April is National Poetry Month which is a good time to discuss the importance of poetry, how poetry has evolved over the years, and how reading it and writing it can help us heal. And since most of us are still practicing social distancing, and trying to nurture stay-at-home hobbies, this could be a good time to tap into the practice of writing poetry. Over the years, poetry has become more accessible and easier to comprehend than in earlier centuries. Poems seem to be easier to understand and the words and meanings often tend to resonate with us. Many contemporary poems tap into real feelings and images that pertain to the human condition using easy-to-understand words. For the most part, poets are usually very observant and notice things that many of us might not readily see.
As a tween, I remember falling in love with the poetry of Rod McKuen. His poetry succinctly expressed feelings I had but was unable to clearly express. In the sixties, when I became a teenager in the sixties beat poets such as Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Pete Seeger were popular, and they continued to express situations common to the human experience.
How Poetry Heals
Healing is often done alone or as a path to wholeness, As Sufi poet, Rumi says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” In other words, the wound is the pain and suffering we encounter that puts us in touch with our inner selves. This can be the source of our enlightenment. Poetry helps us touch the wounded part of us. As we move through the years, we become filled with memories. Some of the memories may be good ones, while others may be the result of past wounds. Sometimes it takes years for wounds to heal, and other times it takes a lifetime, if at all. It’s true that the body remembers and often times our body remembers past traumas. Poetry helps us access those wounds through words. This can lead to healing and transformation.
Poet Audre Lorde began writing poetry and reading poetry during childhood as a way to deal with growing up in Harlem as an African-American woman of two parents with emotional walls between them and their children. During her childhood, she secretly wrote poems in her journal, yearning to escape the tension at home. Writing and reading poetry helped her navigate those challenging times. On many levels, her life story resonated with me as we were both born to mothers whom we felt did not want us and who refrained from nurturing the women we were. We were also both poets and breast cancer survivors.
Poetry and Therapy
Many psychotherapists used poetry and journaling in conjunction with talk therapy. Some years ago, I sought the guidance of a therapist to help me cope with the deep trauma of having lost my grandmother and caretaker when I was ten years old. I was holding on to a lot of unresolved grief. In addition to inspiring me to write my first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, she inspired me to write poems to and about my grandmother. This really helped me process my grief. During my therapy sessions, she read the poems out loud to me. It was powerful to hear my voice in a different way.
Journal writing is also another powerful way to tap into what’s going on inside the self or in the unconscious mind. It’s also a place to make observations of our inner and external landscape. Confessional poetry is powerful for this. By using vivid language, we merge the intellectual and the emotional part of ourselves.
How to Start Writing a Poem
Writing poetry is not easy for some people. The first step is to trust the process. Remember that poetry is the voice of the soul, so when writing poetry, try to let go of the rational mind and let sensations and emotions take over. The emotion is felt first and the words or thoughts come during the creation of the poem.
Plato considered the poet a vehicle of supernatural inspiration. For some people, beginning a poem is the most difficult, but with practice becomes easier. One way to begin is to start with a feeling or an image and take it from there. Poetry is written in fragments. Each line or fragment should have an emotion or a compelling image.
Life provides us with much material to write about. As Robert Frost said, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression: an effort to find fulfillment…”
The subject of poems often comes to us when we least expect it. That’s why it’s important to always keep a journal and pen handy. If you want to write poetry, try to read a lot of poetry of poets you admire. The best poets master details and are very specific in their writing. They show rather than tell. The more visual your poem is, the more compelling it will be to read!