The Healing Power of Poetry

Two of poetry’s skeptics are won over when the healing, therapeutic power of words helps them confront life’s challenges.


| September/October 2012



Grasshopper

The next lines of the poem spoke directly to her—addressing a conversation that ran constantly below the surface of her life, but which she had never spoken out loud: How do I pray when I am not religious? How did my life become so meaningless? What do I hold sacred anyway?

JCANTROOT

“I never could connect with poetry,” Jan said. “I’m a math teacher!” She was sitting on my living room couch surrounded by piles of poetry books. On the coffee table was a stack of cards, each with a different poem on it. Even some of the art on the wall had hand-calligraphed verses among the colors.

I could relate to Jan’s words. For many years, I was actually afraid of poetry. I felt as though it was the secret language of an elitist club that I had not been invited to join. Though I loved poetry as a child, the harsh and overly analytical way it was taught in my high school had intimidated me. Suddenly my magical world of words and feeling had turned into “iambic pentameters,” “dactylic tetrameters,” “rhyme schemes” and “lineation.” I decided then that poetry was not for me after all.

Jan’s glance fell on a stack of Mary Oliver’s books, and tears came to her eyes. “A few years ago, when I started teaching at my current job, the first friend I made was Rita, an English teacher and a poet. I confessed to her my inability to understand poetry. With a knowing look in her eye, she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that!’”

“A few months later,” Jan continued, “Rita presented me with a beautifully decorated box for my 46th birthday. Inside were dozens of envelopes, each holding a handwritten poem. And there was an instruction sheet: Each morning, as soon as you wake, take one of these envelopes to a quiet place with a window onto nature, or a beautiful plant, or a candle. Sit comfortably and read the poem aloud to yourself, preferably more than once. 

That was a dark time in Jan’s life: for more than a year, she had been struggling with a chronic illness. Her unlimited energy seemed to have drained away, leaving her perpetually pale and tired. Once, she loved to ride her mountain bike every day on the trails near her house; now she could barely make it home from teaching to collapse into bed. Though she had turned to doctors, therapists, and alternative health practitioners, no one seemed to be able to provide her with answers or relief.

“I figured I might as well follow Rita’s advice,” Jan told me with a shrug. “Nothing else seemed to be helping.”