The Writing Cure: Poetry As a Tool for Self-Expression

By Devon Tomasulo, MFA and Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D., MFA

Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, says “the purpose of a book is to serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Language (and literature in particular) is a mirror of our world. It captures and reflects some of the deepest human emotions. Language is one of our most carefully crafted tools, a tool that we continue to reinvent, sharpen and expand in order to better express ourselves. And, since language is designed entirely around our needs of expression, it is arguably the best way to examine human life and ultimately connect with ourselves.

To take that idea a step further, poetry, being a concentrated form of language, could prove to be one of the most beneficial forms of literature to read and analyze.

Let’s take a look:

The Journey (excerpt)
by Mary Oliver

…the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

And with that, we venture into the black hole of poetry. Now, we’re not just calling it a black hole because everyone who seems to like poetry wears black — we mean, quite frankly, that poetry is a vortex. Poetry envelops those who read beyond the Frost poems they learned in high school and keeps everyone else far, far away, in a distant orbit. But are people as far from poetry and its benefits as they think they are?

Kenneth Burke, an American literary theorist, said “stories are equipment for living.” This suggests that our language, and the stories we are able to create with it, are essential human needs, like food and shelter. We are a social species (why else would blogging be so popular?) and we relate to one another through stories, no matter the form (i.e. movies, novels, web posts or poetry). Stories are, in such cases, a social tool used to relate to one’s world.

What’s more, Professor Carol S. Pearson, PhD., and psychologist Hugh K. Marr, PhD., have discovered that people can significantly improve their lives through a process of identifying the story they are living. They outline twelve archetypal patterns that human life can emulate and have a self-test (the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator) to help people gain an objective view of the story of their life. If you are interested, check out one of their books, What Story Are You Living: A self-improvement guide for discovering and directing the unconscious influences that drive your life story. It is a detailed guide to self-awareness that demonstrates how stories can also be a tool to understanding yourself.

Unfortunately, poetry has developed “an aura of formality … that can make it seem pretentious, and irrelevant to our daily preoccupations,” says Robert Housden, author of poetry collections such as Ten Poems to Change Your Life, extraordinary poetry by some of the world’s most known poets. And exactly how can reading poetry change your life? Housden answers, “great poetry can alter the way we see ourselves. It can change the way we see the world. You may never have read a poem in your life, and yet you can pick up a volume, open it to any page, and suddenly see your own original face there…”

As you read the excerpt of the powerful Mary Oliver poem that opened this article, you most likely found yourself relating to the poet’s sense of awakening and conviction. You sympathize with the anxiety that accompanies major changes in life. If you’re interested in reading the whole poem, you can check it out here. Notice how Oliver begins the poem with the voices of others, shouting “their bad advice,” and the voice of the self rises by the end — perhaps that is a familiar story to you? By relating to the poem (and the poet) our own story comes into focus. What is it we must change in our life? Have you heard that new voice that is your own? What is it saying? And finally, the last four lines deliver what is at once inevitable and profound.

determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

What do these last lines do for you? Inspire? Convince? Instill hope? Whatever your take on it, there most likely has been a shift in your thinking. You may now, as Housden says, have changed the way you see yourself and the world.

It may be hard to believe that the mythical beast of poetry could actually grant you access to your own deepest feelings and revelations, and it does not always have to be so ponderous. Poetry is much closer than you think. It often recreates itself in the more socially acceptable form of the lyric.

“Be joyful, may your
song always be sung, may you
stay forever young”*
-Bob Dylan

In just three lines, we are reminded to keep our spirit fresh and strong — a reflection that can inform our mindfulness deeply. Poetry (or the lyric) is well-marinated language. It can seem simple while simultaneously reaching the deepest parts of human emotion, so it appeals to both your ear and your heart. The lines are brief, but still contain rhythm and a story that, judging from the song’s continued popularity, is well understood. If you enjoy lyrics, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy poetry.

Check out Poets’ Corner or poets.org. At poets.org, look at some of the poetry by Dorianne Laux, Mary Oliver and Stephen Dunn. Focus your reading on how much story they pack into a small space.

The release of inner feelings is a well-documented therapy and language is one our best tools for self-expression. So why not get some use out of this tool? Think of the blank page as an on-call therapist. The great poet Maya Angelou warns, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Remember the vortex we were talking about? This is it. That far-reaching orbit of yours will start to close in. First with reading, then with writing, and soon you’ll be wearing black like the rest of us, but somehow feeling better, more whole.

Stephanie Dowrick, a best-selling Australian author and psychotherapist, describes writing, particularly journal writing, as a way to savor your life. Dowrick says writing can “create a most interesting distance between you and your thoughts,” allowing you to gain perspective on your life, much like Pearson and Marr’s archetypal studies. In her book Creative Journal Writing, Dowrick constructs a detailed guide to writing as a way to simultaneously promote your own wellbeing and connection to the world.

Reading and writing are solitary practices, so experiment! No one will be the wiser. Mary Oliver, the beloved poet who kicked off this article, reminds us in her book, A Poetry Handbook: A prose guide to understanding and writing poetry, that all artists must allow themselves to practice. Think of a painting class. The self-portrait assignment is not meant to be hung in a museum. So let yourself practice. This first thing you write doesn’t have to instantly change the world.

Tips for Writing for Self-Expression

If you are new to this type of writing, here are some guidelines to get you started.

  • Pick a topic, an issue, a feeling or a word that interests you and that you want to explore a bit more.

  • Find some sites that have poems about this topic. One of the best resources, again, is poets.org. Under “Poets & Poetry” at the top left, if you scroll over poems you’ll see a list of topics pop up.
  • Think about what line or part of the poem affected you most and why.
  • Write one line of your own. Sit with it a bit and let the line evolve until it is a mirror for what you want to say. See if this line grows into a few more as you work to express yourself. Chances are you will feel some degree of clarity, a sense of expression as you do this.

Since poetry involves the courage to share, consider sharing just one line of your work. As Bob Dylan has said:

“The highest purpose
of art is to inspire.
What else can you do?*

*This article is written in an ancient Japanese form called haibun that intertwines prose and haiku (haikus are 3 line poems following a 5-7-5 syllable count). A poet-monk named Matsuo Bashō created the haibun in the 17th century. See, you just learned a little more about poetry and it didn’t hurt a bit.

Devon Tomasulo is a recent graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program in Forest Grove, OR. She currently resides in New Jersey and works for a non-profit literacy organization.

Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., MFA is a licensed psychologist specializing in group psychotherapy and psychodrama, and author of the new book, Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir. Visit www.formerchild.com for more information.

 

APA Reference
Devon Tomasulo, MFA and Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D., MFA . (2010). The Writing Cure: Poetry As a Tool for Self-Expression. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-writing-cure-poetry-as-a-tool-for-self-expression/0005466
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

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