When the use of literature, as self-created or written by others has either enriched the mental images and concepts of the participants, enlightened them about self, enlarged their relationships with others and/or enhanced their ways of relating to the world about them, bibliotherapy has achieved its overall goal of providing persons with ways of coping with life more gracefully and of dealing creatively with what cannot be changed. Arleen Hynes – The Arts in Psychotherapy 1980
Many more people are becoming convinced of the benefits of therapeutic writing and reading for well-being. Biblio-Poetry Therapy is well-established in the US and there is increasing interest in the UK, Ireland and other countries. My aim with this site is to bring together details of events and training courses, both those I’m involved in and those I recommend together with links to interesting websites, book reviews, articles and news items.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
W.H. Auden – In Memory of W.B. Yeats
Poetry Therapy is the intentional use of literature – poems, novels, memoir, essays, songs – to promote health and well-being. A typical session will include reading aloud, writing in response and sharing and discussion of insights. Some sessions might be entirely oral, others make use of silence. Art materials, pictures, music, movement and even film clips can be incorporated. Nick Mazza talks of how there are receptive (listening, looking, reading), expressive (writing, talking, making) and symbolic (the rituals, practices and context) aspects to Poetry Therapy.
A poem (or other piece of writing) can open an imaginative space in which we can find new ways of viewing the world. Blake Morrison has written eloquently about the ‘reading cure’.
Expressive writing can be surprising, cathartic and, especially in groups, healing. If you are interested in the evidence, James Pennebaker is one of the pioneering researchers.
I am based in the UK and qualified as a Poetry-Biblio Therapist in 2005 with the US National Association for Poetry Therapy. I have a long association with Lapidus, the UK’s organisation for Literary Arts in Personal Development and spent a year as Director of Survivors’ Poetry. As well as teaching on various courses, I am a Faculty Member of Poetry Reach, Ireland which offers training via the International Academy of Poetry Therapy. I recommend connecting with all of these communities if you are interested in this work.
I have started this website to bring together items of interest, events and links relating to poetry therapy and would welcome feedback and comments. In view of some of the comments below, I have written a very brief history of poetry therapy.
The history of poetry as a way of healing goes back, apparently, to the 4th millenium BCE when in Egypt, patients literally ate their words, inscribed on papyrus. In the classical world, Apollo is God of both the arts and medicine.
The history of poetry therapy in the US has dual roots – the first in psychiatry where treatment options have included reading and expressive writing as far back as 1751. Pennsylvania Hospital, the first in the country, even had a literary magazine with writing by the patients. Various pioneers in psychiatry developed forms of poetry therapy and wrote about its practice and theory – you can learn more here.
The other influence has been from librarians who realised that reading and talking about books had a therapeutic effect on patients. One of the pioneers is Sister Arlene Hynes who worked as librarian at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington (where poet Ezra Pound lived for 12 years). As well as giving out books, she organised a film and lecture programme and also lent patients paintings. She and Ken Gorelick, a psychiatrist at St Elizabeths, set up the first training programme in poetry bibliotherapy. I feel privileged to have met both of these inspiring figures.
The work by libraries relates to the area of Bibliotherapy and ‘Literature Therapy’. In the UK now, The Reader Organisation runs Get Into Reading groups all over the country in which participants read aloud, whole novels, over a period of weeks, or poems and shorter pieces. Bibliotherapy falls into two categories – Books on Prescription: learning more about medical conditions to promote self-care (eg reading a book about depression or arthritis) and Creative Bibliotherapy: reading novels, poems and creative non-fiction to illuminate the rich complexity of the human condition. The Reading Agency does work in this area.