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What is Writing & Poetry Therapy?

Introducing Poetry Therapy
by Susan de Wardt, CJF/CAPF


The power of language to heal is no recent discovery. Throughout the ages humankind has explored the educational and therapeutic value of language and literature. Every civilization from past to present has made use of metaphor, imagery, rhythm and other literary devices to construct teaching stories and fables, and to transmit personal information as well as cultural history and tradition from one generation to the next.

Poetry, with its condensed form and lyrical quality, is an especially evocative form of literature capable of eliciting responses from people of all ages and in all cultures. The earliest use of poetry for healing can be attributed to tribal cultures where shamans and witch doctors chanted poetry for the well-being of the tribe or individual. Poetry therapy in modern practice refers to the use of published and original poems as well as story, narrative literature, song lyrics and therapeutic writing (journal therapy) in an interactive process for cathartic release, enhanced self-awareness, new insight, and renewed hope. During the interactive, guided discovery process, poetry provides a universal perspective from which to understand the profound as well as the mundane events that constitute an individual life.

What is poetry therapy? Poetry therapy differs from the highly analytic (and often oppressive) interpretive process of English literature class in a significant way. While there is inherent value in the act of reading poetry, therapeutic value is derived through a facilitated discussion of the reader’s feeling-response to a poem. Participants are invited to discover and share their own intuitive understanding of a poem rather than analyze meter or agree with the experts on the poet’s intended meaning. A participant’s personal response to a poem or story is valued; engaging in a dialogue with a trained facilitator about that response can then lead to deeper layers of insight.

In the seminal handbook for poetry therapy (Biblio/Poetry Therapy, The Interactive Process: a Handbook, North Star Press, 1994) authors Arleen Hynes and Mary Hynes-Berry define a four-part interactive process for biblio/poetry therapy as follows:

1) recognition, 2) examination, 3) juxtaposition, and 4) self-application.

To put it simply, a poetry therapy process might go like this:

An individual reads a poem and recognizes that the poem has meaning. Taking a closer look, the individual recognizes the poem has a significant personal meaning or they have a feeling response to some aspect of the literature. The reader then considers where this feeling or response originated. What caused it? How does it feel exactly? Is it like some other feeling or experience?  During this phase the reader usually has an ‘aha’ moment and makes a connection between the response to the poem and an important personal process, belief, or life event. Some form of learning has taken place. Once the reader/participant achieves insight, s/he can decide what to do with the new information: How will I use this new awareness in my life?

The ‘aha’ moment can occur spontaneously for healthy individuals. In a clinical situation, dialoguing with a trained facilitator is recommended to optimize and complete the healing process. Self-application is vital to integrate the learning and can be as simple as writing a journal summary of the insight to capture awareness. For structured developmental processes, a participant may create a personal action plan based on their insight; clinical applications may extend to complex treatment plans for continued growth.

What is poetry therapy and its effects on the modern individual? While positive results can be achieved with a variety of therapeutic modalities, poetry therapy is unique in its use of literature as the primary catalyst for change. Poems have tremendous potential for use in the treatment of mental illness. Poetry therapy appeals to the healthy aspects of the mind in both clinical and developmental applications, reinforcing strengths rather than diagnosing problem areas. Practitioners report outstanding success using poetry therapy with teens and adolescents, with seniors, with prison populations, for counseling grief and loss, for addictions, and emotional disorders. As the need to confront personal feelings, improve self-awareness and enhance self-esteem is no longer confined to mentally ill patients, poetry facilitators today support all kinds of people in their normal growth and healthy development process.

For more information about poetry therapy, contact:
www.poetrytherapy.org. The National Association for Poetry Therapy is a community dedicated to the advancement of language arts in growth and healing.

To find a certified poetry practitioner in your area or to learn more about credentialing/training as a poetry therapist, contact:
www.nfbpt.com. Incorporated in 1983, the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy sets standards of excellence in the training and credentialing of practitioners in the field of biblio/poetry therapy.

About the Author

Life Coach Susan de Wardt, CJF/CAPF is the ATH Editor of Poetry Therapy. She has helped people find the courage to expand life satisfaction and creative potential for over twenty years. A masterful facilitator of process, Susan specializes in the use of poetry and art to transform lives.















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