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Healing with Words, Rhythm and Voice

April 17, 2013


April is National Poetry Month in North America. It is a time to celebrate poetry and increase awareness and appreciation for the gift of this art form. Poetry therapy is a form of bibliotherapy, which uses a wide range of literature/books for healing and personal growth. Poetry is one of many expressive arts modalities used therapeutically for a wide range of clinical issues, including the treatment of trauma (Levine & Kline, 2006, Loue, 2012, Nicholas, 2003). Like many art forms, it may often be dismissed as a therapeutic resource if we, as therapists, feel we lack the propensity to write poems. Yet poetry can be used within a solid therapeutic framework in a variety of ways.

I see these interventions as invitations to our clients, whether it is bringing created poems, lyrics or rhymes to the session or writing poetry. The following section outlines only some of the ways poetry may be incorporated in the therapy session:

1. Invitations: Use already created or well-known poems/stories. I have a folder with many poems, lyrics and quotes that I personally have loved or ones that clients have brought to me to use in their therapeutic work.

Poem Ideas:

  • “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” – Portia Nelson
  • “Summer Day” – Mary Oliver
  • “The Journey” – Mary Oliver
  • “She Danced” – Shilo Sophia
  • “Prelude” – Oriah Mountain Dreamer
  • “Rhymes and Stories to Prevent and Heal Trauma” – Peter Levine and Maggie Kline

Book ideas:

  • “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” – Leo Buscaglia
  • “The Giving Tree” – Shel Silverstein
  • “My Many Colored Days” – Dr. Suess
  • “The Velveteen Rabbit” – Margery Williams

As therapists, we may have a sense, in terms of right timing, to share a poem or story that may have meaning for our clients. I also invite my clients to bring a special poem, quote or story that is important to them. We then use that writing in our work. How has this poem or story been important to them? Is there a particular line that stands out? What if they took that line and used it as a starting point to their own poem or story?

Another intervention is to invite our client to read the poem. It is sometimes in the reading of the poem in their own voice that the connection to the meaning and essence of the writing becomes clearer. We can really slow down this process and stay with whatever emotion arises.

 2. Use poem prompts. Using prompts can be a nice springboard to the inner world of our clients. Some prompt ideas include:

  • My hurt is like…My body is…I feel most alive when…The “me” nobody knows…The inside “me”…The outside “me”…
  • Write a poem with the title: “No One Heard Me” or “The Feelings I Hide”
  • Or write a poem in the voice of a young girl or boy or in the voice of a hero or superstar.

3. Intermodal use of poetry. In a session, if we have started with creating a visual image (i.e. a painting), we may then move to writing one-word responses to the image. I will write out all the words that come to them as they observe their piece. If it is hard to get started, I may offer up some words to begin with. I hand them the words and invite them to create a written response to their piece. Having the one-word responses offers a framework that may be easier to write from than just from the imagination.

On a more personal note, poetry saved my life as a teen. There were certainly no formal resources readily available, and “talking” about problems wasn’t encouraged. I turned to writing poems. My own suffering found a home in words strung together to make sense of untouchable hurts. It was like the poem provided the container for an event or an intense emotion and helped to move it outside of the body and hold it safely, which provided distance, relief and inner calm. Poems came again to my assistance through the grief of my mom dying of cancer and the long process of her illness. The poems seemed to document what I was witnessing and needed to be witnessed through the sharing of my poems with a trusted friend. Still, to this day, I tend to turn toward the arts, in particular to creative writing, as a way to sift through the “stuff of life,” including both the sorrows and the joys.

In my therapy office, I keep a journal that is waiting for me to fill the pages with my responses to what I witness as therapist. These responses reflect the stories and sufferings of many children, teens and adults I see on a daily basis. This journal is my companion. It is reliable, ever ready, even encouraging me, and, at times, begging me to take the time to spill open onto the pages with words and images that surface in my own inner world as a therapist.

Recently I asked a 15-year-old girl with a significant trauma history how poetry or writing has helped her on her life’s journey. Almost immediately she exclaimed, “Get me a paper, get me a pen!” I did, and these are the words that tumbled out within a few minutes:

The steady beat of my heart,
Sounding like the drums of war.
Blood pumping through my veins
coursing like a fire.
As the voice of reason whispers,
“Write it down on this page.”

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