How Poetry Can Heal
A distinguished doctor discusses the power of the written word
En español | As a psychiatrist in private practice in Washington, D.C., Norman Rosenthal is used to helping clients through loss. But just like many of us, he struggled to find the right words to console a bereaved friend who called him late one night several years ago. The advice he shared in that moment — that “there is an art to losing, and like all art, it can be developed” — reminded his friend of the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. After his friend dug out the poem and started to read it aloud that night, Rosenthal noticed that his voice gathered strength and energy.
The experience got Rosenthal thinking: Could poetry help others heal the psychological wounds of grief? Rosenthal, who was already well known for his pioneering work on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the 1980s, decided to conduct research in this new area. This month, he published a book about his findings, Poetry Rx: How Fifty Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life. The book covers not only the verses themselves but issues such as managing emotions, connecting with nature and finding meaning in grief and in life.
To find out more about the power of poetry for our mental health, we sat with Rosenthal for a chat.
Q: When did you begin to appreciate poetry in your own life?
A: I had an appreciation of poetry early on. In second grade, I was commended for reciting poetry well because I understood the rhythm of the words and the imagery resonated with me. Some people have a feeling for music; I had a feeling for poetry. As a medical student in South Africa, I would carpool with a couple of guys to school, and I was discovering poems that were eloquent representations of the illness and suffering we were exposed to on a daily basis.
Q: How did you discover that poetry has the power to help people deal with difficult situations or heal psychological wounds?
A: I began to use poetry in my work with patients and clients long ago — Poetry Rx is the result of years of doing so. When patients are stuck, I might read a particular poem, such as Derek Walcott's “Love After Love", which is about reclaiming oneself after a difficult breakup with a loved one. So the patient is offered a different way of seeing the issue at hand, separate from his or mine. Using poetry this way helps change the person's mental posture. It provides a device to offer people another perception or perspective and show them that they have a choice in how they see things or how they appreciate a situation. It's a very respectful approach because people know that poetry results from a certain amount of thoughtfulness. I call certain healing poems a vaccine for the soul because they do more than soothe, encourage and inspire. A great poem actually protects at a psychological level.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Norman Rosenthal, M.D., includes The Guest House, by Rumi, in his book and notes how it’s helped his patients process and accept more difficult emotions.
Q: What kind of research supports these effects?
A: The status of poetry as a healing principle remains at an anecdotal level, albeit persuasive in terms of the number of people who have reported being helped in this way. One area of research has asked, How does listening to poetry affect the brain in ways that can be measured by modern technology? To address this, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt conducted a series of studies, using neuroimaging, physiological and behavioral measures, and found that listening to poems being recited elicits peak emotional responses, including goosebumps, chills and changes in the brain's reward circuitry on imaging studies.
Q: I've read that poetry might help ease physical health problems, too, such as relieving pain in cancer patients and enhancing well-being in people who have serious illnesses.
A: Anything that helps your emotional health is also going to help your physical health. One mechanism for this is simply helping a person get a better night's sleep. Poetry also can relieve stress in many different ways such as providing comfort to someone in mourning or relieving emotional distress, which can make pain worse.
Q: Let's discuss some of your favorite poems from the book and why they are helpful for particular issues.
A: This is a difficult question because it is like asking which of your children you like the best. That said, “The Guest House” by Rumi encourages people not only to accept their feelings but to welcome them, even those feelings that are unpleasant and threatening. Each time I read it, I feel its brilliant capacity to soothe. “Out Beyond Considerations” encourages reconciliation between people as opposed to focusing on who's right and who's wrong. After reading the chapter that features this poem in the book, one of my friends actually copied it and stuck it on his fridge to help him stay focused on what's really important when he gets into a squabble with his wife.
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Two poems that were very meaningful to me in my exploration of SAD [seasonal affective disorder] were “There's a Certain Slant of Light” by Emily Dickinson and “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold” [“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”] by John Keats. When somebody sent me the Dickinson poem, upon reading it, I was immediately encouraged by feeling it validated my instinctive sense that SAD was a real and important entity when many scoffed at it. The Keats poem speaks to the thrill of discovery. It came to mind when I first saw my patients’ responses to light therapy and felt as though I was seeing a law of nature unfolding before my eyes. And so it goes: Virtually every poem in this book has comforted at least one person I have known.