Finding What Speaks to You: Poetry as Therapy

How apt that the theme of Poetry Month 2021 is resilience.

How apt that the theme of Poetry Month 2021 is resilience. The League of Canadian Poets has lots to explore on its website including the popular “Poem in Your Pocket Day” which falls on April 29th. How wonderful that Canada has a League of Canadian Poets! I imagine arty types in capes and tights flying across the country when disaster strikes, babies are born, marriage vows are exchanged and loved ones leave this earth. Poets are the superheroes who are called upon to find the words when we cannot. 

This league battles injustice and celebrates achievement. Sometimes its members toil in relative obscurity, their words published only on slips of paper or personal journals. Others are lauded and bestowed titles – Poet Laureate, Beloved Poet, Best-selling Poet – their words published in books, blogs and billboards. Our current Parliamentary Poet Laureate, Louise Bernice Halfe, is the first Indigenous poet appointed to the role. Beloved children’s author Sheree Fitch recently published her poem, Because We Love, We Cry, to assuage the grief of Nova Scotians after the murders in Portapique. Best-selling poet  Rupi Kaur launched her career on Instagram and now has 4 million followers. Her short poems, illustrated by hand, speak directly to the moment. 

While the word poetry used to cause eye rolls and memories of rote memorization of poems largely written by dead white men, our collective response to poetry seems to have shifted. For example, snippets of Rumi’s poems have been spotted on bumper stickers and T-shirts. I prefer to read his work in larger chunks; one of my favourites is his poem The Guesthouse, which encourages us to meet the challenges of life with courage.  

Lately, it does seem that poets and poetry are having a moment. 

Think back to the US inauguration in January of 2021 and the sight of a young Black woman, dressed in hopeful yellow, exclaiming the promise of a new day in The Hill We Climb. The final lines of Amanda Gorman’s stunning poem, shared aloud with the small socially distant crowd and with millions of others watching on TVs, laptops and phones, reminded us that:

There is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Poetry can be therapeutic for those with mental health challenges as well as those who are walking through life beside them. Poets offer us fuel to carry on, to restore what is broken, to look forward. Their words can be a balm for past wounds or new losses. Sometimes they can be a mantra allowing us to cope with a constant companion like anxiety, depression or grief. 

Along with personal storytelling and bibliotherapy, creating poetry and reading the poetry of others has therapeutic benefits. People struggling with anxiety, depression or suicidality know the truth of these lines from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Kindness:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

Consider this stunning poem by Galway Kinnell, called simply,  Wait. This poem was said to be written for a student of Kinnell’s who was contemplating suicide. Certainly his short poem cuts right to the point: “Wait. Don’t go too early”. Or read Roo Borson’s lovely poem about recognizing grief as a constant companion, an empty chair that we can acknowledge and even sit in. 

Many poems speak to the notion of recovery. Some that speak to me are: David Wagoner’s Lost, Jane Hirshfield’s Optimism, Mario Benedetti’s Little Stones at my Window or even David Byrne and Brian Eno’s  One Fine Day (if you’ll allow a little wiggle room as that last one is actually a song lyric). But one of my favourites on this theme is the Irish poet John O’Donohue’s For A New Beginning which opens this way:

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,

This beginning has been quietly forming, 

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

Maybe you have some favourites of your own. 

Beautiful poems have been written to chronicle this strange time and to provide us courage as we face Covid-19. CBC’s national radio program, The Current, asked activist and poet El Jones to write a poem to mark the one year anniversary of the pandemic. Her poem Glass Hands: A Eulogy on the Anniversary of the Pandemic is a powerful statement of resilience and recovery. 

Jones said the poem is about how “COVID has touched us all, but some more harshly than others — people in prisons, in shelters, Black and Indigenous people, our elders, those who go out to work in risky jobs, those without housing, frontline workers.” Her poem concludes with these words:

We are not broken though we are diminished,

We still have time and this is not the finish,

There is faith, and hope, and it’s within us.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea: Poetry speaks to us when we need it. In poetry there is a form of expression for everybody.  Don’t be afraid – dive in. You might find solace, companionship, or even joy. As beloved poet Mary Oliver says in her poem Don’t hesitate:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. 

Kate Kostandoff is a member of the Eli’s Place Board. A retired high school teacher, she lives with her family in Port Hope, Ontario. 

Eli’s Place will be a farm-based residential treatment centre helping adults aged 18-35 who have been diagnosed with serious mental illness. As we envision Eli’s Place, we anticipate that yoga will play an important role supporting the journey from mental illness to hopeful futures.

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