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Transforming Through Poetry
by Juhani Ihanus, PhD



Editor's Note from Tomasz Czepaitis: Very good article of a prominent Finnish Bibliotherapist, emphasizing a special role of metaphor in biblio/poetry therapy: "Metaphor is not only a mode of language and cognition, not only a figure of speech, like in the Aristotelian tradition, but, (...) can be described as the 'currency of the (emotional) mind,' open-ended, and with enormous potential of (self-)transformation, evoking creative fantasies." I also like Dr.Ihanus' reverence to our subjective and intersubjective languages versus the "evidence-based medicine" and his challenge of the new internet-based forms of bibliotherapy, with the importance of listening target, the addressee.

Already in the symposia of the Greek Antiquity, as described by Plato, poetry was central in reaching toward the Socratic aim: “know thyself!” Although this task is imbued with a paradox (actually, you will never totally know yourself), the quest for truthful, non-deceitful, and non-exploitative words and identities is connected with poiesis, “making” the self and the world (i.e., models and interpretations for the self in the world) through personal words. An important task of the ancient poets was to ensure that “truth” is not forgotten and is conveyed to posterity. The Muses of poetry were daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. This poetic “life-truth project” is going on in present-day poetry therapy, together with other expressive arts therapies.

The name “bibliotherapy” refers to “book therapy” (from Greek biblio = book and therapeia = therapy, cure, service). Currently, biblio-/poetry therapy has expanded from the therapeutic reading of books to the use of the potential of the literary arts, for example, in the fields of creative reading and expressive writing, storytelling and journaling, narrative and metaphor. The initial strictly clinical-therapeutic context of biblio-/poetry therapy has turned into wider dimensions and applications for personal growth, (special) educative purposes and collaborative community-building practices. Poetic-plastic life-span transitions are embedded in cognitive, emotional, social and neural developments.

Metaphors and Memories

The human mind-brain-body is wired according to both biological/neurochemical and socio-psychological structures and functions. They form the basis for the interplay of cognition, emotion, memory and learning. Bodily sensations and feelings are fundamental in attuning to language, especially its rhythms, images, similes and metaphors. Poetic associations and metaphors are first and foremost embodied, communicating at unconscious, preconscious and conscious levels, enhancing self-expression, mutual understanding, and the sense of possibilities and positive change in the therapeutic process.

The co-construction and co-elaboration, between therapist and client, of the meanings of the metaphor, opens space for confronting, recognizing and reformulating lifeless states. If somebody is feeling “dropped out of the chariot” and “crushed to pieces,” or “frozen to death,” the sensitive listener/therapist should perhaps “hold one’s horses” and not to rush into too hasty conclusions, but to walk together to the “realm of the dead” in order to caringly explore if and where the resurrection of hope can take place.

Even intrapersonal “empty speech” or narration staging ruptures, losses and disasters is still part and parcel of meaningful interpersonal and transpersonal communication that can touch upon memories and emotions and sensitize the participants in the sharing environment to changing vistas.

In the poetry therapy setting, it is important that the therapist resonates with all kinds of metaphors, not overlooking any of them as too conventional, banal, or blatant. Openness to the uniqueness of self-expression is the prerequisite for explorative and wit(h)nessing journeys through the mindscapes during the reading and writing cure. Everybody has the right to express his or her mind’s voice and to share it in dialogical-interactive poetry therapy.

Of course, there are both personal/private/idiosyncratic metaphors and impersonal/conventional/fixed metaphors. However, the distinction between “live” and “lifeless”/”dead” metaphor cannot be absolute (cf. Hedges, 2005), since even dead metaphors (that have been worn out to static concepts) can be enlivened depending on the subjective and intersubjective relation and exposure to language. Metaphor can also be seen as having arisen from a taboo, as an incomplete evasion of the denied origin, offering an open secret to be shared in creative situations where nothing is forced to arise but where everything is given free space to be born.   

Metaphors transport and transform meaning, mentally, somatically and neurally, bridging feelings and knowledge. Metaphor is not only a mode of language and cognition, not only a figure of speech, like in the Aristotelian tradition, but, as Arnold H. Modell (2009) has stated, metaphor can be described as the “currency of the (emotional) mind,” open-ended, and with enormous potential of (self-)transformation, evoking creative fantasies. Mostly unconscious metaphoric processes interpret what is similar or different. Lively metaphoric interpretations generate the complex and playful constructions of meaning, while traumatized metaphoric interpretative processes recognize only invariant similarities without the dialogical play between similarity and difference. 

Metaphor is by no means a closed container but an open embodiment of several cross-modal processes. Poetic “free” association (that cannot, however, be totally free from inhibitions and resistances) enables expressive spontaneous activity. Fred M. Levin (2009, p. 75) has proposed that spontaneity activates short-term/working memory for what one is attending to at a given moment, the activation of working memory being for him the “single most important element that facilitates learning.” It can be added that not only working memory but also (explicit and implicit) long-term memory may be activated through spontaneous poetic “metaphorization.”

New additions even to semantic memory/knowledge often follow as responses to emotional demand. Thus, Modell (e.g., 2003; 2009) has claimed that metaphor as an organizing template serves to establish the categories of emotional memory, usually called episodic or autobiographical (personal experience -based) memory, and separate from fact-based semantic memory (linked to a different neural system than episodic memory). Selective attention has been defined as a cognitive brain mechanism that enables one to process relevant sensory inputs, perceptions, thoughts, or actions while ignoring irrelevant or distracting ones. Such cognitive view is restrictive when it does not include emotional attention, the intensive emotional interest in and orienting toward a subject. Poetic consciousness is closely connected with the heightened emotional attention and activation of emotional memory. 

Sharing Transformative Language

Expressive, transformative and empowering language can become present in different forms and genres (poem, short story, novel, narrative, aphorism, journal, fable, myth, legend, fairy tale, essay, even article) and it can be oral, written, spoken, performed or sung.

Evidence-based medicine has not been able to take into account the special qualities of the poetry therapy material and process. Subjective and intersubjective language, experience and its multimodal, -spatial and -temporal interpretation, the ambiguous and ambivalent relations to all kinds of texts and narration, and the interaction between the participants through the texts call for the more narrative-based and interdisciplinary research of  the poetry therapy process (cf. also Dysart-Gale, 2008).

Research on expressive and therapeutic writing is a special issue in the field of research on writing. Language and mind/brain are not pre-given; they do not constitute a ready-made constellation in humans but go through many-faceted developments in different interactions and environmental contexts. Human culture has already formed certain settings of relating and meaning making. However, they are not eternal constants but affordances that every unique language-based human being is actively processing during his or her life span, creating self-stories that transcend the habitual, conventional and normative parameters. Transcendent cognitive insights and transcendent emotional experiences pave way for increasingly mindful, caring and sharing life projects and creative transformative efforts.

The expressive media direct and mold human perception, thinking, interpretation and feeling, and, the other way round, they direct and mold the expressive media. Therapeutic-poetic writing can sound, address and express playfully, meaningfully and meditatively the developmental resources inherent in human language and prevent them from becoming lost in the anonymous and conformist media noise (cf. Ihanus, 2005). Such writing is not terminal or posthuman but it can include also terrifying dimensions when it awakens to the reformatting of the “soul,” memory and desire, as already anticipated by Plato, and currently studied under the heading of “cognitive-affective systems,” “scripts” and “transcriptions” by memory researchers and neuroscientists. 

New global “interactive” nets, many-faced web identities and communities, constructed and performed person impressions, and mixing the private and the public will change the conditions of the textual identities. Undoubtedly, also biblio-/poetry therapy has to meet such new challenges (and at the same time possibilities) as facebooking, blogging, chatting, twittering etc., global interactions, inter- and hypertextuality, reflexivity and reflectivity, and different forms of virtual and digital communication. The virtual transitional space is located neither in one’s mind nor in social environment; it is in-between, an intermediate space between fantasy and reality (as Winnicott [1971] expressed it), a poetic or an analytical “third” (stated by Thomas Ogden [1994]). While sharing the precious moments of meeting, we can get attuned to the potential space that invites the flow of self-inventive and co-inventive words (see Bolton & Ihanus, p. 184).

Poetic remembering and metaphoric transporting (of memories, truths, values and fantasies) goes on “between us” and the discussions are changing positions and questions in polyphonic and mobile dialogical spaces. The Swedish poet Anders Olsson (1988, p. 74) informs us: “You are not a word – / you are the word’s direction.” We used to ask “Who am I?” or “To be, or not to be?” There will be reformulations of the old questions, for example, “To whom shall I write my digital self?” or “To what virtual reality shall I connect?” There will be more transcriptions ahead, waiting to be invented. Poiesis, as meaning making, is never finished but open to discourse, running around, circling, claiming and reclaiming, rekindling topics and debates in poetic symposia.             



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About the Author

Juhani Ihanus, PhD, is Adjunct Professor of cultural psychology (University of Helsinki), Adjunct Professor of art education and art psychology (Aalto University). He is a pioneer of biblio-/poetry therapy in Finland and a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Poetry Therapy. He has published several books ("Multiple Origins: Edward Westermarck in Search of Mankind", "Swaddling, Shame and Society" and others) and articles on biblio-/poetry therapy, literature and art, and several areas of psychology.





Bolton, Gillie & Ihanus, Juhani (2011) Conversation about poetry/writing therapy: Two European perspectives. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 24 (3), 167–186.

Dysart-Gale, Deborah (2008) Lost in translation: Bibliotherapy and evidence-based medicine. Journal of Medical Humanities, 29 (1), 33–43.

Hedges, Diana (2005) Poetry, therapy and emotional life. Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing.

Ihanus, Juhani (2005) Touching stories in biblio-poetry therapy and personal development. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 18 (2), 71–84.

Levin, Fred M. (2009) Metaphor: A fascinating philosophic puzzle piece with neuro-psychoanalytic (NP) implications. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 29 (1), 69–78.

Modell, Arnold H. (2003) Imagination and the meaningful brain. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Modell, Arnold H. (2009) Metaphor – The bridge between feelings and knowledge. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 29 (1), 6–11.

Ogden, Thomas (1994) The analytical third: Working with intersubjective clinical facts. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 75 (1), 3–20.

Olsson, Anders (1988) Bellerofontes resa. Stockholm: Bonnier.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1971) Playing and reality. London: Tavistock.




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