Is Poetry Therapeutic? Define Your Terms!

Ann E. Michael

Minerva, the Roman goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom…

Periodically, because I have so many friends and colleagues who are writers, the subject of whether writing is therapeutic appears in conversation or on social media. A recent New York Times Sunday Review essay by Betsy MacWhinney on how poetry seemed to help her teen daughter through a difficult time evoked discussion and conflicting responses from my friends online. Several writers posted the essay and expressed admiration or commented positively on “what poetry can do.” One or two others, however, posted or commented with dissatisfaction—not necessarily with  MacWhinney’s experience (people said she was “a good mother”) but with the general idea that writing, especially writing poetry, is a form of therapy.

The point was made that art does not necessarily save the artists, that poetry was not effective therapy for, say, Plath or Sexton; that art did not keep van Gogh or Rothko from suicide. Another, related point was that therapeutic writing may well be expressive but is not by nature artistically valuable. Art as therapy in no way equates, aesthetically or culturally, with art as art. One commenter proclaimed annoyance at what she feels is a (U.S.) cultural minimization of poetry as a hard-won, challenging, seriously-crafted art form. The dismaying reality, she said, is that Americans have such a glancing understanding of Beat, confessional, and free verse poetry that public opinion defines poems as any personal, lineated, written expression. Thus, the public disinclination tends toward a general dismissal of poetry as not really worth sober, articulate analysis.
If the definition of poetry stops at “writing that expresses emotion,” then poetry can be therapeutic to the individual. I’ll get to some evidence for that soon. Most readers of PQ, however, are unlikely to accept that definition or they wouldn’t be reading reviews of poetry collections.

Certainly readers should refrain from pop-culture-informed psychoanalysis of poets based upon a poem, or even on a collection of poems. The poet may be playing, taking on a persona, hiding behind a mask, recounting historical narrative. It is also true that writing a really excellent poem takes considerable effort far beyond whatever initial expressive urge prompted the piece. And many terrific poems emerge from almost arbitrary prompting rather than from some inner need to rant, emote, reveal the ego, or unpack a trauma. Poets don’t write themselves into sanity. They may confront the void, articulate fears, challenge external and internal authorities, channel grief, and tell stories; but poets who begin writing for reasons of therapeutic expression are usually people already inclined to love the rhythm, music, imagery, wordplay and magical rhetoric of language. Read interviews with poets. The proof is there.
Yes—some poets do begin to write out of a deep-seated need to say—perhaps a psychological need. Some of them write from trauma (see Gregory Orr). Poets write their own, but also others’, fears, griefs, abandonments. What takes poetry beyond the “merely” therapeutic—and I use the word merely with some irony because writing can be enormously valuable in the therapeutic framework—is the poet’s dedication to make the poem communicate as a poem rather than as an expression of an individual experience. Therapy can release, relieve, or comfort one individual; poetry expands the individual’s relationship to the broad continuum of human lives over decades or centuries and across cultures.
Therapy isn’t meant to do that, and should not. It is a different kind of endeavor.
Nonetheless, research confirms that writing can be therapeutically valuable (see Smyth) in many cases. Writing as therapy, per se, is not something to dismiss. It’s useful and writers ought to encourage the practice. MacWhinney’s essay demonstrates that reading poetry may have psychological benefits, too, an idea borne out by research in the UK by Billington et al (also see this article). And that concept—the value of reading poems—is one therapeutic practice in which poets should rejoice.
How do you define therapeutic? How do you define poetry? For that matter, how do you define valuable? We can get theoretical, philosophical, didactic; I tend toward pragmatism, myself. If one of my poems were to help another person in a therapeutic manner, I would feel that poem had value.
But I promise that the poem and I had to work pretty hard to achieve whatever it was that made that connection to another human being possible.