Mary Oliver Saved My Life

Dispatch from the National Association for Poetry Therapy’s annual conference.

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.

Originally Published: August 22nd, 2006

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...

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  1. July 31, 2007

    I have been numbly staring
    at the blinking cursor in the
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    It is July 31st.
    Tommorrow is the month
    who's name I cannot bear
    to speak aloud, or even
    Two weeks and three years
    ago today, my precious,
    almost sixteen year old
    daughter and her friend
    were crossing the street on
    a crosswalk when they were
    hit by an inattentive driver.
    My daughter was declared
    braindead and was taken off
    life support 14 hours later.
    Her useful organs and
    tissues were then rushed to
    waiting recipients.....
    Since that time, I have read
    a great deal of poetry and
    purchased a number of
    books and anthologies.I can
    attest to the theraputic
    benefits of poetry.
    To those critics of Mary
    Oliver's poetry, I think they
    should can the sour grapes
    and spend the rest of their
    days attempting to write
    ANYTHING that comes even
    close to a poem like
    Oliver's," The Lilies Break
    Open Over The Dark
    Read it and weep........

  2. February 25, 2008
     Kathy S.

    The mere fact that poetry therapy is a recognized field with trained professionals is a revelation to me. I had no idea that what I've been doing had a name. As my husband was dying of cancer last year, I dealt with the emotional chaos by writing in a personal journal. After my husband's death in September, poetry began pouring out of me, and I found that for my sanity I had to carry a notebook with me constantly. A day feels incomplete to me if I haven't written at least one poem. My reading habits changed as well. Before my husband's illness, I used to read about a book a week: mostly politics, history, science, cultural critique and fiction. Now, instead, I devour poetry anthologies. This change in my life--becoming a person who can't live without poetry--was not planned or expected; it just happened. Poetry has been powerful, life-giving therapy for me. Little did I realize how universal this must be!

  3. March 20, 2008

    Yes, Steve....

    I have been weeping. Mary Oliver's book, Selected and New Poems, lives in my bed. I would not have read it, if I had not had a sudden meeting with grief. It has helped me breathe, let go and see into all these feelings.

    Thank you, Mary Oliver.

  4. June 16, 2008
     Dan C.

    Mary Oliver's poems are like good friends who will neither leave nor forsake. Thirst closes with an amazing epilogue (the title poem). This period is summarized no better than these words from that poem:

    Another morning and I wake up with thirst

    for the goodness I do not have. I walk

    out to the pond and all the way God has

    given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I

    was never a quick scholar but sulked

    and hunched over my books past the

    hour and the bell; grant me, in your

    mercy, a little more time. Love for the

    earth and love for you are having such a

    long conversation in my heart. Who

    knows what will finally happen or

    where I will be sent, yet already I have

    given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the

    prayers which, with this thirst, I am

    slowly learning.

  5. November 19, 2008
     Darrell Cruse

    I feel so profoundly stirred by Thirst, I am unable to do much but stare at her words as if spoken just for me.

    I have written maybe 50 poems but now I feel like forming them into the look of leaves to go and blow wherever their 'kin' can! I see as always here in Thirst what my fingers have stammered many times to punch into this laptop. I failed but she didn't. My own thirst is quenched for a time with her words!

  6. December 1, 2008
     Sally W.

    I discovered Mary Oliver, Rumi and some other (now favorite) poets, shortly after I suffered emotional turmoil a few years ago. It was as if she had read my heart and my mind! I had not read poetry since I was required to do so in school. I am so grateful for the meltdown that brought me to reading poetry. I say that therapy and poetry are a natural pairing. Yay!

  7. November 30, 2009
     John Spangler

    I stumbled across these year-old postings, amazed that I had not thought of this myself.

    I am a family physician and professor of family medicine. I can see the value of poetry for (some of) my patients. Many of my patients cannot read or have trouble understanding simple language. But many others could be touched, the way I am touched, by Mary Oliver and others.

    Now I wonder how I can incorporate this into what I do day-to-day.

    Thanks for this helpful essay.

  8. June 29, 2010

    Let us be clear. One can make the case for her technical proficeincy, if that is at issue. Is it so easy, to write like her?

    It is not. Mary Oliver is one of a tiny number of voices that have broken me open, to see the world. Sappho. Marguerite Duras. Jean Toomer. Jack Gilbert. Anais Nin.

    There are authors I adore, and there are authors whose words are so quick to my throat, I find I am crying before I have even understood what I am reading.

    One might say, too, that Duras is simple. One might, if one is not careful, miss the splendor of the world. One might miss, that the descriptions are simple. That, in _The Lover_, the river rushing under her feet is the bodies of dead dogs, the gutted forests of Cambodia, all rushing a few feet underneather her, tipping to empty themselves to the horizon. Because it is so easy to see her heart, one might miss that this is one of the hardest ways to write.

    And one might miss Anais Nin. Of course, a critic never writes like her. Her concise prose, by which she sums up "why I write" in two pages instead of two hundred, is a healthy product of many things. A lifetime writing (her edited journals alone are more than the output of many authors), and years of ruthless editing when she printed her own books and hand set the type herself. Every. Spare. Word. Went.

    One can say that it is easy to write like these authors. One can choose, if one wishes, to have no idea what one is talking about. One can miss how closely people come to not being able to live. One can miss just how hard it is to sleep, knowing that the shuddering instant will pass and we will never again have grass, or skin, in our hands.

    The risk of sneering, is that one might miss the chance to have one's hands suddenly filled, a fistful of bright poppies. One might miss, drowsing in the sun, plush and spinning the evening too close to death's soft, downy fingers. One might miss that every moment of joy depends upon us to find it.

    It is hard. To be vulnerable. To sit down in front of beauty and tremble. To find beauty, to hunt for it. To hunt in the mouth of one's lover -the lustrous names she might say that are not yours. In the broken objects that make it unavoidable-- we will be broken, too. In the sudden rush of dawn pawing you open before the word "lilies" has separated from the bit of cloth you are holding, from the hand you dreamed you were.

    I have met no one who dismisses beauty who had any idea what strength is required to stand in the face of it, and be moved. And stay standing. Mary Oliver rips my heart out. Her words are arresting. Every way I can be broken, she has broken me. There are times, the words alone are exquisite, and just saying them out loud I can't breathe.

    It is strange to me, that people refuse to see. There are many authors I respect, that I do not like. James Salter. I find Mary Oliver's craft to be unimpeachable. And there is a difference between the naive-and-easy representations of beauty, and the long, careful path to manufacturing joy. To leaving presents for ourselves and others. To making the world beautiful. To choosing exactly the words, to have the life that one wants, and still ask every question in case, this time, there is a new answer. Or no answer; just our restless minds reaching to one another. Clicking through the night and tumbling us out of our beds to ask the moon, or the lilies, how to gather sleep.

    If I did not like Mary Oliver, I would respect her as a master of the craft of poetry. Do people even understand? She's written a book about meter and rhyme! It's important to be able to tell the difference between a choice to write free verse and the inability to work differently. It shows. Do we judge, before we know how to do it ourselves?

    But in the end, none if this matters. What matters to me, is that her words exist. That she says, and the saying is a spell that holds me in the night.

    What matters is that when she came to speak in Seattle, for the first time in my life, in a major metropolitan city, I was surrounded by young women, silver-eyed and nuzzling the necks of their lovers.

    When you are gone, Mary Oliver, mouths will kiss the bodies of their loves with your words.

    Life can be an easy grace, when we choose it to be. That is not naive. That is no small thing. It is the only thing.

    There you have my two cents. With interest.

  9. September 28, 2010
     Gail Diez

    All I want to do is find a poem by Mary Oliver and I get everything else except the poem Wild Geese why is this so hard?-

  10. January 29, 2011
     Susan Smith

    What a lovely piece. Words about Mary Oliver that echo in my own inward canyons. I could not agree more - there is no other poet that touches me the way Mary Oliver does. I yearn for her words like water and feel her kindred to myself.