Can the words written or spoken by a poet lead to real healing and transformation? Does a poem have the capacity to change something deep within? What actually happens when we fully engage with a poem?
In a recent therapy session with a client I was reminded of the healing power of poetry.
She arrived with a printed copy of the poem and read it to me with tears in her eyes. In just a few lines, the poem had captured where she was at in her life…and where she hoped to get to.
In this post we’ll look at how certain poetry has the capacity to touch and transform us at the core of our being.
It is this that gives poetry – like all great art – the power to heal our wounds and give us the sustenance needed through our ‘dark nights of the soul’.
I’ll include a copy of the poem that so moved my client and provide links to other great poetry that you might like to read later.
Let’s open ourselves to some healing poetry…
How poetry helps us heal
When we read or hear – and fully engage – with a poem something happens to our interior world. The articulate precision of the right words cut to the chase of one’s inner being.
We are jolted from our everyday trances and given a glimpse into another reality, another way of perceiving ourselves, the situation we are in and the wider world.
A chink of light enters the dark passages of our hidden places. Places that are often hidden even from ourselves.
Like a great story that somehow resonates deep within, a poem has the capacity to shift our consciousness, to awaken our soul, to bring us back to life from our everyday slumber.
Healing poetry and the imagination
The late Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, once said this about the poet’s art…
The poet wants to drink from the well of origin…In order to enter this level of originality the poet must reach beyond the chorus of chattering voices that people the surface of a culture…down to the root voice. It is here that individuality has the taste of danger, vitality, and vulnerability…this is the threshold where the imagination engages raw, unformed experience. This is the sense you have when you read a true poem…Its self and its form are one. (1)
There are several important things that O’Donohue raises in just those few short lines. One of the key things is the idea that a true poem leads us to ‘the threshold where the imagination engages raw, unformed experience’.
And through the imagination (which is one of our most powerful resources) we are inspired or, more accurately, urged to dream differently; to release the mental shackles and enter the vulnerability of the unknown, full of potential and possibility.
How to fully engage with a poem
Like all great art, to appreciate a poem fully requires an engagement that detaches us from the everyday world. What is called for is a type of reverie – much like a daydream – where your imagination and emotions are given permission to relate to the poem and the ideas it triggers within yourself.
The busyness of the everyday world means that we spend far less time in reverie, overloaded as we are by information in the form of text messages, emails, notifications, social media, and 24/7 news stories of doom and gloom.
Reverie has been stolen from us, almost as if we’re not allowed to dream of anything other than what the media tells us.
But if we can step away from the bombardment, detach ourselves a little – maybe through deep breathing exercises, mindful meditation, or walks in nature – we can create mental space for the poem to enter us.
And there, in that quieter place, we become entranced by the words of the poem and the ideas and feelings it stimulates in the well of our being.
Have a listen to David Whyte’s poem ‘Everything Is Waiting For You’ and allow yourself a couple of minutes of immersion…
Healing poetry and placement
How did you get on? Were you able to lose yourself in the poem?
Perhaps we need more than just the poem? Perhaps we need placement as well.
For instance, on a visit to Wales, I spent time in the village of Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsula, home of the late R.S. Thomas. (2)
In St Hywyn’s church, where Thomas preached for more than a decade, I could feel his presence. Or was it his poetry that I felt?
Thereafter, for the remainder of my holiday, whether I was on a desolate beach or wandering in the hills or mountains, the words – and feeling – of R.S. Thomas went with me.
This is one of my favourite R.S. Thomas poems that captures in just a few lines something we spend our whole lives searching…
Poetry and existential choices
If a poem triggers something vital in you, if it alerts you to something long denied (or long yearned for), you are confronted with a choice: decide to do something with the wisdom that the poem evoked or do nothing. It’s not an easy decision.
When a poem awakens us from our everyday trances and the habitual, repetitive monotone of our lives, an existential dilemma awaits. To do or not to do.
A true poem can be seen as a message from the gods, like a ‘call to adventure’ as in The Hero’s Journey, inviting us to leave the known world and dare something different. Life comes knocking at your door.
The courage to answer the call demands a willingness to enter ‘Possibility Land’ – where nothing is certain. Not all of us are cut out for such demands.
But with the right help – and the guiding light of a true poem – we can trust to life itself and surrender to the journey our destiny demands of us.
Healing poetry as therapy
My client, in bringing a poem into the session, reminded me of the healing power of poetry. But can it really be used as a therapy in itself? (4)
What we’re talking about here is the skilful use of language, an art form that uses language to summon us to ourselves.
Like a good orator, story-teller, or psychotherapist skilled in the use of hypnotic language, the words of a poem entrance us. Perhaps firstly by echoing our current predicaments and then (hopefully) leading us to some kind of therapeutic outcome.
Just as stories contain deeper, metaphorical patterns that can lead to significant shifts in the way we see the world, a poem also has the power to alter our perception of self and others.
Thus, in this way, the right poem, told in the right way to the right person (who is receptive enough to receive it) has the capacity to instigate change and healing.
My client’s poem
So, what was the poem my client brought to the session? It’s another poem from David Whyte (3). Certain lines resonated with my client so powerfully, it was as if the poem had been written just for her and for exactly this moment in her life.
It’s called Just Beyond Yourself…
Just beyond yourself. It's where you need to be. Half a step into self-forgetting and the rest restored by what you’ll meet. There is a road always beckoning. When you see the two sides of it closing together at that far horizon and deep in the foundations of your own heart at exactly the same time, that’s how you know it’s the road you have to follow. That’s how you know it’s where you have to go. That’s how you know you have to go. That’s how you know. Just beyond yourself, it’s where you need to be.
What are your favourite poems?
I hope you’ve found this post interesting and enjoyable to read. Please leave a comment below. Even better, let me know the title of your favourite poem and I’ll add a link to it so we can all read it.
(1) From ‘the works’ of John O’Donohue https://www.johnodonohue.com/works
(2) Information about R.S. Thomas https://broenlli.com/en/be_visitor/rs-thomas/
(3) For more of David Whyte’s poetry visit his website https://davidwhyte.com/
(4) For info on poetry therapy visit https://poetrytherapy.org/ and https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-empowerment-diary/202104/the-power-poetry-therapy
The featured image for this blog post is by Trust Tru Katsande
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