How Can I Heal Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

One way is through poetry:

A friend of mine sent me a recent Slate article titled Patients Need Poetry. It’s about Rafael Campo, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, who was just awarded the Hippocrates Open International Prize for Poetry and Medicine. Who knew there was an award for poetry and medicine?

Well, unbeknownst to me, poetry and medicine have been entwined for some time. For about six millennia, to be exact. According to the National Association of Poetry Therapy, “It is documented that as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the words could be physically ingested by the patient and take effect as quickly as possible.”

The National Federation for Biblio-Poetry Therapy (NFB/PT) is the independent credentialing authority for the profession of poetry therapy. Evidently, the first recorded poetry therapist was a Roman physician named Soranus, in the first century A.D., who “prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed.” Interestingly, the Roman god Apollo is both the god of poetry and the god of medicine.

Over 260 years ago, the Pennsylvania Hospital, the first American hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin, also used poetry therapy. The hospital published a newspaper, the Illuminator, that published patient’s poems for all to read.

Following in the footsteps of those pioneers of the Pennsylvania Hospital is John Fox, a Certified Poetry Therapist, who was featured in a 2008 PBS documentary, Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. The film follows Fox and Dr. John Graham-Pole, working with the Arts in Medicine (AIM) program at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, as they enter hospital rooms and help patients write poems as a way to facilitate the healing process. “Compassion can flourish in the unlikeliest of places: a sterile hospital room.”

Rafael Campo, the winner of the Hippocrates prize mentioned above, practices general internal medicine and often gives poems to his patients. He also teaches writing at Lesley University, and has a book of poetry, Alternative Medicine, coming out this fall.

Verse by unknown poet found on a wall.
Verse by unknown poet found on a wall.

Although I had always felt that poetry and healing were somehow connected, until now I had no idea they have such an extensive history together, or that poetry therapy is so vigorously and comprehensively practiced.

How does poetry help with the healing process? Reading or listening to poetry can take a person out of their pain and misery. Exposed to the thoughts of others, reflecting how the words may apply to their situation, or recognizing perhaps that others have been through  similar suffering and they are not quite so alone, not to mention the inspiration that poetry often brings – all beneficial, even if it temporary. In writing poetry, there is also relief from suffering for a time. The exercise of expressing our feelings is cathartic. That’s just for starters.

In a Time Magazine article on poetry therapy some years ago, Yale Psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg wrote that “poetry by itself does not cure,” but the way it uses words, is “the lifeblood of psychotherapy.” Considering how major portions of the Buddhist sutras and commentaries, were written in verse form, we could probably say that poetry is the lifeblood of Buddhism, too.

In Buddhism, we are advised to practice Right Speech. I think Thich Nhat Hanh summed up what that means when he said, “To use words mindfully, with loving kindness, is to practice generosity.”

Shantideva, in his epic poem Bodhicaryavatara or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way Of Life,” wrote, “One should express one’s appreciation for all good words.”

I believe that you can find poetry anywhere, and everywhere, if you look for it. The same holds true for healing. One does not need to be a published poet to create poetry, nor does one need to be trained in medicine to help others heal. Speaking “good words” is all that is required. As Shantideva put it,

Speak with sincere and coherent words
In a soft and gentle tone,
Words that are clear in meaning
And rooted in compassion.

When looking at others,
Drink them in with your eyes
And open to them your heart, thinking
That through them you will come to awakening.

Great benefit arises from aspiring
To labor in the fields of virtue and kindness,
And from being the antidote
To the suffering of sentient beings.

From Chapter V “Guarding Awareness”


2 thoughts on “How Can I Heal Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

  1. Dear David. Thank you very much for your informative page. I am a Spanish psychiatrist researching on fanzines & periodicals written by patients in mental hospitals.

    Please, can you give me any more information you could know about that? Do you know any reference I could read? Was The Illuminator really published in the 1750s?

    I am really interested in knowing anything about that experience, so any help will be of great value.

    Best wishes and thank you again for your web page.

    1. Click on the 3rd link in the post, National Association of Poetry Therapy, and go to their history section. The information is there. Glad you found the post helpful.

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