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The Medicine of Poetry

Monday, November 05, 2012

This morning's principal article from by Kim Rosen speaks so beautifully to the healing power of poetry that I'm sharing the full text here for the nourishment and enjoyment of any who venture by needing or desiring its message:

"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 grass"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.
has a "Poetry Tool" that will help you find poems on any theme. 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.

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Here is a wonderful interview by Kim Rosen, "The Incomparable Naomi Shihab Nye on Kindness:"

And for any who wish to read "Kindness" without Googling it:

(for my daughter....)

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye
(Words From Under the Words: Selected Poems)
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I am so inspired, and I thank you for sharing this.
    1943 days ago
  • BILLB000
    This essay is very powerful. Thank you for this blog. I am grateful I happened on it. I am going to read it again.....
    1943 days ago
    emoticon Medicine gooooood. emoticon
    1963 days ago
  • FARRAH511

    1963 days ago
    Beautiful Maha. emoticon emoticon
    I must try poetry myself. The only poetry I have been reading
    has been what you have been posting. Now, after reading this
    beautiful blog of yours, I think I will try making my own box of
    poetry. I so need this beauty in my life.
    1963 days ago
    emoticon emoticon emoticon I love Poetry Books!! emoticon
    1964 days ago
    Thank you! I have always loved poetry. Perhaps because my parents read to me so much when I was young or perhaps I never had a really dampening teacher. It is always so alive and vivid for me that even what might be called a "difficult" poem almost always offers something.

    What a lovely post!
    1964 days ago
    What a great article.

    Yes, that's what poetry is for . . . and kindness really is what matters most.
    1964 days ago
    What a wonderful blog.

    I've loved poetry since I was a child. My mother used to read it aloud to us, and she had a beautiful reading voice. I remember very clearly when I was about 12 years old my mother read aloud the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to me and my sisters and brother. That is still one of my favorite poems. It seems like an odd choice for young kids, but it obviously made an impression on me.
    1965 days ago
    Thanks again for sharing amiga. emoticon
    1965 days ago
  • SCOOTER4263
    That was beautiful, Maha. Just beautiful.

    I, too, felt unequal to the challenge of poetry until one day, nearly 40 years ago, an old beau recited to me:

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not. --Great God! I'd rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.

    I became an instant Wordsworth fan, then moved on to Coleridge and it just went from there. I pick up these little, worn, leather-bound books at library and yard sales for next to nothing and wonder if the people know the non-monetary value of what they're tossing out.

    I love the idea of a poetry salon. Just may do that over the holiday season.
    1965 days ago

    Comment edited on: 11/5/2012 12:51:04 PM
    Thank you for sharing. It was on my reading list for this morning and it is just what I needed. The author makes many wonderful points, but one that really struck me is how the education system has managed to turn vast scores of people off of poetry when their original intent was to introduce people to it. I think this is something we really need to look at and find ways to turn people on to it instead. My kids are going through similar things - they can't stand poetry after having analyzed poetry in school. I have to keep reminding them that often the songs they are singing are really only poetry set to music - to which they usually respond, "but it's good stuff".

    I love the Kindness Poem, and all the others. Thank you for really re-introducing me to something I had let fall away. Since becoming friends with you I have come to absolutely love poetry again - and in new ways too.

    I really liked the poetry box idea too. And I agree that reading aloud gives power to words. I used a similar idea last year with inspirational quotes for my dd when she was going through some major anxiety. Each day she opened her box and picked a quote to use as her "guidance" for the day. It was very helpful. Think I'll have to start adding some poetry to it. I'm thinking I might have some Christmas gift ideas too!

    1965 days ago

    Comment edited on: 11/5/2012 11:43:09 AM
    Next step (stop?) is writing your own.

    I personally find free verse daunting; I like imposed structure. I write Shakespearean sonnets and haikus. But I write them about wacky things. The sonnets are usually about Star Trek and the haikus about software development. Hey, you write what you know.

    E. g.

    Software life cycle
    turn it around and then
    do it all again
    1965 days ago
    1965 days ago
    Beautiful poem, wonderful article on infusing our lives with such rich wisdom as poetry offers! The truth of "Kindness" resonates, yet I struggle so with the letting go & losing things...!

    Thank you, 'Maha

    1965 days ago
  • NEPTUNE1939
    1965 days ago
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