the sangha* and the trainer who spoke about bearing unbearable pain?

Perhaps they remember what it was like to walk,
have shoulders without wings.
Do they know when humans will enter the next life,
and when the unopened tulips
on my table will bloom, die, resurrect?

*sangha-a Buddhist congregation

Gregory Orr talks about “The Two Survivals”-survival of the poet, in that the poet struggles to engage with the disorder to write a poem, and in the act of writing, “bring order to disorder.” The other survival is that of the reader, who connects with poems that “enter deeply into” him or her, foremost to “sympathetic identification of reader with writer.” (Orr, 83-84) This kind of relationship can be heightened with direct dialogue because the reader and writer cross back and forth from one role to the other, deepening the possibility for empathy and sympathetic identification.

To interpret this concept, we return to the two poems we wrote about angels. Perie wrote her poem when her daughter was going straight through a very difficult period. For Perie, the whole poem is for her daughter whose nickname was “angel-pie.” The last three lines of the poem, and some no wings at all /just scratched knees/trying to get off the ground, is a message to encourage and empower her daughter, and more broadly for anyone who is feeling discouraged, traumatized, or troubled. When Phyllis received Perie’s poem, she took the theme of angels and wrote her own house story about terrible pain and hope. The poems transcend the theme of angels because there is an even deeper content here-the theme of ordinary citizen becoming heroes, and the rebirth and reconciliation that can come from tragedy. Also, as is often the case with poetry, there is an unconscious relationship as both authors write about family.

In speaking about poetry, it is also foremost to recognize that it can be an intimidating form of expression, carrying with it a need for perfection or a feeling like “I could never write a poem-my writing isn’t good enough.” In poetry therapy with groups or individuals, poems are never edited. Editing belongs in a poetry-for-craft setting. The objective of poetry therapy is to use the poem as an entry point for the writer, and it is a helpful way to work with transcendence of the inner editor, that resides in us all. To address a way to think about writing poetry, we turn to the words of our colleague, Robert Carroll, MD, who writes,

Read it aloud
pass it straight through your ears
enjoy the
ride and
the distinction between poetry and prose
is that poetry is broken
into lines-
that is all.
(Carroll, 1)

Anyone can write poetry! It is our natural right and human instinct. All we have to do is allow the words to move and inspire us. The National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT): Promoting increase and curative straight through language, symbol, and story (http://www.poetrytherapy.org), has much beneficial data on its website including more examples of how to use poetry therapy with clients. We, in the Association, are like-minded psychiatrists, psychologists, college professors, social workers, marriage and house therapists, and educators-all of us are also poets, journal writers, and storytellers who have experienced curative straight through the written and spoken word, and want to share it with other clinicians as a skill they might like to develop. Poetry for self-expression and curative is used with mothers, children, and adolescents; battered women, the elderly, the depressed, the suicidal; those living with terminal illness, the bereaved, those with HIV, the mentally ill, and now hurricane victims and soldiers returning from Iraq who suffer post-traumatic stress. We also replacement poems with each other, over the country, that have been sufficient in helping others heal. This replacement continues the curative rhythm and heart of poetry therapy.

As Jelaluddin Rumi says:

Out Beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. (Barks, 1995, 36)

Let’s find each other along the way.



Have a comment or question? Visit our Writing & Poetry Therapy Forum to start or join a conversation. 




About the Authors


Perie Longo, PhD, LMFT, in private practice, and Registered Poetry Therapist, has been conducting Poetry for Healing groups for over twenty years for Hospice and Sanctuary Psychiatric Centers in Santa Barbara, as well as other agencies. She is a past president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (www.poetrytherapy.org) and a Master/Mentor Supervisor for those seeking certification in the field. For contact information, visit her website: www.perielongo.com or phone (805) 687-1619.



Phyllis Klein, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Poetry Therapist, with over 30 years experience, is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco and Palo Alto, CA.  She currently leads a Writing for Healing group in Palo Alto. Phyllis has led numerous workshops and groups since discovering poetry therapy over 15 years ago.  She worked for several years at two women's alcohol treatment centers in SF.  She has presented at Northern California Group Psychotherapy Society Conferences and has facilitated Healing the Healer retreat sessions for CAMFT. Phyllis can be reached at 415-273-1036 and online at www.PhyllisKlein.com.


CAMFT or the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists is a California nonprofit corporation made up of individuals (members) who choose to associate for certain common purposes. For more information visit www.camft.org.







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Barks, C. (tr.) with John Moyne. (1995). The valuable Rumi. Ny: Castle Books.
Barks, C. (tr.) and Green, M. (1997). The Illuminated Rumi. Ny: Broadway Books.
Carroll, Robert, Md, (2005) “Finding Words to say it: The curative Power of Poetry” eCam 2005:2(2)161-172.
Harjo, Joy, (2002), How we Became Human, Ny: W.W. Norton and Company.
Hyman- Fead, B. (2004) I can do this/ Living with cancer: tracing a year of hope. Santa Barbara Cancer Center: Wellness schedule Publishing.
Klein, Phyllis, ed. (2001). Our Words-The Women of Lee Woodward town Speak Out, Sf: Phyllis Klein and Women and Children’s Family.
Leedy, J.J. (Ed.). (1985) Poetry as healer: Mending the troubled mind. Ny: Vanguard. Orr, G. (2002) Poetry as survival. Athens, Ga: The University of Georgia Press.
Murphy, J. M. (1979). The therapeutic use of poetry in Current Psychiatric Therapies, vol. 18. Jules Masserman, ed. Ny: Grune & Stratton, Inc., pp. 65-72.
Oliver, M. (1993). Wild geese. New and selected poems. Boston: Beacon Press.
Pennebaker, J. (1990) chance Up: The curative power of expressing emotions. Ny: Guilford Press.
Poplawski, T. (1994) Schizophrenia and the Soul in The Quest, August, 74-79.

This article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of The Therapist, the publication of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT), headquartered in San Diego, California. This article is copyrighted and been reprinted with the permission of CAMFT. For more information regarding CAMFT, please log on to www.camft.org.




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