A Letter to You from John
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The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting
for our senses to grow sharper.
—W. B. Yeats
I make deep claims about the benefits of poetry. I say it surprises us in a ways that are healing. I believe it is surprising in large part because the words of a poem come alive in silence and in the space that surrounds a poem. I believe this joining of spacious silence with words is where the voice of the soul flourishes.
But what blocks someone from experiencing these benefits and blessings? What keeps someone from trying?
While it is probably not just one thing, it is possible that at some point in your life, as a child or as an adult, your creative voice was discouraged, discounted, criticized or outright ignored. Your self-expression, in one way or another, was given short shrift. Such are the wounds we carry related to our creative spirit. Poetic Medicine is dedicated to a skillful tending to these wounds and with patience and trust, mending this kind of brokenness.
One way to start to heal wounds to our creativity is to recognize that we have lost a sense of playfulness, enjoyment and taking sheer pleasure in language.
We ask people: Did anyone have a 4th grade teacher who asked you, before taking your spelling test, "Which words do you enjoy the sound of? Which words delight and excite your ear?" It’s rare for someone to say a teacher asked such a question! I think it has happened once! So, we ask them to say favorite words aloud so everyone can hear. The pleasure and fun increases noticeably as words are flung out into the air.
Take care of the sounds and the sense will take care of itself.
There is magic and power in language that poets, children, mystics, lovers, people with broken hearts, revolutionaries, and indigenous people have had access to for eons, and their lasting words, even free of the constraint of time and death, have inspired others.
Watching the moon
I knew myself completely,
no part left out.
—Izumi Shikibu, born 976 (?), translated from the Japanese
You can recover and express this magic. You may, in the process, recognize the absolute necessity of having and claiming your own words.
When you write with feeling and expression, it is also a way to bolster your health. Dr.James Pennebaker’s research at University of Texas at Austin strongly shows that expressive writing increases immune system function and decreases hospital visits.
Dr. Joshua Smythe and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have further shown writing can significantly increase the lung function of people suffering from asthma and decrease symptoms of those with rheumatoid arthritis. We are enthusiastic about this and other on-going research. This includes research The Institute for Poetic Medicine supports and sponsors through a partnership with Robin Philipp and Pamela Thorne the Bristol Royal Infirmary/CHEE World Health Organization.
But what matters to me personally is something I know from direct experience: Poetry Heals!
When I was eighteen years old, immediately following my freshman year at Boston University, my right leg was amputated just below my knee. In the midst of much pain, throughout that previous school year, I struggled with this decision.
The amputation was the result of a lifelong problem with my leg caused by a genetic disorder, neurofibromatosis. This seriously affected nerves, bone and my circulatory system. Before the amputation, beginning at the age of four and a half, I went through about seven surgeries.
Poem-making and poetry, over time, became my lifeline, especially in my mid-teens I gave myself completely to poetry. During my post amputation rehab time, other patients, family, hospital staff and high school friends helped me but writing was something I could bring with me when I returned to college.
Poetry and poem-making was a companion who went with me everywhere.
As I struggled with and expressed loss, grief and shame; a window to the unknown, but also the true, opened up for me through writing. A connection to something greater than myself and yet what I identified with as my essential nature came through that "open window" of the page, like light in the vast night sky. I wrote this poem before the amputation, when I was about seventeen:
In the Hospital Waiting Room
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon, that object
And that object became part of him for the day
or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The people are seated in the chairs, lined
in the halls and waiting:
some looking at Time, most somber:
save two little girls, patient
and singing ‐‐ one’s embroidering,
a singing embroidery!
Waiting for nothing, skipping along
past the people, past office partitions
that are not there for these little children,
so much like garden‐walkers!
Whitman, I go forth, yet, shall I become
pictures of my bones?
X‐rayed through this dense sea, this film shows me
the heavy anchor that I seem to be.
This goes deepest.
Behind the picture is light!
This last image provided a glimpse of something that I could, eventually, live into.
Through poetry and poem-making I found a tremendous tool to help me live with my experience, both the dark and light, and continue to grow. Writing and listening to poetry showed me a spiritual resilience within and helped tune me to and join with a kind of beauty and meaning in life as a whole, and these are what sustain me.
We humans are at our best when we enjoy poetry.
Sometimes all you need is to reflect in your mind one poem
that says, 'I can make it through'
— Maya Angelou
While I call this healing power of poem-making magic I don’t mean that it helps me to avoid what I am here to learn. For me, to fully make room in my heart for this loss, was a process that took six to seven years.
You may have experienced a time when poetry made a significant difference to you in both dark and light times. Such times might include:
It is important for me to say here that poetry and poem-making has also and always helped me to nourish and bolster the impulse within me
to treasure beauty,
to savor all expressions of life, particularly the details
and find the courage that is deeply rooted in my heart.
Poems remind me of beauty, life and courage:
I am the branch
the quivers in the
spring breeze, without
a 2nd thought
that is, no regret!
In fact, this is
not feeling or even thought
at all, but something
so close to love, no one
would ever guess.
Early one morning
when the birds were singing
I had another heart in me.
—anonymous, a child, age 8
The deep connections people have with poetry are more common than you think!
Do you have a story about your connection?
Our workshops foster a supportive and respectful atmosphere that allows your creative voice to be heard. Our workshops inspire people who are just beginning and refreshes those who have been writing for a "long time" to find more meaning and purpose to their writing.
Even in an overwhelming world of 700+ cable channels, not to mention ubiquitous “smart phones, the access people can have to poetry is more possible than you think! I believe it’s because of all those channels and fancy gadgets that people long for the simple gifts of poetry even more.
In this era of light shows, huge movie screens and quadraphonic sound systems, it is striking that an audience will still come to hear a plain, ordinary unaugmented human being using nothing but voice and language. That tells us that people do appreciate the compression, the elegance, and the myriad imageries that come out of this art of distilling language and giving it measure which is called poetry.
We, at the Institute for Poetic Medicine, speak frequently to professional groups: therapists, teachers, health professionals, pastoral counselors, writers and others, on ways poetry and healing can expand and enrich their life perspective, evoke empathy and creative insight, and how they can apply those in their work.
If you are in a helping profession, our workshops can provide you with techniques and tools that can rekindle your enthusiasm for helping those you serve.
Aside from professional development, if you want to develop this creative voice within yourself, poetry and poem-making can be a companion on your journey.
We hope this web site will inform, inspire and nourish your interest.
© 2006-2017 | The Institute for Poetic Medicine and John Fox