Feeling desperate in my heartbreak, I was willing to try anything. As Emily Dickinson wisely advised:
I wrote more than two dozen poems in the following weeks. Artistically speaking, they were a very poor showing, but as a tool to process the big emotions of a difficult time, the poems were highly successful. Writing them was cathartic and at times revelatory.
Many years later — and heart fully healed, I’m happy to report — emerging scientific research into the wellness potential of poetry supports my personal experience.
Xiang and Yi, then students of Harvard Medical School and Harvard College, respectively, cited a number of studies (some with small sample sizes, admittedly) showing various health benefits from reading, writing and listening to poetry and creative nonfiction. They have been shown to combat stress and depression symptoms, as well as reduce pain, both chronic and following surgery, the authors pointed out. Poetry has also been shown to improve mood, memory and work performance.
All inspiration really is is a peephole into possibility.
There is a wall and then suddenly something shakes it, disrupts it,
And there’s a crack that appears
And you can see something on the other side.
And there is a power to simply being able to say,
“I see it!”
“Whether it is coping with pain, dealing with stressful situations, or coming to terms with uncertainty, poetry can benefit a patient’s well-being, confidence, emotional stability, and quality of life,” Xiang and Yi wrote.
Why poetry is special
Poetry’s ability to provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma and grief may have a lot to do with framing and perspective.
As a creative device, poems slow our reaction to an experience and can alter our perception of it in ways that help us find new angles, go deeper. It can strengthen our sense of identity and connect us to the experiences of others to foster empathy.
“I always say you don’t hire the poet to hit the nail on the head for you,” Andrews explained in an email. “You hire the poet to whisper in your ear, tap you on your shoulder, make you turn around and see a version of yourself that is unexpected, surprising and inspiring.”
The medium also has a unique way of getting to the heart of the matter — “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes,” wrote the French poet Joseph Roux — as metaphor and imagery are particularly well suited for tapping into and synthesizing emotions.
In his poem “For the Interim Time,” John O’Donohue describes this kind of cerebral alchemy:
What is being transfigured here in your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.
Getting more poetry in your life
Read, write and listen. Those are the main options to infusing your life with more poetry.
“Just write. Just speak. Don’t worry about it being good to you, you’ll get there. First, just let it be good for you,” Andrews said.
But no matter how you engage, just get in there and start feeling your way around for what you need. Or as poet Billy Collins wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:
…walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.