How Poetry Heals And Connects Us
by Diana Raab
At the age of ten, I wrote my first poem in my Kahlil Gibran journal. It was a poem to my grandmother, who had just taken her life in my childhood home. Back then, I didn’t understand how healing writing could be, but I did know that writing that poem made me feel better. In today’s terms, it was empowering.
A few days after my grandmother died, I remember reading the poem to my English teacher, who told me that I had a good command of the English language. I blushed upon hearing this, but now realize that his seemingly benign comment set the stage for my life as a writer. Writing a poem to my grandmother was also a way for me to connect with her.
After my grandmother died, I became entranced by the poetry of Rod McKuen. In particular, I loved his book Listening to the Warm. That orange book cover filled me with the warmth I badly needed to help me navigate the turbulence of that time–I was a flower child of the sixties, burning incense and reading on my bed with a black light shining onto the posters on the wall. I vividly recall the themes of McKuen’s poems: they focused on love, spirituality, and the natural world–all subjects that compelled me then and continue to inspire me today. McKuen’s poems opened me up and showed me that I had feelings I didn’t know I had.
I ended up reading all of McKuen’s poetry books, and I was sad to learn that my parents sold them when they moved from my childhood home in the eighties. But lo and behold, a few years down the road when roaming around a local bookstore–Bart’s in Ojai, California–I stumbled across McKuen’s entire poetry collection. I began rereading his books, and memories of my adolescence flooded in. While reading McKuen, I had flashbacks of writing from places of pain–sometimes palpable, other times not. There’s no doubt that his words probably inspired my passion for writing for healing, and for connecting with my emotional truth. This excerpt of one of his poems says it all: “It’s nice sometimes / to open up the heart a little / and let some hurt come in. It proves you’re still alive.”
Poetry can be powerful because it succinctly puts a voice to our innermost feelings. It is also the voice of the soul and helps provide a dialogue for our feelings, thoughts, and observations. People tend to turn to writing and reading poetry when they’re in the midst of powerful feelings or challenging times. Some of the best poems incorporate profound emotions and/or poignant images. Modern poetry, in particular, does just that. Using poetry as a way of healing and interconnecting us as humans helps us return to wholeness. This is especially important at times like these, when many of us are under mandated restrictions and quarantines.
In addition to helping the poet, poetry can also help the reader. The healing power of poetry has its roots in American history. During the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman read poems to wounded soldiers. His poems highlighted war, courage, and military life. There have also been many physicians who were poets. William Carlos Williams comes to mind as one who wrote poems between seeing patients. He wrote them on his prescription pads, which he kept in the pocket of his white lab coat. Other physician poets included John Keats, Anton Chekhov, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Poets tend to be in touch with their deepest emotions, and the best physicians and caretakers have the innate ability to connect emotionally with themselves and their patients. Taking this one step further, we can use the analogy of the rhythm of a poem as being a metaphor for the rhythm of a breath and/or a heartbeat.
In his compelling book The Call of Stories, physician Robert Coles wrote about how over the centuries, poets who became ill were also inspired to share their experience through poetry. He said, “It prompted them to look not only inward, but also backward and forward to ask the most important and searching questions about life’s meaning.” Coles is an advocate of all types of narrative, and in his book, he accentuates the power of poetry and how he admires poets and the merging of poetry and medicine. “Like patients,” he said, “poets are probably holding on for dear life to some words.”
In addition to being on quarantine with some extra time on our hands, April is National Poetry Month, a good time to honor this fine literary form. Like any form of writing, creating poems takes courage and a sense of fearlessness, as the best poetry requires writing that emerges from the heart. It’s also important to know that when writing poetry, every word counts. To be both compelling and understood, poems must be specific and clear. If you want to write poetry, it’s important that you read a lot of poetry. Some poets I recommend include Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Dorianne Laux, and Susan Wooldridge, to name a few.
To start writing a poem, just let go and begin. Let go of your rational mind and allow your sensations and emotions to take over. Letting go is also about slowing down and pausing while being mindful of what is stirring within you. Think of a poem as a collection of fragments, with each line being one fragment. Insert line breaks as a natural pause to your thoughts, and keep the focus of each line to a single image. In simpler terms, try to feel the poem erupt from deep inside of you. Life certainly provides us with enough material to write about!
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