Humans have a long history of using the arts for self-expression, self-regulation and healing. These forms of communication – image-making, ritual, movement, dramatic enactment, imaginative play, music and storytelling – have, according to Cathy Machioldi, been ways that humans have addressed loss, disaster and trauma. Psychiatrist Bruce Perry writes:

“Amid the current pressure for ‘evidenced-based practice’ parameters, we should remind ourselves that the most powerful evidence is that which comes from hundreds of separate cultures across the thousands of generations independently converging on rhythm, touch, storytelling, and reconnection to community…as the core ingredients to coping and healing from trauma.”

The arts provide an opportunity to restore balance and access parts of the self that can be sensed but not necessarily articulated.

Poetry therapy employs the use of word, symbol, image, metaphor and narrative for therapeutic purposes. Reading or writing poetry is inherently holistic and experiential in that it engages the senses and emotions, as well as the intellect. Poetry expresses feelings and brings us in touch with our own minds, which can have a healing effect.

The structure of a poem focuses on brevity and detail. The poet gives a brief snapshot of an experience; in this they open us to their own inner workings. Through reading a poem, we connect not just with what the poem brings up in us, but also with the poet themselves.

Writing poetry requires us to be open and honest about our feelings so that we can express them fully. Acknowledging and expressing our feelings allows us to be authentic and so boosts self-esteem.

When we are in the midst of confusion or pain there is an ‘energy’ that can be channelled into words on the page. This expression can create a sense of calm and clarity as we ‘work through’ whatever we are writing about.

In the past, in times of war, poetry was often recited to soldiers on the battlefield to boost morale. The use of literature for healing dates back to ancient Greece, when the Grecian libraries were regarded as sacred spaces that held curative powers. The ancient Irish Filí were not just poets, but healers also.

What is known as ‘confessional’ writing can be particularly cathartic where one writes about an issue, ‘releasing’ the emotion onto the page. It can sometimes be difficult to get started with this kind of writing but the key is to set aside the internal censor that judges what we write. Then let the mind wander and write freely and spontaneously expressing whatever arises within the mind and the body.

Here are some ideas to get started writing poetry for therapeutic purposes:

  • Write about whatever you are thinking about right now
  • Write about your fears
  • Write four lines about what you are feeling right now
  • Write about a happy memory
  • Write about a regret
  • Write about your hopes and dreams
  • Write a two-sentence poem about something that inspires you