Therapeutic Poetry: Creative (Pro)Activism in 21st Century Self-Care

Simply put, therapeutic poetry is a personal, communal, and creative celebration of our human vulnerability.

More specifically, therapeutic poetry is born out of the act of reflection and involves inscribing traumatic events or hardships on the page. The job of poetic facilitators, as I see it, involves both the reading of poetry and the facilitation of its discussion, as well as the act of guiding participants into spaces of deepened reflection and awareness via writing exercises.

According to Rafael Campo, award-winning poet, physician, poetry editor for JAMA, and director of writing and literature programs for the Arts and Humanities Initiative at Harvard Medical School, “Various forms of structured language, and especially what we recognize as poetry, have been [an] important and even principal means of healing throughout history and in many different cultures, even after the advent of a more sophisticated understanding of the human body’s anatomy and pathophysiology.”

According to John Fox—author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making (1997)—the act of writing poetry can loosen subconscious resistance, provide insight into a hardship or an illness, and allow us to share our suffering with an imagined audience, making it an act of release.

But for anyone reticent to jump on the alternative medicine bandwagon, you might be interested to learn that poetic therapy isn’t a 21st century phenomenon.

The first documented “Poetry Therapist” dates back to the first century A.D. — a Roman physician named Soranus who prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for the ones who were depressed.

Poetic therapy was first employed in the U.S. in 1751 at Pennsylvania Hospital. Benjamin Franklin, the hospital’s founder, along with Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was considered the Father of American Psychiatry, introduced music and literature to the patients at Penn. Most notably, Dr. Rush’s psychiatric patients published their poetry in a self-published newspaper called The Illuminator.

In the 1950s, Eli Greifer, a NY-based poet, pharmacist, and lawyer started a “poemtherapy” group at Creedmore State Hospital. In 1959, Greifer co-facilitated a poetry therapy group at Cumberland Hospital with psychiatrist Dr. Jack Leedy. Shortly after Griefer’s death in ‘66, Dr. Leedy founded the Association for Poetry Therapy.

In 1985, John Fox began training under poetic therapist Joy Shieman at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, CA. In 1996, Fox founded The Institute for Poetic Medicine, and in 1997, he published the definitive workbook in the field, Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making.

There’s also no shortage of credible studies on the efficacy of poetic therapy as an augmentative treatment for both mental health patients and those struggling with chronic conditions. Its applications range from palliative care to dementia patients, individuals suffering from depression to PTSD.

For instance, a study published in Arts and Health in 2017 concluded that people with mental health conditions who practiced reflective/poetic writing gained perspective, enhanced their understanding of the self and others, and promoted health and self-healing.

In a 2019 study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, participants who were suffering from trauma showed increased resilience and decreased stress and depressive symptoms after six weeks of intensive outpatient poetic and expressive writing.

But perhaps the anecdotal evidence of its benefits supersede the rest.

For the past 18 years, I’ve been writing about the culture of non-verbal Autism. My son, who recently turned 21, has nonverbal (level 3) Autism. He also suffers from intellectual disabilities, congenital heart defects, and a seizure disorder.

I started writing a prolific amount of poetry in graduate school—specifically, poems about the culture of Autism, which I was struggling to assimilate to, as well as poems about the medical traumas my son and I were experiencing. And though they did eventually make it to print, I wrote the poems as a means of processing and coping. I wrote them because the act of doing so was life-saving for me.

My personal journey eventually led me to biomedical conferences, which inspired me to write more medicalized poetry, which eventually prompted a scholarly examination of medical poetry from the 19th C to the present. And what I realized was that there were far more intersections between poetry and medicine throughout history than I’d ever imagined.

So this idea of therapeutic poetry, specifically the kind that asks us to recall, confront, and process our illnesses and traumas, is nothing new. But the discovery of it for me was a kind of validation of my own therapeutic practices, and I’m committed to making the experience accessible to anyone who’s suffering.

RD is the founding editor of TRR and the founder of the therapeutic poetry nonprofit, Revisionary Arts.