The power of poetry for healing

This weekend Duke University is hosting a conference on the power of poetry for healing. Frank Stacio on “The State of Things” at NPR had a show on this today. Here is the link for the audio:

As a poet and one who studies natural healing methods, I have to agree that poetry is healing. At times of great sadness, poetry may be my best outlet and form of relief. On the brighter side, at times of significant joy, poetry can commemorate the event.

In a way, poetry is a form of ceremony for us in the West, this culture that has very few ceremonies left. It is a ritualized way to mark moments. Moments of beauty are ephemeral, but poetry can make these moments last. Taking the time to write a poem is a testament to the power of that moment. The Japanese form of Haiku is a great example – each haiku is an attempt to capture a moment of beauty. These moments are the fuel that fires our being. In a life that can sometimes feel like drudgery, moments of beauty remind us that life is magnificent and miraculous.

An interesting comment that was made in this interview was that memorizing poetry can be healthy. We memorize very few things these days what with cell phones remembering phone numbers and computerized calendars and lists which remember all those things we have to do. However, memorization has traditionally been the main method of passing information from one generation to the next. Indigenous tribes passed their stories orally, expecting tribe members to memorize them and tell them to the next generations. In earlier decades of American education, students memorized poetry and other things as a part of the curriculum.

We have left the practice of memorization, and one wonders if our brains are changing because of it. Surely memorization is good for the brain, making new pathways, etc. Moreover, I think that memorizing a poem that truly speaks to you is much like having a mantra that you repeat. It can change your beliefs about yourself and about life – and in changing those beliefs, you are also changing your life. Mark Hosak and Walter Lubeck discuss the importance of mantras in their book The Big Book of Reiki Symbols. “In order to attain a distinct effect,” they say, “a mantra should be practiced 108 times daily for at least 40 days” (43). They also note that “The Indian spiritual tradition has 108 sacred names of the Creative Force and 108 is the number of the main energy channels (Nadis) that run from the major chakras” (43). Years ago I learned in the movie Bull Durham that a baseball has 108 stitches (linking it to the sacred, according to the script).

A line from a favorite poem can work in this belief changing way. Try it. You will see. What you believe on the inside is always reflected on the outside.

If you think that people are mean, you will run into a lot of mean people. If you think that people are kind, your days will be showered in kindness. Find the poem that speaks to you – the poem that describes the life that you want. Or, better yet, write it. Then memorize it – and speak it to yourself periodically. It will change you.

Good luck.

Reference: Hosak, Mark and Walter Lubeck. The Big Book of Reiki Symbols. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2006.

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