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This may be the most creative path to mental health you’ve never tried


By David Allan

One of the best pieces of breakup advice my friend Genna gave me during a tumultuous end to a long-term relationship was to write poetry.

Feeling desperate in my heartbreak, I was willing to try anything. As Emily Dickinson wisely advised:

Not knowing when the Dawn will come

I open every Door

I wrote more than two dozen poems in the following weeks. Artistically speaking, they were a very poor showing, but as a tool to process the big emotions of a difficult time, the poems were highly successful. Writing them was cathartic and at times revelatory.

Many years later — and heart fully healed, I’m happy to report — emerging scientific research into the wellness potential of poetry supports my personal experience.

Interested in the effectiveness that poetry has on combating loneliness, particularly during the early isolating period of the Covid-19 pandemic, David Haosen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi wrote a 2020 article in the Journal of Medical Humanities inspired by their experience leading poetry workshops.

Xiang and Yi, then students of Harvard Medical School and Harvard College, respectively, cited a number of studies (some with small sample sizes, admittedly) showing various health benefits from reading, writing and listening to poetry and creative nonfiction. They have been shown to combat stress and depression symptoms, as well as reduce pain, both chronic and following surgery, the authors pointed out. Poetry has also been shown to improve mood, memory and work performance.

Separately, a 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that a group of 44 hospitalized children who were encouraged to read and write poetry saw reductions in fear, sadness, anger, worry and fatigue. Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection, the researchers concluded.

Spoken word poet Sekou Andrews demonstrated the power words can have in difficult times when you may feel broken, at the recent Life Itself conference, a health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN. In a “poetic voice” presentation, he shared with the audience a story about his and his wife’s infertility struggles and loss. As Andrews explained on stage:

All inspiration really is is a peephole into possibility.

There is a wall and then suddenly something shakes it, disrupts it,

And there’s a crack that appears

And you can see something on the other side.

And there is a power to simply being able to say,

“I see it!”

“Whether it is coping with pain, dealing with stressful situations, or coming to terms with uncertainty, poetry can benefit a patient’s well-being, confidence, emotional stability, and quality of life,” Xiang and Yi wrote.

Why poetry is special

Poetry’s ability to provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma and grief may have a lot to do with framing and perspective.

As a creative device, poems slow our reaction to an experience and can alter our perception of it in ways that help us find new angles, go deeper. It can strengthen our sense of identity and connect us to the experiences of others to foster empathy.

“I always say you don’t hire the poet to hit the nail on the head for you,” Andrews explained in an email. “You hire the poet to whisper in your ear, tap you on your shoulder, make you turn around and see a version of yourself that is unexpected, surprising and inspiring.”

The medium also has a unique way of getting to the heart of the matter — “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes,” wrote the French poet Joseph Roux — as metaphor and imagery are particularly well suited for tapping into and synthesizing emotions.

“And the abstract nature of poetry may make it easier to take a close look at painful experiences, which might feel too threatening to approach in a direct, literal manner,” wrote Linda Wasmer Andrews in an article about the practice of poetry therapy in Psychology Today.

Poetry can also elicit peak emotional responses. In one study from 2017, researchers measured 27 people for their psychophysiological responses (such as chills or goosebumps) to hearing poetry read aloud. These physical responses are connected to the rewards-sensing area of the brain, the study explained.

In his poem “For the Interim Time,” John O’Donohue describes this kind of cerebral alchemy:

What is being transfigured here in your mind,

And it is difficult and slow to become new.

The more faithfully you can endure here,

The more refined your heart will become

For your arrival in the new dawn.

Getting more poetry in your life

Read, write and listen. Those are the main options to infusing your life with more poetry.

To expose yourself to something new, visit open mic nights (real or in person), or try the daily (and short) poem podcast The Slowdown from American Public Media and the National Endowment for the Arts, or subscribe to its newsletter. There are other poetry podcasts as well.

And try an accessible collection. The actor John Lithgow compiled an introductory primer in the book “The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family.” I personally love Shel Silverstein, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds and John O’Donohue if you want to go deeper with one poet and be perpetually entertained and enlightened.

And to write it, you need no formal training to get started. You may enjoy trying different styles (such as haiku) and experiments. The community-oriented website Read Poetry has an enticing guide to some creative exercises you may find inspiring.

“Just write. Just speak. Don’t worry about it being good to you, you’ll get there. First, just let it be good for you,” Andrews said.

But no matter how you engage, just get in there and start feeling your way around for what you need. Or as poet Billy Collins wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:

…walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

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