Can poetry be good for our health?

Rime of the modern medicine man

Can poetry be beneficial for human health, or is the idea just literary snake oil? In this article written for one of his earlier blogs, Mark Cantrell explored the idea of its positives

POETRY might be food for the soul, but it is also a therapy that can help people's health and well-being, according to American poet, therapist and teacher John Fox.

In September [2005], Fox will be coming to Yorkshire to share his thinking and his techniques into this esoteric art. As with most things poetic, it is rooted in the personal. When he was 18, Fox lost a leg below the knee and he says it was poetry that gave him a 'life line'. Since then, he has deepened his exploration of poetry and creative arts as a mechanism for assisting the healing process - both physically and mentally.

Today, he is the president of the US National Association of Poetry Therapists and a certified poetry therapist. He also teaches and has authored many books on the subject.

"Poems show us that our sensitivities are of great value," he says. "Writing allows us to discover how vulnerabilities and strengths can co-exist even thrive together and be recognised as one. At times, poems can reveal deep understanding and compassion. Poems can guide us through rough times and sometimes transform us at profound levels.

"There is magic in language that poets, children, mystics, lovers, revolutionaries, [and] indigenous peoples in particular have had access to for aeons. And their lasting words have inspired others... There is more to what poetic language does for you. When you write with feeling and expression, it is a way to bolster your health."

There is something almost 'shamanistic' to the expression of such sentiments, so little wonder then that he has been called a 'medicine man' by a Navajo friend. But writers are a colourful breed, and there is no reason why those who work in healthcare should be any different. After all, anyone who has spent time around writers will hear the inevitable anecdotes about writing as a kind of personal therapy. Fox is taking it to a deeper conclusion.

 In September, he will present a seminar and workshop at the recently established Centre for Citizenship and Community Mental Health, part of the School of Health Studies at the University of Bradford. It is aimed at both experienced and beginning poets and writers, as well as people involved in healthcare, and those involved in spiritual and educational professions.

The Centre joins a growing list of organisations and groups that have desired to explore the possibility of using poetry as an added means of instilling well-being. He has conducted workshops for such institutions as the Harvard Medical Institute at the Mind/Body Institute, Stanford Medical School, Shands Hospital at the University of Florida and the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Additionally, he is an adjunct professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and teaches at the Graduate School of Psychology at John F Kennedy University, Berkeley, California and at the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California. His books on the subject include such works as Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem Making.

The event in Bradford was organised by Lapidus (North Yorkshire), with the assistance of Phil Thomas, who has worked for 25 years as a psychiatrist before becoming the senior research fellow at the Centre. 

"There has always been a tradition of medicine and the humanities," he said. " To be a doctor of medicine is to exist in a twilight between the dazzling light of science and the dark mysterious world of the human heart. There is for example a journal called Humanities and Medicine. There are departments of literature and medicine [such as at] Durham University. The John Fox event is important because it will draw attention to academic staff the value of creative writing in a way that will, I hope, mean that they will want to include it in the courses taught here for nurses and other professionals."

The Lapidus group is concerned with exploring the use of literary arts in personal development and healthcare. Many of the members are themselves healthcare professionals who work with creative writers, or are themselves creative writers.

Regional co-ordinator Kate Evans said: "Lapidus has strong links with the US National Association of Poetry Therapists (NAPT) and as an organisation we welcome their speakers and workshop leaders. John Fox was coming to the UK and he offered to come and do events with local Lapidus groups. We were very quick to take him up on his offer, because of all the work he has done in developing the field of poetry therapy.

"We felt we had a lot to gain from working with someone like Mr Fox, who is both a practitioner and an academic looking at how poetry and writing poetry can assist people to a greater sense of mental well-being and self-awareness.

"Of course there are many people in the UK who have expertise in this field, but there is nothing as yet in the UK to compare to the NAPT and the training that it gives. Se we felt we had much to learn from the NAPT president. This is an evolving field, and we are always interested in learning from the experience of others and in drawing on examples of best practice."

Thomas added: "These days, medicine and psychiatry are dominated by science and technology. This means that more basic human values are overlooked. Of course people want the benefit of science when they are ill or distressed, but they need much more than that if they are to be healed. In general, health professionals today are not encouraged to reflect on themselves, their lives and their experiences in relation to their work. There is no better way, in my experience, of becoming able to reflect on your own life experiences than through creative writing. Edward Albee, the American playwright [has] said that he couldn't write about his characters unless he cared about them. The act of writing creatively, or for that matter reading serious literature and poetry, is fundamentally an ethical process because it encourages one person to step into the world of another person. This is something we all need to do more."

A greater need for empathy between people is indeed something that can benefit people beyond healthcare, and it is one of the many factors that those involved in the event - and the field - are hoping to promote during Fox's visit and beyond.

At the time of writing, the workshop is fully booked, but places remain available for the seminar. It takes place 24th September 2005 between 11 am and 3 pm and is promised to be in interesting and inspiring event.

The final word goes to Fox: "Poems stir us to wake up. There is aliveness and emotional honesty in poetic language. There are messages and clues in poems about where we have been, where we are and where we might go - not only individually but in our humanity."

This article was originally written for - and published on - one of the author's earlier blog sites. It appeared circa August 2005.

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