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

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…”

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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. 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 At, 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 Writing Cure: Poetry As a Tool for Self-Expression

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Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). The Writing Cure: Poetry As a Tool for Self-Expression. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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