From this some people would infer
That this good man’s a conjuror:
But I believe it is a lie;
I never thought him so, not I,
Though Win’fred Hobble who, you know,
Is plagued with corns on every toe,
Sticks on his verse with fastening spittle,
And says it helps her feet a little.
Old Frances too his paper tears
And tucks it close behind her ears;
And (as she told me t’other day)
It charmed her toothache quite away.
– Mary Leapor, from “The Epistle of Deborah Dough”
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In the last couple of weeks we’ve taken a look at Mary Leapor, the 18th-century kitchen maid/poet who died of measles in relative obscurity at the age of 24, yet has found a modern appreciation, and the brave female poets of Afghanistan’s outer provinces who must keep their verse a well-guarded secret. Mary is said to have been dismissed by one employer for letting the meat burn on the hearth in her zeal to capture her thoughts on paper, while some Afghani women have been beaten or even died for what they wrote. Their stories are important and necessary to tell, but I was a little disturbed by the punitive shadow they cast, and found myself wondering if poetry was ever used as a tool of healing.
It certainly is. But guess who’s written it for just over four decades and didn’t know that? Or that the word “therapy,” according to registered poetry therapist Perie Longo, comes from the Greek therapeia, which means to nurse or cure through dance, song, poem and drama?
Yup, that’d be me.
Now I’ll admit that on first learning there even was such a thing as a certified poetry therapist, my eyebrows went up a bit and I thought, There’s a certificate for that? But when I discovered that poetry therapy was not a tie-dyed love child of the sixties but a medical treatment since the fourth millenium, it was clear I was about to be enlightened.
Perhaps the most unconventional method people have used to heal with words belongs to the ancient Egyptians, who wrote poems on papyrus, placed them in liquid, and had patients swallow them in order for the verse’s medicinal powers to work more rapidly. The Greek god Apollo was associated with both healing and poetry. American Indians have long used songs and recited words to cure, while Benjamin Franklin established the first American hospital to care for the mentally ill with poetic therapy in 1751. Then there’s the striking use of what one might call “poetry plasters” in Leapor’s “The Epistle of Deborah Dough,” quoted above. Nowadays The National Association for Poetry Therapy trains and certifies therapists, who must have knowledge of psychology as well as literature.
I imagine nearly everyone knows at least one person who’s put pen to paper when they were nursing a broken heart. Years ago a coworker, on learning I wrote poetry, remarked that she used to as well, but didn’t anymore, because “I’m too happy.” And while I was glad for her, I had to smile. But other poets say in all seriousness they’d go mad if they didn’t write regularly, while still others, like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, shared their demons on the printed page yet ultimately sought release in suicide.
I’ve never consulted a poetry therapist, but I have tried to exorcise emotion in verse. On a few occasions the result has brought a sense of peace like a gentle sigh: “Oh, yes, that’s it at last. I’m done with that now.” Other attempts ended in frustration – how does one eulogize a late friend without sounding maudlin when said friend didn’t have a maudlin bone in her body?
Perie Longo tells of a man who, holding a published copy of his poem, said, “I feel like I am somebody, finally.” There’s a certain joy that comes simply from the act of creation. Once I told a friend that when I’d finally completed a poem to my satisfaction, I thought I tasted a hint of what God felt when He looked at His work and pronounced it good. Years later, alone in an unused bedroom with a notebook, struggling for just the right words to complete the final poem for my first chapbook, I stopped suddenly and said out loud with a brief sense of wonder, “As long as I can write poetry, I’ll be okay.”
Because it was true.
One of my favorite poets is a clinical psychologist…and I’m a little embarrassed now to recall my surprise at this on our first meeting. Oh, I knew William Carlos Williams was a physician as well as a poet, but I vaguely regarded that as an anomaly when I thought of it at all. I never dreamed that aspects of reading and writing verse corresponded to some of the medical skills required by doctors of his time.
I’m happy to know better now, thanks to people like Dr. Danielle Ofri, who always tries to “sneak in a poem at the end” of her rounds with students and interns, and John Fox, founder of the Institute for Poetic Medicine in California, not to mention doctors like Thomas Duffy of Yale Medical School, who noted that poetry “opens our minds to asking patients the right questions, while helping us address the emotional demands of doctoring.” As Dr. Ofri found after sharing Jack Coulehan’s blistering “I’m Gonna Slap Those Doctors” with an alcoholic in withdrawl, her patient may not have been suddenly cured, but in his brief stay, both he and the staff observing him developed “a sense of human connection.”
Isn’t that a necessity of the healing profession? And isn’t it, ultimately, why we write?
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For another look at poetry’s connection with medicine, check out these insightful entries submitted to a poetry contest sponsored by two major medical schools in 2011. Then I hope you’ll join me next week as I end my observation of National Poetry Month on a lighter note with a look at some of the unexpected things that can happen when a crowd of poets get together. See you there!