A Poem a Day [1]

Whether you’ve delved deep into the archived libraries of the poetic works of the Beat Generation, or you’ve had to reluctantly analyze some poems back in your high school days, not many can deny there was something therapeutic about immersing yourself within a cognitive experience of language for those brief fifty seconds. You could fall into a daze from it, reflecting upon the emotions the poem evoked or the themes, which resonated so profoundly in today’s society, or even simply what the hell it was trying to say.

Scholars have been researching for decades on finding the union of some hard-ground scientific justification —  as facts become even more important today — to this innate unexplainable response we have from reading the poetic form. And well, this article isn’t exactly aimed to answer that either.

Rather, this article is here to serve as an observation of recent studies about using the poetic form as a therapeutic tool in many ways within many settings.

So if you care about the poetic form and its potential in the disciplines of social sciences and medical humanities, read on. If you care about finding a process of healing through more human interactions, read on. And if you care simply about the extent of the art-form, read on.

Although there are many ways to interpret the concept of the poem, seeing the different ways it enhances one’s cognitive activity in comparison to other art forms can be tricky. But what makes poetry so unique is that often the person who creates the poem is given a controlled private space that helps them express certain ideas and emotions, which often are not spoken about. Sharing these experiences often can permit an avenue for a sense of relief and a moment of vulnerability, giving them a chance to be understood and even reflect for themselves (Holmes, Sjollema).

One study demonstrated poetry created from marginalized groups (such as immigrant and First Nations youth) in Montreal, Canada often conveyed many coping strategies to their everyday life, comprising of both the negative and positive habits. Authors of the study even pointed out how poetry can act as a valuable asset in data collection to help describe the social phenomena outside of the independent experiences of the poet (in this specific study, poems generally had similar themes of urban marginality). Though it is not to say it is without some of its flaws, such as the subjectivity of the researcher playing a significant role in data analysis (Sjollema).

Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a professor who has been cited in many studies since the 1980s within the field of poetry therapy, had even reported the use of expressive writing (specifically journal writing) being implemented as a treatment demonstrating noticeable physical benefits. This would include the reduction of physician visits, positive effects on the immune function, stress hormones and blood pressure, depression and pain alleviation (Soter).

This had been further supported in another study led by Joshua Smyth where symptoms of patients who had asthma and rheumatoid arthritis had lessen by a drastic amount after having done twenty-minute sessions of expressive writing for three consecutive days. Interestingly, subjects who connected their emotions with significant events had significant reduction in symptoms compared with the control group that only written about the events themselves (Connolly).

It is important to note there are distinctions between expressive writing and poetry therapy, as expressive writing encompasses not only poetry therapy but other types such as journal writing, bibliotherapy, drama, various forms of narrative, etc. Yet all these creative activities in writing can act surprisingly as a form of healing in many cases.

In the journal article, “The healing power of writing: Applying the expressive/creative component of poetry therapy,” one of its authors — Nicholas Mazza — describes the utilization of poetry therapy into three components:

  1. the receptive/prescriptive component, involving the introduction of literature in a clinical or community activity;

  2. the expressive/creative component, involving the use of client writing in a clinical or community activity;

  3. the symbolic/ceremonial component involving the use of metaphors, rituals and storytelling in a clinical or community activity (Baker).

I find this fitting to place within this post, as I’ll come to cover all these components in the studies I discuss.

Within the same journal article, it also features an in-depth case study of a patient named ‘Anna’, who had taken on journal writing soon after consulting rheumatologists on her condition of Lupus and chronic pain. It was at the time she took on this experiment after her doctors had recently admitted to her they’ve exhausted all other options of treatment. The study goes on to describe how past normal leisure activities Anna enjoyed originally such as shopping and travelling became diminished due to her increased fatigue and could no longer take on full-time at her local law firm. Even her marriage had taken a toll, her husband filling in more as a caregiver rather than that of a compatible partner. However after having gone through the process, she was able to keep a record of her ‘pain score’ encouraging her to link certain emotions with events. This eventually led Anna to acknowledge her disease and developed productive methods of management and containment, as opposed to feeling overwhelmed by what she had when she started the experiment (Baker).

Variations with slight alterations of this experiment were also taken in account in the same journal article, instances which involved even more collaborative effort.

One example had involved the collaboration between mother and son to create dyadic poems, with each contributing a line. Both were at the time trying to cope with the passing of their husband/father figure, eventually helping to re-establish an emotional bond which allowed them to go on to the next step of the grief process. Soon after they had been able to come to acceptance of his death, eventually having later visited the father’s grave together (Baker).

“My dad’s in heaven. (Brad, first line)

And he’s watching over you. (Mother, second line)” (Baker)

If this still continues to peak your interest, there will be a post in the near future which will contain even more interesting snippets of my research on poetry therapy, so stay tuned for that! (Written by Victor Khuong / Image by Katherine Tang)