Opening the Door to Poetry Therapy

(Some of you may remember my Mom, whose first Litkicks piece was about Paul Auster, Franz Kafka and a doll. Lila Lizabeth Weisberger is also renowned in the field of poetry therapy (and whether or not there is any connection between Litkicks Action Poetry and the Poetry Therapy movement remains an enduring mystery). I asked her to write a piece explaining what “poetry therapy” means and how she became involved in the organizations that are trying to spread the word about it. Thanks for sending this, Mom. — Levi)

When I worked as a school psychologist, I used creative arts therapies with elementary through high school age children. Poetry was an integral part of the group work I did with parents and teachers. I determined to increase my ability to use poetry and writing effectively and to train to become a poetry therapist.

I saw this training as a way to increase my effectiveness and to give me more tools. I trained for four years through the National Association for Poetry Therapy. Over the following twelve years, I was given the honor of being the first student member of the Board. Thereafter I was elected to the Board, became chairperson of all credentialing of new poetry therapists and subsequently was elected as president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy. I became a Mentor to other trainees and subsequently earned the title of Master Mentor/Supervisor.

I also received a number of awards along the way. I contributed book reviews to the professional Journal of Poetry Therapy and have had a column, “Findings”, in NAPT’s Museletter for over ten years. I subsequently became a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist in New York State, and created a non-profit corporation, bridgeXngs. Beginning January 1 2010 I became Director of the newly formed credentialing body, International Academy for Poetry Therapy.

A major accomplishment for me is the book I co-authored in 2003, The Healing Fountain: Poetry Therapy for Life’s Journey. The book is comprised of chapters written by 17 poetry therapists. The introduction to the book includes the following information:

Poetry therapy has both ancient and contemporary roots. In ancient times, Greek libraries were designated as healing places of the soul, and Greek tragic theater were viewed as cathartic for the entire community. King David sang psalms to comfort Saul, and the ancient poets were recognized as shamans and healers within various cultures. In the past 45 years poetry therapy has been defined as a unique professional field, a sister profession to the other creative arts therapies: art, dance, drama, music and psychodrama.

While some poetry therapists who are trained as clinicians include poetry therapy as a part of their therapy, other poetry therapists introduce poetry for those seeking to explore life issues and enhance their development. In both clinical and non-clinical settings, poetry therapists select poems or other literary materials to suit their client’s particular needs and goals, facilitate fruitful and frank discussion of these works, and provide exercises to stimulate and encourage their clients’ own creative expressions.

Poetic expression can be harnessed to foster growth, help alleviate pain, and improve the quality of life. When we read or hear a poem, our senses, minds and souls all participate in the act. Because poems elicit responses on so many levels, they often function as vehicles for enlightenment and healing. Many people have a love of poetry and even use certain words as a mantra, especially in times of trial. Through vivid lines of verse, we get the opportunity to perceive the everyday substance of our own lives transformed magically in language that mirrors and confirms who we are.

Poets achieve a vivid compactness unlikely to be found in other literary genre. A few well-chosen words and condensed metaphors can tap a well of feelings, thoughts and associations. Poet Stanley Kunitz states: “Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live therefore for the sake of poetry? No the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”

9 Responses

  1. I wonder what poetry therapy
    I wonder what poetry therapy would have been like for those poets who could have used it, Plath, Pound, Berryman, Crane, etc.

  2. to me, therapy in the literal
    to me, therapy in the literal sense of the word (= service) is inherent in poetry (from the greek poiesis: a verb describing an act of making, transforming and creating) already anyway:

    poetry transforms feeling, emotions, needs and experiences into words and vice versa. it serves as a service to balance impression and expression, act of creation and interpretation, reception and release, intake and output, process of affect and process of creativity. it is a way of communication the inside with the outside and the outside with the inside.

    poetry therapy, therefore, is a fusion consciously applied… used sensibly to trigger, open and heal.

    hello, lila! great to to see and read you…!

  3. Poetry therapy has
    Poetry therapy has unabashedly rushed in to save me on a daily basis. Without a morning haiku, I’m well aware of the fact that I’d fly apart. As such a needy consumer of poetry therapy, I doubt if I could ever apply it to others – I fear I’d grab the metaphors and run away with them, leaving the poor other to fend for her/himself while their therapist jumps from cloud to cloud.

    Therefore, I offer such deep appreciation for your work Lila and your facilitation of others’ work.

    Poetry is, indeed, a tool for focus, recognition and healing.

  4. Poetry certainly is a way to
    Poetry certainly is a way to work through certain mindsets. It is satisfying to perform & see one’s work in the media. I am driven to it as much as to my column writing. I keep a journal which is a series of little notebooks I take with me, and also lay by my bed, in case the muse strikes me as I dream.

    I studied journal writing when I got my second degree in college.

    I also have kept a dream journal off and on for quite a few years.

    I believe, healing occurs with cathartic writing, and I have read quite a few books about poetry, music, & art therapy. The act of creating a work when one is going through tribulations helps to work it out in one’s mind. Poetry therapy is a great idea whose time is really coming into its own.

  5. Hi Nardo,
    I’ve been

    Hi Nardo,
    I’ve been thinking about your response for some days. How I wish it were true that poetry therapy could have kept these poets from suicide. Writing and creative expression is vital to a good life and self destruction happens with the best of help and all kinds of interventions. I recall it was Anne Sexton’s psychotherapist who recommended she write.


  6. Hi Anemone,
    You explained

    Hi Anemone,
    You explained the value and purpose of poetry therapy in varied ways. The words you used that I think best expresses the transformation of words into feelings and visa versa are RECEPTION and RELEASE.
    Mother’s Day brought our many feelings in my writing groups. I wrote my first draft of my poem “Mother’s Day is Turned To Night” in villanelle form. It took Elizabeth Bishop 50 drafts to finish her villanelle, “One Art.” I think I have at least 49 more drafts to go on mine. But writing a ‘good’ poem is not the purpose of poetry therapy. My poem opened a door that I thought was closed, only to find it was not only closed, it was double locked. Now I will decide whether or not to double lock it again or explore further.

    Good to hear your thoughts,

  7. Dear Bill_Ectric
    You have

    Dear Bill_Ectric

    You have just introduced me to Hettie Jones. I didn’t know about her. Thanks.

    I probably will be able to go to one of her presentations. Researching her I note that
    she is on the faculties of the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center. The 92nd Street Y is about a half hour walk from me or a straight bus ride. Now I want to read and learn about her work in the prisons.

    I appreciate the info.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!