For years, psychotherapists have suggested poetry as a way to navigate difficult times. This mode of healing is particularly valuable for those who find it easier to write than to express themselves verbally. Writing can also augment any type of psychotherapy already in progress. Writing can empower, and also be a way to come to grips with, or understand, what is going on in your mind. It is also a way to identify the dreams resting in your heart.
When writing a healing poem, it’s important to write from your heart rather than your head. This might take some practice, as we often intellectualize our pain. If you don’t have a lot of experience writing poetry, then you might want to start writing a poem as if you’re telling a story. Sometimes this is called narrative poetry. Keep in mind that rhyming isn’t important. Also, it’s okay to cry when you’re writing. Tears show that you’re tapping into some of your deepest emotions, and this is one way of healing.
Most of my poems begin on the pages of my notebook. Typically, I’ll write when dealing with an emotional experience, such as pain, loss, or joy. My first two poetry books, Dear Anaïs: My Life in Poems for You and The Guilt Gene, consist of narrative and prose poetry and basically chronicle my life — surveying the good and bad times. While rereading these two collections, I realized how often I turned to poetry for healing and celebration. Poetry is an excellent genre to ground you when emotions become too powerful or intense. In fact, writing poetry has helped me through three pregnancies laden with bed rest, the loss of numerous loved ones, and two bouts of cancer. It also came in handy when my middle daughter, Regine, got married a few years ago, and I was moved to write some poems about her and her fiancé. Although I didn’t share all of them, it felt good to write them.
When diagnosed with early breast cancer — ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) — in 2001, the first thought that whipped through my mind was not being able to see my children grow up and have children of their own. Even though I was a nurse, I was flooded with fear, and terrified about the genetic factors associated with cancer. My overwhelming concern inspired the following poem:
To My Daughters
You were the first I thought of
when diagnosed with what
strikes one in eight women.
It was too soon to leave you,
but I thought it a good sign
that none of us were born
under its pestilent zodiac.
I stared at the stars and wished
upon each one that you’d never
wake up as I did this morning
to one real breast and one fake one;
but that the memories you carry
will be only sweet ones, and then
I remembered you had your early traumas
of being born too soon, and losing
a beloved grandpa too young. I have
this urge to show you the scars
on the same breasts you both cuddled
as babies, but then I wonder why
you’d want to see my imperfections
and perhaps your destiny. I cave in
and show you anyway, hoping you learn
to eat well and visit your doctors, but then
I wonder if it really matters, as I remember
what your grandpa Umpie used to say,
“When your time’s up, it’s up.”
May he always watch over you!
The purpose of writing a healing poem is to turn a negative into a positive, and accomplishing this goal is simply a matter of sitting down and writing. Very little instruction is needed, but some people are intimidated by poetry and would like some tips on how to begin.
Here is a list of suggestions that might help you start writing:
- Begin with an image, action, or strong emotion.
- Perhaps start the poem with one of the following: “Suppose . . . , “I confess that . . . ,” or “I wish . . .”
- Provide as many details as you can.
- When possible, use metaphors.
- Try to use numerous images and descriptions.
- If it’s your first poem, begin by writing four lines per stanza.
If you’re still having trouble getting started, then make a list of the following prompts and choose one to write about:
- What I fear
- What I love
- Loved ones who are gone
- What a perfect day would look like
To read more of my articles, please visit The Empowerment Diary on Psychology Today.