No 30 - Winter 2004 / 2005
Poetry in practice
Wendy French writes on poetry as a healing art
The words poetry and healing have a lot in common: poetry comes from the Greek and means to compose, to pull things together, to shape, to create; the etymology of healing derives from the Germanic khailaz, through Anglo-Saxon hoelan, which also means to make whole.
There is a strong movement forward for the arts to be incorporated more and more into healthcare, in relation to physical disability as well as mental illness.
For the past year, I have been involved with running fortnightly writing workshops, one for adults with mental health problems, and the other for adults with visual impairment. I have worked for many years with adolescents with mental health problems and so have seen first hand the therapeutic benefits that reading and writing poetry can bring to troubled minds. The same result is showing with my groups of adult writers. Reading and discussing the work of published and well known poets is both stimulating and comforting. To know that other people have suffered in the same way and can succinctly put into words their feelings is an encouragement for others to try.
Working with visually impaired adults has made me re-examine my personal beliefs. The courage of the group – most of whom have never written anything (or dictated anything) other than a letter – has been shown by the willingness to examine the inadequacies that they feel by either being partially sighted or having no sight. They have put these difficult feelings into words and made tape recordings to express ideas and fears of what it is like to wake every morning and know that you are very different. One woman, blind from birth, writes about how she dreams in colours and another, a keen gardener with severe sight loss, writes about her exotic plants, her visits to nurseries and how she knows which bulbs she is buying and planting by touch. Both women have said that they did not think anyone would be interested in what they had to say until, as a group activity, we read Wild Geese by Mary Oliver which prompted discussion of the line: “the world offers itself to your imagination.”
Medicine and poetry have a common goal: to complete what nature cannot do, to examine life from every angle and think of ways of enhancing certain lives to alleviate suffering. Not just physical suffering. Sometimes physical illness can be overwhelming, but still a strong need can develop for a sufferer to unlock his / her creativity in order to get some control back over his / her body. As well as physical pain, there is also extreme mental anguish that many of us experience at times in our lives. A strong drive to find a way through can develop and this is where poetry becomes a healing art. Poetry, through language, rhythm, metaphor and image, can explain something on a metaphorical level that is too distressing to conceptualise in any other way. Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, herself suffers from a manic-depressive illness and she has written a moving memoir entitled An Unquiet Mind. In this account of her own illness, Dr Jamison relates how poetry (always a love of hers) remained accessible throughout her illness: “Poetry, thank God, remained within my grasp and, having always loved it, I now fell upon it with a passion that is hard to describe. “Poetry can relate not only to mental illness but to complex emotional states, some of them quite common. The moving poem, Chartreuse by Anne-Marie Fyfe, written after the death of her mother, speaks to any one of us who yearns for the face of a loved one.
The woman at the corner of Sunset
and Main in the dilute green of evening
is wearing my mother’s face.
The familiar of the local streets and the unfamiliar sense of silence and loss after death meet at the corner, the cross roads, to represent another woman wearing the face of the dead mother.
To read a good poem written by someone who has captured a recognised emotion and transformed that feeling into a universal piece of art with resonances for others can be life-enhancing. Another example:
And the Berlin angel, whose sleeves still bear
A trace of concrete from the broken wall.
Gillian Clarke’s poem Unpacking the Angel addresses fragility, loss, history, the importance of tradition and journey. In only one page the poem is packed with rhythm and symbolism. The language and sentiment are accessible to the reader searching for boundaries between past and present and the connection with everyday happenings. The poem is a description of the writer unpacking the familiar box of Christmas decorations that have been collected over the years. The box is brought down from the attic and as each ornament is unpacked memories flow in from when her children were small, different countries that have been visited, people she has known: “dust, maybe from every year of my life.”
Is reading this poem a healing experience? Like all good poems, it has many layers, and if you’re looking for something that will take you into a realm beyond yourself, then I would say that this poem inspires and speaks to anyone involved with family life and the passing of the years.
Are these two poems examples of poems that are healing to read? They are narratives of lives, ordinary lives, and ordinary lives are full of extraordinary experiences that make up daily living. Experiences need to be named in order to be recognised.
Theodore Roethke and Anne Sexton are two powerful poets who, for many years, were able to craft a structure on their lives through poetry. Unfortunately the fight for survival became too much for both of them and they ended up taking their own lives. Their legacies to us are many fine lines of poetry. Both poets were keenly aware of the need to confront their suffering and of the power this could generate. As Roethke put it, “In a dark time the eye begins to see” and Anne Sexton, “the poet should not avoid the pain that they get dealt… Hurt must be examined like a plague.”
So to sum up, to read poems that address suffering can have a healing property not because of their gentleness (often quite the opposite), but because they can make the reader re-examine his / her own life and throw fresh perspectives on common experiences.
The poem Things by Fleur Adcock spoke directly to a young man whom I worked with who had difficulty in controlling his anger. He learnt this poem by heart and would recite it when the guilt became too much. “It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in / and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.”
Reading a poem, we are hearing someone else’s rhythms, seeing someone else’s imagery, hearing a familiar language in a new and exciting way, and we are there in the heart of the poem breathing in its existence and taking on its life as our own.
Contact with creativity takes us into a particular place in our mind and body. We live with our own personal landscapes and we grow to learn how much we can endure and what resources we have to fall back on in times of need. On the therapist’s couch, patients have no other material than their own self, with all of its complexities and in all of its manifestations. This self has presented with a need for therapy, for someone to listen and hear what is said. So too, in poetry, the inspirational source is the writer (him or herself) and the wealth of knowledge and experience that each carries will be strikingly different or strikingly similar to someone else’s.
Where does the idea for a poem come from? Gillian Clarke has said that for her a poem arrives in a coinciding moment of language and energy. “The poem is begun in a moment of germination. To have an idea for a poem is to have nothing at all.”
The complex experience of life mixing with language works in the poet to enable the poet to write. A poem may be produced. Depending on the subject of the poem, the writer may be addressing complex and painful events. The first version of a poem is unlikely to have universal appeal. The words have to be internalised and a rhythm established, patterns of syntax, sound and new meanings to old context have to be digested, thought about and committed to paper. As we all know, this process can take months, sometimes years, before the poem says what we want it to say. But once we have worked through many drafts of a poem and begin to think that the poem is doing what we want it to do, then a feeling of relief floods in and with this relief comes a sense of some kind of achievement. There may still be hours needed in order for this poem to work, but we can see it begin to take off and have meaning for others as well as ourselves. This is when writing becomes a therapeutic activity. We have been on the therapist’s couch and thought about how to communicate our words. We have made sense of our lives through language and we can speak to others.
I have been writing about poetry as a healing response to mental suffering. But there is another kind of suffering which has been common throughout the twentieth century and continues in part of the world today – suffering caused by political terror. One example must stand for all. It is from Anna Akhmatova’s Instead of a Preface to Requiem:
“In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by my name before. Now she stared out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there): ‘Can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
The something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”
It is when we start to describe what we thought was indescribable
that healing begins. The unspeakable forms words.
Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and Fleur Adcock’s Things are both published in Neil Astley’s anthology, Staying Alive (Bloodaxe). Anne-Marie Fyfe’s Chartreuse is in Tickets from a Blank Window (Rockingham Press). Gillian Clarke’s Unpacking the Angel is in Five Fields (Carcanet). Anna Akhmatova’s Instead of a Preface to Requiem is in Selected Poems (Harvill).
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The