The Healing Power of Poetry: Appreciating a Primal Pleasure

Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree (1879) by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) for poetry blog post

 

Uncertainty is a word that pops up frequently in conversations. The pandemic, gun violence, international conflagrations, and the escalating number of climate disasters have increased our concerns about safety and heightened our awareness of our inability to prevent or control many current challenges. Global and societal changes that affect us personally are occurring at an accelerating pace, often without warning. No wonder we’re invaded by pervasive anxiety and feelings of vulnerability and isolation.

We know that stress reduction techniques like meditation, yoga, exercise, and walks in nature mediate the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response of fight, flight, or freeze. Another time-honored but much-overlooked modality that can restore a general sense of well-being is the reading and writing of poetry.

Poetry reconnects us with the beauty and goodness of the world, while also naming its difficulties. Rather than dismissing hardships, poetry calls them out and reminds us that others have also lost a loved one, experienced disappointments, endured sleeplessness, lived with depression—have suffered as we now suffer. Poetry allows us to identify our personal turbulences, breaks our feeling of isolation, and affirms our sense of belonging. Poetry steers us toward wisdom and acceptance.

Science agrees. The International Arts & Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University offers convincing evidence from a number of studies that poetry is good for our health.[i] A 2021 study at a Rhode Island hospital found that hospitalized children who read or wrote poetry experienced decreased negative emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue.[ii] Another study from 2013 in the Philippines showed that guided poetry writing sessions significantly lessened depression in a group of traumatized and abused adolescents.[iii] Reading a poem that speaks to us, we realize we are not alone.

Rumi (2017) by Chyah for poetry blog postConsider “The Guest House” by Jalal al-Din Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and one of the most cherished poets today. Written over eight hundred years ago, the poem invites us to view all of life’s experiences and the feelings that arise from them as temporary visitors in the “guest house” of self. With patience and compassion, Rumi counsels us to recognize that even negative moods are precious teachers for our growth.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes the effects of traumatic stress on mind and body. I suggest that the body keeps the score on pleasure, too. One of our earliest and most fundamental pleasures as humans is the sensory delight of language. The lullabies, rhymes, and nightly prayers of our youth linger in the recesses of our brains. Some of us wished upon stars. Wish I may, wish I might, make this wish come true tonight. Some of us played clapping games. Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack/all dressed in black, black, black. Some of us made up silly limericks. A flea and a fly in a flue/Were imprisoned so what could they do/Said the flea, let us fly/Said the fly, let us flee/So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

A 2019 study in Finland measured the surface brain activity of 21 newborn babies listening to regular speech, music, and nursery rhymes. Only the nursery rhymes produced a significant brain response when the rhymes were altered, suggesting that the infants’ brains were trying to predict what rhyme should have occurred.[iv]

Our innocent delight at nonsensical rhymes and metrical rhythms brings a smirk now, but as children those sounds provided sensorial pleasure to our tongues, lips, and ears. In a 1978 essay called “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: Infantile Origins of Poetic Form,” the poet Donald Hall identified the origins of poetic form in the preverbal babbling of infants, in the mouth-pleasure of sounds and sucking, and muscle-pleasure of clapping, tapping, repetition.[v] (When faced with a cranky baby, try a round of peek-a-boo, repeating the word itself, or cradling the baby while swaying and singing a rhythmic tune.)

“Hey Diddle Diddle” (from Nursery Rhymes (1885) by Edward Cogger) for poetry blog postWe have forgotten how intimately we are connected to poetic meter. Iambic pentameter, the ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM of one unstressed and one stressed syllable in a five-beat line, mimics the percussive beat of our hearts. In his ground-breaking book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist cites numerous instances of how across cultures people display a general appreciation for art, including poetry, which suggests that the brain has a non-socially constructed intuitive capacity to apprehend “beauty and the understanding of its expression through art.”[vi]

Are we somehow aware that there is something beyond its grasp? The great Swiss depth psychologist Carl Jung believed we have an inherent desire to connect with the deeper mysteries of existence, what he called “the religious attitude,” that creates a bridge between our inner world and the vast boundless outer one.

Especially during times of need, poetry acts as a bridge and invites us to participate in a greater understanding of our travails, and awakens our perceptions to beauty and joy, right here, right now. In “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver calls out praise for the natural world and urges us to find our place in the natural order. Like Rumi, she asks the reader to recognize life’s preciousness and encourages us to consider how we might make the most of that precious gift. Mary Oliver once said, “I got saved by the beauty of the world.” This is the advice her poems offer us, to approach all experiences with gratitude and wonder.

Think of poetry as a portal to a timeless place where we find solace, companionship, enlightenment, enchantment, mystery, connection, wisdom, humor, healing. Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, names the disconnects as well, where we have gone blind to existential threats and personal sorrows that threaten to overwhelm us. With its adherence to precision of language, its concision of thought and meaning, its naming and interrogation of experience, poetry, in a small space, usually one page, packs a wallop.

To enter a poem is to escape the clamor of the ordinary world. Poems can be reminders of things we know but have forgotten. Painful experiences are reframed and given a new understanding by a poem. That’s because poetry reflects a rich brew of the sweetness and bitterness that is life. It refreshes our temporal minds and offers invented landscapes of imagery.

Rumi and Mary Oliver lived centuries apart and yet they speak to each over, and to us, across time. It’s a long way from Hickory Dickory Dock to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, but a direct line exists between the formal poem and our wiring for pleasure in pattern, rhythm, and form. Poetry is not an escape from but an escape to: a place to land, a refuge.

For your own health and peace of mind, I encourage you to take up a friendship with poetry.

[i] Sima, Richard, “More Than Words: Why Poetry is Good for Our Health,” International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), Johns Hopkins Medicine, March 11, 2021

[ii] Chung, Erica et al., “Effects of a Poetry Intervention on Emotional Wellbeing in Hospitalized Pediatric Patients,” Hospital Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, March 1, 2021

[iii] Brillantes-Evangelista, Grace, “An evaluation of visual arts and poetry as therapeutic interventions with abused adolescents,” The Arts in Psychotherapy, February, 2013.

[iv] Suppanen, Emma, et al., “Rhythmic structure facilitates learning from auditory input in newborn infants,” Infant Behavior and Development, November, 2019.

[v] Hall, Donald, “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: Infantile Origins of Poetic Form,” in Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry, 1970-76 (Poets On Poetry), University of Michigan Press, 1978.

[vi] McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, 2019.

Poetry resources: Poetry Foundation  Academy of American Poets   International Poetry

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy Dale’s recently published collection of poems, M, or these other blog posts about poetry: “Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity,” “How I write; love and forgiveness,“ and “Recovering from Trauma: Finding the Words that Heal.”

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Facing the Tiger: Welcoming Anxiety’s Fierce Wisdom

Tiger by Hsueh Shao-Tang for Anxiety blog post

 

Long before there was a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification book of psychological maladies; long before there were psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers; before brain imaging or even the discovery that mental disturbances are not the result of an imbalance of humours originating in our liver, heart and spleen, as Hippocrates proposed; long before science became Science, at the very beginning of civilization, humans experienced anxiety.

Anxiety is not an aberration, an enemy, an alien dark force; it is a part of our human package, and rare is the individual who does not experience it. The Buddha saw that humans have an aversion to suffering but concluded that running from suffering (or, in this case, anxiety) only strengthens it. And yet anyone who has been besieged by anxiety recognizes the instinct to flee from its oppression. “Get me out of here!” we say, trying to distance ourselves from distress and reject or suppress our feelings of vulnerability. But since loss and grief and other difficult emotions are inherent in a human life, we can pretty much count on bouts of anxiety to resurface even if we’ve successfully sought relief through counseling, meditation, medication, or by numbing ourselves through denial, overwork, or addictions. As with other difficult emotional states, lasting changes are the result of working with the difficulty and transforming our relationship to it rather than from fleeing it.

Sujith Rathnayake drawing for Anxiety blog postThe study of evolution has taught us that anxiety is purposeful and necessary to our survival. It’s our warning system that something in the environment is threatening. Acknowledging anxiety’s prevalence and its biological roots can ease the shame, self-blame, and depression that often attend it. A problem arises, however, when anxiety floods us and no real danger is present, blocking our ability to discern threat from no-threat. Research indicates that anxiety distorts our perceptions. Anxiety causes us to see the world through the lens of fear. Feared objects appear closer than they really are. A cascade of physiological responses—shallow breathing, rapid heartbeats, and tightened muscles—create a negative feedback loop and heighten our experience of dread.

When slammed by anxiety, one way to cope is to pause, connect with our breath, breathing deep into the belly, notice our thoughts, reassess the situation and reassure ourselves we are safe. We can ask ourselves: “Is this tiger a real tiger or is it a large cat?” Learning to distinguish what our habitual responses have been to certain triggers helps us confront the problem and strengthens our ability to slip out of anxiety’s grip. We can ask: “What’s really here?”

Why not try a different way of looking at anxiety? What if, instead of trying to shun or control our anxiety, we befriended it? This is neither a glib suggestion nor an easy project. Nor is it “a cure.” Look at it as a creative and generative way to form a new and possibly transformative relationship to deep distress. What if we accepted that we don’t have to live with the anticipatory fear that anxiety will pounce on us at any moment, but could instead consider anxiety as a teacher and constructive ally in navigating our own emotional depths?

Rumi meets his spiritual instructor, for Anxiety blog postHere is thirteenth-century mystic poet Rumi’s famous poem on the subject of our human wholeness and the prospect of inviting all that we are to make itself known and present, both the darkness and the light:

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

—Jallaludin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious,” wrote C. G. Jung. Here Jung was addressing what he called our shadow aspects, disowned and dissociated parts of our psyches that remain unconscious. For Jung, the process of becoming whole individuated human beings involves acknowledging, accepting, and integrating into our consciousness, to use Buddhist author Pema Chodron’s words, “the places that scare us.” In The Places That Scare Us: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2007), Chodron writes, “The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. However, it’s not so easy to take a straight look at what we do. Seeing ourselves clearly is initially uncomfortable and embarrassing.” In The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life (1999), Zen teacher John Tarrant echoes this: “Integrity is the inner sense of wholeness and strength that arises out of our honesty with ourselves.”

Oizys, Greek goddess of anxiety for Anxiety blog postA Jungian perspective invites a holistic approach that views symptoms as manifestations of something out of balance in our psyches and as a call to healing. Analyst James Hollis, in his book, Hauntings: Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives (2013), conveys through theory and case histories how unconscious material appears to come to us from the outside, as something fated or as a physical illness. Jung advanced Freud’s idea that a symptom is the psyche’s way of alerting us to a need that has gone unnoticed and unmet. Somatic illnesses themselves might offer symbolic clues to the unmet need, suggesting that our vulnerability to a given disease may relate to our emotional as well as physical well-being.

In ancient Greece, when a healing practitioner assessed an illness, he would ask: “What god has been offended here?” Jung contended that this connection still exists:

“We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal spectres, not the psychic factors that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth: in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases. Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting rooms, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”—Jung, Collected Works, V13 (1929)

If the Greek pantheon of gods and goddess represent aspects of Self, we might consider that each of us houses our own “gods and goddesses” who direct our lives in unseen ways. What if our anxiety acts as a disgruntled or offended spirit? If so, we must listen to its story and find out why it’s offended and what it wants.

Anxiety by Edvard Munch for Anxiety blog postOne way to work with anxiety is to approach it as a spirit that is asking for recognition and understanding. Anxiety is both universal and personal. Symptomatically, your and my anxiety may look the same, but their roots are in our personal histories. Asking directly what our anxiety wants and why it is here, and then dialoguing with it in a journal can help clarify your personal anxiety’s intention. Is it a wise teacher? A frightened child? A wild medicine man? Working playfully to paint, draw, sculpt or write about your anxiety need not replace traditional treatment but can open a new and surprising connection with what ails. Be curious! What does your anxiety look like? A monstrous clawed hand or an exploding bomb? Is it all black or does it have fiery red or bright yellow parts? Working creatively with anxiety releases the positive forces of empathy, both for oneself and for the anxiety, which is no less than a part of you.

The renowned writer Rainer Maria Rilke in his book, Letters to A Young Poet (1929), wrote this advice to a young cadet trying to decide between a military or a literary career:

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Empathy, compassion, understanding, patience, embracing our wholeness—these are the qualities that ease our suffering and allow us to heal.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at