Intense emotions can be frightening and difficult to be with, poetry offers an effective way to both bear and contain those feelings. In his diaries Franz Kafka (born 1883 in Prague, Bohemia – Böhmen, then in Austria-Hungary, now the Czech Republic) states: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”
Poetry therapy can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where sacred words were chanted in rituals to promote healing. Poetry and medicine used to be closely related. In traditional, native American medicine, Shamans used poetry for the well-being of the tribe. (Shelton, 1999). Soranus, the personal physician of Emperor Hadrian can be considered the first poetry therapist. He prescribed reading tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for the depressed ones (NAPT, 2004). In addition famous poets such as William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, John Keats and Oliver Wendell Holmes were also physicians.
Poetry therapy or “bibliotherapy” refers to the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth (Collins, Fuhrman & Langer, 2006). Benjamin Rush, who was considered “the Father of Psychiatry” was also an American pioneer in bibliotherapy. He included a library in his hospital so patients could read poetry and other literature prescribed by their doctors (Shelton, 1999). Later on Eli Griefer, Dr. Leedy, Arthur Lerner, Ann White, Deborah Grayson, Gil Schloss, and Ruth Lisa Schechter built on his work and provided formal frameworks for the use of poetry in therapy.
Reading poems allow clients to explore intimate feelings that are buried in their subconscious and identify how these feelings relate to their current life circumstances. Poetry’s combination of language, syntax, imagery, simile, metaphor, rhyming scheme, rhythm, alliteration provide for a unique healing offering (Lerner, 1997). Freud (1908) referred to poetry as the “royal road to the unconscious”, because poetry utilises similar mechanisms as dreams (e.g. imagery, condensation and displacement).
A widely used poem in poetry therapy is Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1920) which presents the metaphor of a traveler making decisions about which path to take, just as clients make important life choices in their own journey (Collins et al., 2006):
The Road Not Taken
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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Collins, S. K., Furman, R., & Longer, C. L. (2006). Poetry therapy as a tool of cognitively
based practice. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33, 180–187.
Freud, S. (1908). The relation of the poet to day-dreaming. In S. Freud (Ed.) On creativity and the unconscious: The psychology of art, literature, love, and religion (collected writings) (pp. 44-54). New York: Random House.
Lerner, A. (1997). A look at poetry therapy: The Arts in Psychotherapy Vol 24(1) 1997, 81-89.
Shelton, Deborah L. Poetry as Healer. American Medical News. 17 May 1999.
Weimerskirch, P. J. (1965). Benjamin Rush and John Minson Galt, II. Pioneers of bibliotherapy in America. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 53(4), 510-526.