Thursday 26 April 2012

Poetry as Healer by Melinda Tennison

Although the use of poetry for healing purposes can be traced back to primitive times and historically the first poetry therapist on record was Roman physician Soranus in the first century AD, poetry as a healing art largely remained obscured until medicine came to recognize and embrace its benefits in the 1960s and 70s. 

In late 1980, while I was a nine-year-old critically ill patient at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to experience the healing power of expressive poetry firsthand. As I spent the entire summer hospitalized while facing two potentially life-saving neurosurgeries, I became overwhelmed by unexpressed emotions - including fear, anxiety and depression all too common among hospitalized kids. After I become increasingly sullen and retreated from usual expressive creativity and play, the staff poetry therapist with whom I had been working knew how to engage me in precisely a way that would allow me to give expression to my feelings, process the experience, and find some much needed emotional relief. In weeks prior, I had spent a great deal of time recovering my health and maintaining my innate curiosity by taking observational walks around the hospital. Much to my delight, on one of those early walks I had discovered iconic American artist Robert Rauschenberg installing an elaborate commissioned mural in a vaulted corridor adjacent to the hospital atrium. For the next five weeks, I returned to note his progress and watch the master artist at work, captivated by the juxtaposition of his humble demeanor and grand perspective. Evenings, I would draw and write pieces in my room to liven up the plain wall opposite my bed.

When I became sad and uncharacteristically reluctant to get out of bed to explore, my poetry therapist suggested we visit the recently completed mural together. This was in all likelihood the only suggestion that could have peaked my curiosity and, needless to say, it positively worked. A few minutes later, standing before the finished artwork, I felt so inspired by the artist’s blend of color, light, texture and shape that I penned my first poem (“Rauschenberg Mural”). The poem came to be published by the hospital and engraved on the artist plaque that accompanied the mural for more than a quarter century. 

In my own experience, writing poetry in response to hospital art allowed me to make sense of difficult feelings, bring a sense of order to my situation and help me discover new hope. I found poetry therapy so transformative that decades later I am now in the process of writing an ekphrastic poetry collection for hospitalized children. Recent studies on poetry therapy confirm that the approach can help reduce stress and assist in recovery from depression and trauma and today an increasing number of hospitals, retreat centers, and nursing homes are employing poetry therapists to improve patient outlooks. Toward this, I recently enrolled in a leading arts-in-medicine training program through the Institute for Poetic Medicine to become a trauma-sensitive certified poetry therapist so I may help facilitate others healing through poetry.

A huge thank you to Melinda for writing this fascinating insight into poetry as a healer.

You can follow Melinda on Twitter at @MelindaTennison and subscribe to Facebook updates at MelindaTennison.

Melinda Tennison is a poet and guest column on mindful arts and healing for Young Expressions, the newsletter from New Horizons Cultural Arts Program (the program that sponsored both the mural by Robert Rauschenberg and the early poetry therapist who aided her own recovery) written expressly for current patients at Children’s Hospital In Washington, D.C.

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