Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

Is Poetry Therapy? February 9, 2009

One of the issues alive in the world of healing and writing today is whether or not writing poetry is therapy.  This issue is a sticky wicket, because in bringing the writing of poetry into the healthcare setting, we are claiming that there are measurable and intangible therapeutic effects, otherwise why would we do it?  How is the use of creative writing in healthcare similar to and also different from traditional therapy?

Therapists, it can be loosely claimed, analyze an individual according to certain categories, depending on whether they are Freudian, Cognitive-Behaviorists, etc.  Then they establish a goal for the individual and work towards that specific goal.  Artists in the healthcare setting, however, do not analyze the patients they work with.  Their purpose is to transmit their craft as vehicle for the individual to begin a dialogue with themselves.  The artist as facilitator cannot know what the deep needs of the individual are to move towards their healing, although there are specific needs which we must always attend to: for safety, acceptance and boundaries.  By using close reading, by attending to the text created by the individual and make observations about the text, not assumptions about the individual, we model a process where individuals can begin to express and observe their own emotions, and draw conclusions from them, in their own language and in their own time.The goals and methods of therapy can be lifesavers, and there are often times when we have individuals whom we need to refer for therapy.  But Thomas Moore, a psychotherapist himself, makes this distinction between poetic language and the language of popular psychology in  his book Dark Nights of the Soul:

The language of popular psychology tends to be both heroic and sentimental.  You conquer your problems and aim at personal growth and wholeness. The alternative is to have a deeper imagination of who you are and what you are going through…The quality of your language is significant.  In your dark night, try speaking in story and image.

I would suggest that in some ways it could be said that psychotherapy is reductive, in that it aims to conform the individual to an already conceived-of-goal, whereas poetry and story are additive, in that while they may summon not only the wounds of the past, they also invite openness to the mystery of the self, to the creation of something new.  To use the language of psychology, when the ego is fractured, the Self breaks in, speaking not only of pain, but also of remembrance of wholeness.

Gregory Orr, in his book, Poetry as Survival, alludes to the same idea of the dominant paradigm of heroism in the face of pain, despair and disorder as Thomas Moore does:

(My cultural training suggest) I should resist disorder and try to dominate it.  According to the mythic models that shape my response, I should take active control and subdue disorder, by heroic force, if necessary.

But the approach recommended by the personal lyric is the opposite of this: to become vulnerable, to open the door and admit the mysterious creatures who wait on our threshold seeking permission to enter.  We must, the personal lyric tells us, become vulnerable to what is out there (or inside us). Not in order to be destroyed or overwhelmed by it, but as a part of a strategy for dealing with it and surviving it.  Lyric poetry tells us that is precisely by letting in disorder that we will gain access to poetry’s ability to help us survive.  It is in the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves.

Artists bring to the work of facilitating this understanding and this experience.  We know that there are many mysterious creatures who wait on the threshold seeking permission to enter. We have entertained them and survived.  We give them names other than dysfunction or repression, although these names too may fit.  We try to open a space for them, in  ourselves and others.

I believe it is important to keep a distinction between poetry as healing and poetry as therapy.  In the best of all worlds, good therapy partakes of the poetic and good poetry partakes of the therapeutic.  But as artists in healthcare need to be clear about what we do, and do not, bring to the table.

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