After morning yoga I walk to my car, conscious of every step. I look down at the muddy path, my clogs stepping firmly, yet gently, on the soft ground, knowing that the moment is precious and feeling the interconnection of breath and step. The rain falls discretely on my curls, and the scent of lavender rising from my wet hair awakens me even more. I take a deep breath, and direct my attention towards the softness beneath my feet, the fresh air on my face, and the warm fleece against my skin. A blue jay lands two trees ahead of me and flies away before I invade its space, but the blue remains inscribed in my mind. The memory of a therapeutic writing group I led a few years ago for elders rushes into my awareness, perhaps because of our frequent writing about the wonders of nature.
I bring poetry as an ancillary to my work as a counselor, and have made it my most faithful ally in helping others give voice to their emotions. I offer poems like fresh bread, to feed my clients’ souls, to lift their spirits as they discover that creativity is an essential part of healing. As Joseph Zinker says, “the creative process is therapeutic in itself, because it allows us to express and examine the content and dimensions of our internal lives.”
What I do has been called Poetry Therapy. As Arleen McCarty and others depict it, Poetry Therapy aims at improving a person’s capacity to voice feelings, to increase self-knowledge and value his or her personhood, to increase awareness of interpersonal relations, and to improve reality orientation.
We all understand Catharsis, a Greek word that means “cleansing.” In the therapeutic perspective it refers to the release of suppressed thoughts and feelings. Catharsis is at the very core of Poetry Therapy; the poem awakens suppressed feelings, bringing them to surface so they can be explored. The following poem was written by a former client, who was 80 years old when he wrote it. I will call him “Mark.” The poem describes his coming out of a deep depression:
Out of the Dark
I walk out of the dark room
through and out of a door
and to the light
All of a sudden
everything seemed beautiful
the aroma was sweet
I suddenly realized I was living
in a wonderful world
I looked closely at all the beautiful things in it
The sound of cattle, horses, a rooster crowing
I wanted to walk to the countryside
and to the woods
and smell the air
I saw the squirrels
and chipmunks and listened to the crows
I wanted to live
No more dark rooms
I wanted to live again.
Writing this poem, Mark gave himself permission to entertain ways of being besides being depressed. Most importantly, he was able to give voice to positive feelings. Mark was a veteran of war and has battled acute depression since the 1950s, living a rather isolated life. His isolation diminished a great deal after he joined the poetry group. While his depression did not miraculously go away, his interpersonal skills improved considerably, as well as his ability to both identify depressed moods and to counterbalance them by engaging in activities such as writing, walking, or simply looking at the garden from his bedroom window. In this next poem he articulates how crucial relationships are for him:
I was in a mental health hospital
I think of this wonderful nurse
who came to my bedside every night
She had seven children
She told me all about her family
She did more good than all the medications.
With this poem Mark captures what should be a counselor’s mantra—being present, listening and responding empathically. The awakening of his poetic imagination positively impacted his health and personal growth. As for me, I can still hear his trembling yet potent voice reciting his poems, and like the blue jay this morning, Mark left his voice inscribed in my mind, reminding me of the power of poetry to heal and restore hope.
Marianela Medrano-Marra is a Dominican writer and counselor living and practicing in Naugatuck, CT. She writes poetry, essays and creative non-fiction. Her publications include essays and four books of poetry.