Poetry as Healing

Chris Tutton led a workshop at Leeds Central Library as part of the Love Arts Festival on the 25th October which explored this theme.

What exactly is it about words that is so powerful? Chris told us that 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, people wrote on papyrus which was then dissolved in water and ingested, in the belief that the written symbols would heal. In ancient Greece Apollo, the God of Medicine, was also the God of Poetry. The soothing words of a friend in need, the lullabies or rhymes we tell children, are known to be helpful, but (I hear you ask) is there any clinical evidence that words ‘work’?

Apparently there is. Matthew Liebermann of the University of California has researched the effects of writing poetry on the brain and found that it has profound healing effects. Likewise James Pennebaker of the University of Texas has done research about the therapeutic effects of writing things down (even if you don’t then share them).. In England Dr. Robin Philipp did a study that showed that 2 out of 3 people said reading reduced stress and writing was an outlet for their emotions. 10% said that reading poems improved their mood. 13 said that poetry had helped them to stop taking anti-depressants or tranquillisers. He said poetry worked as an “emotional catharsis” allowing people to get their thoughts onto paper. “Three quarters of people said writing poetry helped by encouraging them to bring disorganised thoughts, feelings and emotions.”

Writing is one of the most accessible of art forms – you just need a pen or pencil, and something to write on. Writing down what happened to you today is a way of enjoying the good bits again, or making sense of the bad bits and coming to terms with them. There’s a whole school of psychotherapy called ‘journal therapy’.which involves noticing and writing about what you think and feel each day.

Chris suggested a lot of powerful ideas, but led the mixed bunch of people in this workshop very sensitively. He suggested that the NHS could save £200 million per year if they taught poetry instead of giving anti-depressants. Writing poetry is a way of ordering thoughts, which once you’ve started can be applied to other aspects of your life. He read us Stevie Smith’s poem, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, and we talked about what it meant for us. Then we tried it for ourselves. Chris invited us to imagine an animal that represented how we were at that moment, and we wrote about that. We had in the group a very lyrical bat, two badgers (very topical!), a solitary cat, a greyhound, and a mole. Each voice was quite unique and everyone found the experience of writing (and being listened to in a sympathetic group) very useful. Personally I wrote a poem about an old circus leopard (!)

Afterwards everyone was very enthusiastic about doing more of this work, if the library can find some funding. As one person said in summary ‘this is better than any anti-depressants’.

Stephen King says: ‘Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up’. (Stephen King, On Writing).

6 thoughts on “Poetry as Healing

  1. What an intriguing idea, certainly got me thinking about how writing could be implemented in cases of mental distress, clearly there is space for more innovative approaches to ‘depression’ than anti-depressants ‘cos they don’t always work well and there are the side effects to consider, I took them for many years, still had down periods, I’ve managed to come off them completely now, still have down periods! Doing the Community Reporter course and contributing to the blog
    has been cathartic for me.
    Thanks for the post. Has that old leopard got a hat? Pill box? Trilby? Fedora? Cool cat!


  2. Really interesting. I think writing does help, I had been writing a journal, which helped me organise my thoughts, and also gave me a few insights! (sounding like Woody Allen) However recently I have slipped with my journal writing and this has spurred me on to continue. I like the sound of Poetry and sometimes it is hard to really articulate emotions, and feelings, it seems easier to use metaphors and that is why poetry seems so apt. PS Can we see your poem of an old circus leopard – it conjures up a great image…


    • I thought you’d never ask…..I’ve edited it a bit since the workshop.

      Old Circus Leopard

      It’s an old wound troubles me every October.
      These grey, English skies, the damp,
      Halloween and the clocks going back.
      These days I live with a limp.

      When I ran
      through woods that night,
      as wild wind harassed
      bright clouds of leaves,
      the world mad with rage,
      shaking branches
      of neon bright trees,
      who was that horseman riding away?

      Certainly I never saw you again.
      There was no further flicker of recognition
      Before that long and final exhalation.



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