|January 2009: Poetry as Therapy?
We all go through difficult times in life. Sometimes bad things happen that affect us, as with the
death of a child, friend, spouse/partner, or parent. Sometimes bad things are done to us, as with
childhood physical or sexual abuse. Sometimes we do bad things to ourselves or others, as with
addictions or violence. Sometimes our body does bad things to us, as with illness or many cases of
depression. Getting past the difficult time always involves some form of inner growth or healing, and
getting our thoughts and feelings down on paper often helps to clarify them and release them from
To accomplish this, diaries are great. Letters to people, whether dead or alive, and whether sent
or not sent, are also great. But one of the most effective approaches is poetry. Poetry is a uniquely
powerful way of expressing our emotions, and the rich images and/or musicality communicate
directly with our deepest sub-conscious. Writing these poems, the objective is not to see them
printed in a magazine or book. Rather, they are written just for ourselves, and even though no-one
else reads them they become an important part of the healing process.
Sometimes the poems that we create during these periods are so powerful that they offer the
potential to help others facing a similar situation, at least because they let us know that someone
else had feelings similar to ours. Let’s look at a poem by Lisel Mueller from her book Alive Together
(LSU Press) that deals with the issue of the loss of a spouse or partner:
What the neighbors bring
to her kitchen
is food for the living.
She wants to eat
the food of the dead, their pure
narcotic of dry, black seeds.
Why, without him,
should she desire
the endurance offered
by meat and grain,
the sugars that glue the soul
to the body?
She thanks them, but does not eat,
consumes strong coffee
as if it were air
and she the vigilant candle
on a famous grave,
until the familiar
sounds of the house
turn into messages
in the new language
he has been forced to learn.
All night she works on the code,
almost happy, her body rising
like bread, while the food in its china caskets
dries out on the kitchen table.
I particularly like the description of the ceramic dishes filled with drying food as “china caskets.”
Often the poet will sneak up on the real issue, addressing it indirectly or even denying it outright,
as in this poem that I wrote on the subject of depression, from Thoughts I Left Behind (2006, Level 4
I worship shadows like my daughter worships sun.
I don’t mean those
so crisp and dark
beneath a noon-time sun,
or shadow soldier squads
before a picket fence.
a harvest moon are more my style; the way they hide and watch
from low bushes,
then dance around
the lifted skirts of swaying trees,
like witches in a forest glen.
I’ve lured them home
with low-watt bulbs
in gargoyle sconces under overhangs.
At night my friends uncoil
on walks and walls,
then call me to their yard
to stroll and see my life
in grays and blacks.
And in my den
the shy ones come to watch
me read by candlelight.
They come, pull back,
grow bold, then sly;
so while I sip my scotch
and swirl the ice
I’m not alone.
So the next time you’re trying to cope with life’s problems, try writing poetry to get your thoughts
organized; to get the poison out of your system; or just to say all of those things you didn’t say in
person. Then take some time to read what other poets have said while in your position, and
remember that you are connected to a web of humanity stretching around the world and across the