Mary Oliver Saved My Life
At the National Association for Poetry Therapy’s annual conference, the participants swap stories, poems, and their doctor’s numbers. Greg Cook reports on a subculture of people looking to poetry to help them cope with illness and “find coherence in this mad journey.”
BOSTON, SPRING 2006—I am at the National Association for Poetry Therapy’s annual five-day conference at the Courtyard Boston Tremont Hotel’s Empire Ballroom, one of those nondescriptly ornate halls decorated with carpets, columns, and chandeliers of great cascading ropes of glass. The conference program proclaims 18-year-old Ekiwah Adler-Beléndez a “literary prodigy and cerebral palsy and scoliosis survivor.” He is tonight’s keynote speaker.
After some waiting he appears at the podium, a scrawny teen with dark wavy hair, his upper lip scrawled with a thin mustache. A bumper sticker on the back of his wheelchair announces: “Don’t assume I’m not into cheap meaningless sex.”
He reads from a prose-poem about driving to New York from his home outside Mexico City. It was December 2004, and he was scheduled for spinal surgery to correct his scoliosis.
The bones of a corpse have been planted inside me.
The nurses look at me with small dark eyes.
“Are you feeling OK?”
I’m feeling like a rhinoceros that has just finished making love with a lizard and needs some privacy.
The crowd chuckles. The 180 attendees are mostly crisply attired, middle-aged white women. “I want to be a witness to my delirium. That’s why I write,” Adler-Beléndez reads. “I must find coherence in this mad journey.”
This teenager has come from the land of sickness to proclaim the power of poetry to help us confront our struggles and heal. The audience is riveted by his tale.
In an elevator packed with conference attendees, a man asks them, “Are you the therapists with the poetry?” They laugh and tell him yes. “What do you do for a broken leg? Two Robert Brownings?” Well, maybe.
One poetry therapy story that is circulated at the conference:
In 2002, Beverlye Hyman Fead was diagnosed with stage IV inoperable cancer that had metastasized in her belly. Doctors predicted that without a strong regimen of chemotherapy, stomach surgery, and more chemotherapy, she had two months to live. Cancer had killed her grandmother, mother, and two sisters, but at 68 she feared she might not survive the treatment. So she got a second opinion and opted for an experimental program of shots and pills, uncertain if it would work.
Fead joined a poetry therapy group at Hospice of Santa Barbara, California, to help her grapple with the anxiety. The group—usually four to eight women suffering from cancer or other deadly illnesses—sat around a table in a small room for two hours each week. Therapist Perie Longo led them through poems that she hoped would prompt discussion of what they hoped for, of what they hoped death to be. When someone latched onto a line or phrase, Longo turned it into a writing prompt, saying, “Write that line down and begin from there.” They’d scribble for a while and then discuss the results.
One week Longo brought in Jelaluddin Rumi’s poem “The Guest House,” which advises readers to welcome troubles because they can guide one to fresh delights. Fead wrote “The Uninvited Guest” in response: “I feel fortunate my tumors came to me in the fall of my life. . . . Would I have taken the time to appreciate / all my blessings in the summer of my life? / No, I think not. . . . Would I have appreciated the beautiful images / the moon makes in the still of the night? / No, I have my tumors to thank for that. / And so I do. / Thank you.”
In a phone interview from her home in Santa Barbara, Fead tells me: “It was such a relief [to write]. . . . It was like all these thoughts were sitting in there, waiting in there to come out. I didn’t even realize it. I could actually say the words: I’m frightened, I have this giant inside of me; is it going to stay still?”
Four years after her cancer diagnosis, Fead is still with us. The experimental treatment has not eradicated her tumors, but it seems to have kept them in check. “I don’t know if I’m lucky or if it’s divine intervention,” she tells me. “I can’t attribute it to anything. . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if the writing helped me. It’s just a tremendous relief to get the feelings out and to have somebody appreciate it.”
She’s published a collection of her poetry and prose, “I Can Do This,” and is still writing. When she first joined Longo’s poetry therapy group, her subject was death, her imminent death; but now, she says happily, “I’m left with aging, now I’m left with all the regular stuff.”
Poetry therapy as a practice seems to have originated with New York psychiatrist Smiley Blanton. In his 1960 book The Healing Power of Poetry, he wrote:
“Suppose you are depressed and you read a poem about sadness. If your feelings overflow, if you find yourself crying, then your own sadness is reduced. You realize that others have suffered, and the communion of feeling is helpful. It is like being able to share your grief with someone else, someone who understands.”
The Association for Poetry Therapy formed in 1969 and was incorporated as the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT) in 1981. It credentials poetry therapists who’ve successfully completed 440 hours of training and study, but its membership remains modest, hovering between 250 to 350 people, according to its president, Perie Longo.
Poetry therapists are a sort of subculture among therapists, like therapists who use massage or hypnosis. Poetry is an extra benefit that can be offered to a patient: the poem that could solve the riddle of the psyche.
As psychiatrist Jack Leedy explained in his 1969 essay “Principles of Poetry Therapy,” “For poetry therapy, the standard is not whether it is good or great poetry, but whether it will help heal the ill. For this purpose, Longfellow may be better than Shakespeare, Herrick than Milton, Greifer than Donne, or Holmes than Sophocles.”
Proponents trace the notion of the healing power of art to ancient ritual singing and chanting, as well as to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. The idea of poetry as a way to “get better” or “get healed” remains powerfully alive in our society today. In former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s anthologies from his Favorite Poem project, again and again contributors recommend poems because—as one Massachusetts finance manager says—they “helped me through the darkest times.”
Back at the conference, I move among the flocks of therapists or would-be therapists hurrying to the hotel’s fifth floor. There they attend workshops on treating veterans, adolescents, or prisoners. They learn the therapeutic application of the Native American medicine wheel and how foot-tapping dances could inspire hip-hop-style poetry. They listen to talks on “Authentic Voices: A Harmonic Convergence of Relational-Cultural Theory and Poetry Therapy,” “Rebuilding the Self: Finding the Words to Start Over,” and “The Immigrant Self: Bridging Original and Adopted Cultures through Poetry.”
I meet tired social workers looking to change careers; a groovy bearded therapist in a Hawaiian shirt whose tone suggested he was waiting for all of us to catch up to his insights; a delicate artist in earnest pursuit of new ideas; and a nursing home staffer who consoles patients by reading from a pocket book of religious verse. A soft-spoken Congolese man tells me that the arts in America have lost their way, gone rancid. He thinks poetry can be saved if only we would read old African proverbs, what he called “wisdom poetry.”
Longo says, “Poetry has a border, it has a shape, and so you can write about any kind of emotions and you won’t fall off the page. A lot of psychiatric patients worry if they write they’ll fall apart.”
“To me,” says Forrest Hamer, an Oakland psychologist, “it’s like someone bringing in a dream.”
The poet mentioned again and again by poetry therapists is Mary Oliver. “She has such a generous human sensibility, and she usually links that with nature, and that’s very accessible,” says John Fox of Mountain View, California, a certified poetry therapist, past NAPT president, and author of the 1997 book Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. Oliver’s poems are often short and so lend themselves to focused discussion. She occasionally pens rants, but poetry therapists favor her poems that end on more upbeat notes.
Ingrid Tegnér, a Maryland social worker and certified poetry therapist, says angry poems encourage group therapy participants to argue with each other. Therapists tend to favor Oliver poems like “Wild Geese,” which ends: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”
Some dismiss poets like Oliver as part of an I-looked-out-my-window-and-had-a- revelation school of poetry, a style they reject as too easy, too watered down.
So then there is this question: if art is used for therapy, political criticism and persuasion, or community improvement projects (as in a proposal to pipe Beethoven and Mozart into a Hartford, Connecticut, park to drive out drug dealers and prostitutes), does it diminish the art form? If people look for healing answers in poetry, does that prevent them from seeing that thing so central to the art form: its mystery?
For poet August Kleinzahler, the difference between poetry as a tool and poetry as an art is the level of complexity and formal achievement of the latter. Reached by phone in Austin, Texas, he is somewhat sympathetic to poetry therapy’s goals: “Whatever works—rubbing pig feces or listening to Fox talk radio or taking serotonin reuptake inhibitors—if that makes someone less suicidal or homicidal or miserable, great. . . . But it has nothing to do with art per se.”
It seems to me that the people at the Boston conference are concerned not with aesthetics but with professional legitimacy—how to better establish poetry therapy in the world of professorships and grants. And to achieve these ends, they are focusing their attention on research. Research, they say, could make poetry therapy more accessible in hospitals and clinics and encourage the development of university training programs. “Unless you can prove what you’re doing is working, you’re not likely to get funding,” Nicholas Mazza, a professor of social work at Florida State University and longtime NAPT board member, tells a room full of people during a panel discussion on the “Latest Developments in Poetry Therapy Research.”
At the conference, Tegnér describes a 2005 NAPT-funded pilot study she developed with a British doctor and researcher in which she treated two groups of cancer patients, 10 women total, for six weeks. Analysis of participant surveys found that therapy may have helped the women better release anger. But the study was too tiny to reveal significant findings and was clumsily framed, so instead of being focused to reveal the benefits of poetry therapy as a type of group therapy, it perhaps simply showed the benefits of group therapy.
In the meantime, poetry therapy groups continue to meet. And successes such as Adler-Beléndez and Fead travel the art-therapy circuit, reading their poems and professing the transformative power of writing. When I email Adler-Beléndez to inquire about his surgery prose-poem, he responds, “The process of writing it proved that poetry could lift me past fear.” And then he dashes off to speak at a Mythic Journeys conference in Atlanta.
Greg Cook is a Boston cartoonist and newspaperman who writes regularly about art for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe. His comics can be found with surprising irregularity in Nickelodeon Magazine. Or just try his 2001 graphic novel Catch As Catch Can. He is a tall skinny fellow with...