The Medicine of Poetry
“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.
In spite of my current passion for the power of poetry, I could totally 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.”
The morning after her birthday she awoke with the same relentless exhaustion in her chest. Where would she find the energy to face this day? As she dragged herself out of bed, she saw the box of poems on the bedside table. Reluctantly she pulled the first poem out of its envelope and sat by the window. She felt a bit silly reading out loud with no one but her cat within earshot, but she followed Rita’s directions.
It was a poem called “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. Much of the first stanza was about a grasshopper. The description of the creature’s “complicated eyes” and “pale forearms” was lovely, but Jan didn’t see what it had to do with her. A few lines later, though, she caught her breath. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” she heard her own voice say. Suddenly she was awake, listening. 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? The final lines left her heart pounding: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
Every morning after that, without fail, the poem of the day connected her with herself in a way she’d never experienced. Rita had chosen the exact poems that would unlock Jan’s heart. Often Jan was brought to tears by a phrase from Mary Oliver, or Naomi Shihab Nye, or Hafiz. “You will love again the stranger who was yourself,” Derek Walcott assured her. Or, “The hurt you embrace / becomes joy,” Rumi would advise. With the opening of each envelope, Jan fell deeper in love with poetry.
I found myself nodding as she spoke. I, too, had inadvertently rediscovered the healing power of poetry during a difficult passage in my life. In 1994 I was in the midst of a suicidal depression. At the time I was a therapist and teacher of self-transformation, but none of the spiritual or psychological wisdom I’d learned could touch the place within me that felt so broken.
When I’m depressed, I clean. The darker the struggle, the cleaner my house. One day I was scrubbing under a radiator and found an unmarked cassette tape covered with cat hair and dust. I wiped it off, put it in the player, and started in on the dishes. A man’s voice speaking poetry filled my house. These were poems unlike any I had encountered in high school or college; they were what I now call “poems of the inner life.” Many were the same as those Jan found in her friend’s hand-hewn treasure box. The sound of the speaker’s voice and the words of the poems reached into a place inside me that had felt utterly untouchable. I put down my sponge and wept.
A bit of sleuthing revealed that the tape had fallen out of a client’s purse. She told me the speaker was David Whyte, a poet who recites by heart to inspire creativity and insight in groups in all manner of settings, from boardrooms to monasteries.
I began to take poems into my life―not simply reading them and turning the page, but developing rich relationships with the ones I loved most. I learned many by heart, I carried some with me in my purse, I taped some to my computer screen and refrigerator. I rarely left the house without a poem in my pocket. I printed some of my favorites on small cards and used them like a divination deck. They became my “angel cards,” my therapy, my medicine, my prayers.
Those poems not only infused me with their wisdom, but they actually brought vibrancy to my body. How, you might ask, can a poem have a physical effect? As the poet Emily Dickinson says, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head has been taken off, I know that is poetry!” Like a shaman’s drum or a Sanskrit chant, the rhythm of a poem entrains your heartbeat, the phrasing changes your breathing, and the sounds resonate within the crystalline structures in your bones and fascia. Many years later I came to understand this as the poem’s “shamanic anatomy”: current scientific research shows that your brainwaves, breathing and pulse literally change when you give voice to a poem, opening your mind beyond ordinary thinking. The physical elements of the poem literally create the biochemical circumstances for healing and insight.
I became fascinated with poetry, not primarily as a literary art, but instead as a powerful healing medicine to unlock the richness of the inner life.
Then, in the fall of 2008, poetry rescued me in a way I never expected. In October, I invested all my savings in a small, local fund. Two months later, a friend who was also an investor in the fund left me a message: “Bernard Madoff was arrested today. The fund was a fraud. We’ve lost everything.”
I stood there, not breathing, clutching the phone as the automated voice repeated “To replay this message, press one.” I was paralyzed with shock.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard these words in my mind:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.
I shook my head in disbelief. It was a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called “Kindness.” Though I’d heard it before, I had never really been drawn to it. And I certainly didn’t know it was in my memory! Nevertheless, the next lines unfurled in my mind like a karaoke crib sheet:
Feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
Of course there were suddenly a thousand things I needed to do ― contact my lawyer and my accountant, figure out how I was going to pay the bills I’d accrued when I thought I had money, not to mention pay for rent, food, health insurance―but all I could think of was Googling “Kindness”!
I needed help, and this poem was the only voice speaking to me. So I found it on the web, printed it out, and sat down on the floor to read aloud.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go . . .
It felt like the poem had been written for me personally, for this exact moment. It was like having the perfect helper arrive on the scene at the instant of an accident.
“Kindness” became my prayer. I read it before going to bed, and at breakfast every morning. It reminded me that this was not a tragedy, but a path to compassion, and I was not walking alone. Eventually I knew the poem by heart and could speak it aloud to myself, and to other people who were grateful to hear its wisdom.
I’ve never been a religious person, but after that experience I think I understand why Muslims pray to Allah five times a day or Orthodox Jews face East and wrap the Tefillin. Even now, I reach for “Kindness” several times a week to carry me into the heart of what really matters to me.
I invite you to explore the healing power of poetry, too. Here are a few ideas about how to make this powerful art your ally:
1. Fall in love with a poem. I realize this might be quite a challenge for those who, like me, have turned away from poetry, or never connected with it in the first place. So here are some hints on finding a poem to befriend. Perhaps you and I are similar, and the poems I love will also speak to you. In the back of my book Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words there is a list of 50 of my favorite poems. There are also several wonderful anthologies listed in the resource section. Perhaps you heard a poem that touched you at a wedding or a funeral. Hunt it down. The Poetry Foundation website has a “Poetry Tool” that will help you find poems on any theme. The Poetry Chaikhana gathers ancient and modern spiritual poetry from all over the world.
2. Read your poem aloud. I cannot overemphasize the importance of giving voice to poetry, whether or not anyone is listening. A poem is made of more than words on a page: it is breath, sound, rhythm. Most poems offer their full magic only when wedded with a human voice.
3. Once you begin to find the poems you love, keep a journal of them in the order they came into your life.
4. Write your favorite lines on cards. Use these “poem cards” as an inspirational tool: read one each evening as a prayer before sleeping, or use them as a divination deck when you face a difficult question in your life.
5. Hold a poetry salon at your home. Invite everyone to bring a favorite poem to read aloud and a favorite edible delicacy to share.
Poetry is a doorway to passion, peace, and wholeness that is right in our midst. It is free and available to everyone all the time. I invite you to step over the threshold of a poem into the wonder of your own self.