Poetry therapy is a relatively new field of psychotherapy. It uses Poetry and similar media to facilitate discussions about personal issues, usually (but not always) in a group setting. The term 'poetry therapy' is often replaced with 'bibliotherapy' to broaden the genres available for use in the field.
Poetry therapy has benefitted individuals of all different backgrounds. It can be used with both developmental (healthy) and clinical (institutionalised) populations of both genders, all races, and all ages. It is helpful in dealing with change and loss, overcoming depression, breaking free of drug and alcohol abuse (and dealing with their consequences), mending interpersonal relationships, and gaining a better understanding of oneself. Typically it is used as an adjunct therapy with more traditional procedures, such as one-on-one psychological counselling or medical treatment, in clinical groups; but it should do well on its own in most developmental settings.
Goals of Poetry Therapy
The goals of poetry therapy are:
- To improve the capacity to respond
- To increase self-understanding
- To increase awareness of interpersonal relationships
- To improve reality orientation
Poetry therapy stresses an emphasis not on diagnosing pathologies but on using strengths to further the therapeutic process. In this manner, the participants heal themselves, freeing themselves from patterns of behaviour that may be hindering their development.
There are four progressive steps to the bibliotherapeutic process:
- Application to self
Note that the goals of poetry therapy do not necessarily occur in the order or manner that they are portrayed, nor are they progressive like the steps of the bibliotherapeutic process. They are listed above as a means of demonstrating a possible application.
How Poetry Therapy Works
In a typical poetry therapy session, participants are invited to read a poem. Usually the facilitator will read it aloud once, then provide time for the participants to read it to themselves quietly. Next, participants are invited to respond to the poem, which usually results in animated conversation.
The first step to the bibliotherapeutic process is recognition. While reading the poem, a participant may 'resonate' with one or more ideas or emotions presented. He or she may become aware of feelings or emotions that have been repressed for some time. This realisation may move him or her to begin responding to the poem in discussion. This response enables the participant to move on to the second step; examination.
During examination the participant examines the feelings identified in recognition. He or she may find a certain feeling-response to be a reaction to a particular situation. In doing so, he or she improves his or her self-understanding. By expressing his or her views on the topic, he or she opens the door to the third step.
Juxtaposition occurs when other participants express their opinions. Most of the time, these ideas will be different from those of the original participant mentioned. The participant must be able to accept disagreement, improving a sense of interpersonal relationship. This allows the participant to compare his or her ideas with those of other group members and to evaluate the alternatives. Through juxtaposition, an individual can determine what is true for him- or her-self, and move on to the final step.
In 'application to self' the participant can then apply the insight found during juxtaposition to his or her everyday life, using an enhanced reality orientation to do so reasonably. It is important for this to result in a new behaviour, breaking the old, hindering codes. Once the participant has achieved this, the process begins again. Different participants may move through the process at different rates, depending on the individual and the poetry used.
The criteria for selecting suitable poems include,
- Universal vs Personal
- Powerful vs Trite
- Understandable vs Obscure
- Positive vs Negative
When selecting a poem for a poetry therapy session, it is important to be certain that most people will be able to resonate with some aspect of it. The poem should not be confined to the author's experience, and should be appropriate for the population for which it is intended. It should have a powerful message that touches the inner core of the reader, not a sing-songy feel that makes it seem untrue. Most people should be able to read the poem without stumbling over the language or having to overanalyze the imagery. Finally, the poem should have an ambiguous or positive ending that provides room and encouragement for growth, not a negative ending that may undermine the goals of poetry therapy. Humorous poetry can be very therapeutic, as it provides a good laugh, but should still fit the criteria mentioned above. Free verse and blank verse seem to be the two most commonly used forms of poetry.
Participants may also be invited to respond to poetry in writing. A discussion about participants' poetry can be even more therapeutic than a discussion about the poem presented by the facilitator. Writing enables thoughts to be organised and expressed more efficiently than does verbal communication. Often, writing poetry as a group can encourage group cohesion, an invaluable sense of trust and understanding between group members.
For more information about Poetry therapy read Biblio/Poetry Therapy The Interactive Process: A Handbook, written by Arleen McCarty Hynes and Mary Hynes-Berry (North Star Press, 1994).