Take a Dose of Dickinson: Poetry as Therapy

man, woman, words
The mutlidimensional nature of poetry makes it very helpful for therapy. Hill Street Studios/Vectorig/Getty/HowStuffWorks

John Fox, president of the Institute for Poetic Medicine, remembers running a therapy session for families with children with disabilities who were patients at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Vahalla, New York.

"Two mothers showed up," Fox says. "They began to speak about their children. One mother began to cry, deeply; and then, as people do, she apologized for crying. To us, her crying was OK, perfectly OK, given her love for her child. But she apologized."


At that moment, he remembered a poem written many years ago in a class he taught to counseling psychology students at John F. Kennedy University. It was called "Do Not Wipe Your Tears Away" by Jodie Senkyrik. It begins,

"Do not wipe your tears away.

Let them flow down your cheek.

Let them create a stream on your face

to allow the healing waters to flow."

After Fox read the poem to the group, the crying mother started to relax, and the other mother held her in her arms. "The words helped to say, 'It's OK,' and she felt more heard and met," he says.

We've most likely heard of art therapy and dance therapy, but poetry therapy might be something unfamiliar. Poetry therapists work in hospitals and prisons, and with war veterans as well as with private clients. According the National Association of Poetry Therapy, poetry therapy, which encompasses journal (writing) therapy or bibliotherapy (reading books) is "the intentional use of the written or spoken word by a trained biblio/poetry/journal therapist to further therapeutic goals and enhance the well-being of individuals and groups." The first studies in poetry therapy were done in the 1960s, and the association itself was started in 1980. To be certified in the field, you need to have extensive training in mental health counseling as well as a background in literature.

Fox, a certified poetry therapist, explains how he might work with a client, for example, mourning the loss of a spouse. "I might say, 'Here are three poems about loss and bring the one back that speaks the most to you.' And maybe there may be a strong prompt line in it [a line that resonates with the client], I might suggest they write something based on that."

The point is not to critique the poem the way you might in a creative writing group. "But I might say [to the client], 'Could you say more to me about that image you [wrote]. It would be a way of deepening a dialogue. It would be up to me with my skillfulness to suggest or consider a connection. It's never like, 'this is what it means' but more like, 'let's find this out together,'" says Fox.

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
Emily Dickinson

The poems he uses for therapy might be written by "ordinary" people who have been through similar situations to the client's, or they might be poems written by well-known or professional poets. Fox has used poems written by Robert Frost, Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson. A particular favorite is Dickinson's "Hope is The Thing With Feathers."

What might a client get from poetry that he or she couldn't get from reading an article about the subject or just talking about it? "Poetry has so many dimensions," Fox says. "It evokes creativity — the images, the feelings, the metaphor, the similes. Sometimes a person says, 'I didn't know that I thought that or felt good about it until I read the poem out loud."

To find a poetry therapist, visit the Institute for Poetic Medicine or the National Association for Poetry Therapy.