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home>features>Moira Merryweather: Is poetry JUST another form of therapy?

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Is Poetry Just Another Form of Therapy?!

Moira Merryweather takes exception, puts her case...

...   and invites YOU to respond!

(see responses:    Angela Dove)

Poetry is Just Another Form of Therapy.

Poetry is just another form of therapy?

I think we have to look at the words in this sentence in order to understand how to address it.

1.  Poetry. What is poetry? We could debate this for ever but that’s not the issue here. Let’s look at what poets say about poetry since I’m sure therapists are not the best people to ask.

As poets we all know this quote by Coleridge: Poetry; the best words in the best order.

And TS Eliot: Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

And Emily Dickinson: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

And Christopher Logue (the chap who is trying to translate Homer’s Illiad): Poetry cannot be defined, only experienced.

Poetry is. A poem should not mean. But be – Archibald MacLeish

So poetry is not a way of healing ourselves. It is about the best words in the best order, communication, a physical decapitation and an experience. I have been amazed by the number of poets who say they didn’t find their way to poetry; poetry chose them: Dannie Abse, Maura Dooley. So if it isn’t a matter of choice, what is it? Just another form of therapy?

2.  Just in this context means:

at most, merely, no more than, nothing but, only, simply, solely.

So it might read: poetry is only another form of therapy. There are no arguments that poetry has been used to help people through crises of mental and physical distress but surely poets are not all depressed, psychotic, or suicidal. But is poetry simply, solely, merely and nothing more than another form of therapy?

If that has become a truism then I am in the wrong business; along with Jo Shapcott who says:

Poems are for exploration, discovery, transformation. They would be very dull otherwise. The idea of poetry primarily for therapy is pretty pointless.

And Neil Astley, that champion of getting poetry to everyone says:

Good poetry doesn’t offer a simple solace or poetic medication; it opens up the senses, it disturbs, questions, challenges.

3.  So… to therapy. By definition: Therapy is the remedial treatment of illness or disability.

So is poetry a cure-all? I don’t think so. How many of you have expected poetry to cure you when you’ve been ill, had a broken leg? When your leg is broken you don’t go to a physiotherapist and ask them how to express your pain and anger at having to sit around the house waiting for your bones to heal. We wouldn’t go for radiation therapy and ask if the writing of a poem would put our cancer into remission.

Poets of the First W.W. had to find strategies for dealing with that experience and were the first to articulate the fact that war was not what people at home imagined. Was Wilfred Owen using poetry as a means of therapy – to get him through the war - or was he trying to get across the awfulness of war to those who weren’t experiencing it first hand? In his Dulce et Decorum Est/Pro patria mori (It is noble and fitting to die for one’s country) he writes:


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

This is not written with therapeutic intent.


If poetry is just another form of therapy does it mean that all poets are continuously trying to heal themselves? That would mean that we poets are a sorry bunch indeed. We are all troubled with deep depression, in constant pain and so we need to write poems to heal ourselves. What bloody nonsense!

Undeniably there are poets who have written out of a place of depression, of mental illness but their intention was not primarily one of self therapy but rather to express their experiences – to translate them into poetry. I’m thinking particularly of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and John Berryman.

Kate Foley says:

Poetry is not a therapeutic process. It isn’t about the healing that can take place in therapy. It’s about selecting, reflecting, ordering, and, if you’re lucky, making art and making sense.

So poetry is about selecting the best words, using them in the best order. It’s about making art:

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech,

says Simonides – one of the most prolific poets of ancient Greece.


Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the colour of wind

                  – Maxwell Bodenheim.

Surely this is the next step we must take. Poetry isn’t just an outpouring of emotion – it’s a craft, an art. It’s the attempt to ‘paint the colour of wind’.

I’d have given up long ago if I could only read confessional poems from depressed, psychotic suicides. I would guess that everyone would have lost interest if all the poetry in the world was about depression, sorrow and woe, woe is me!

Maura Dooley says:

…the ‘I’ in a poem is imagined or borrowed not simply me. Like looking at the over-familiar and making it new again, making it strange. Isn’t that always one of poetry’s greatest strengths? It would be boring of me to write about my personal sorrows.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

It would be boring to read about people’s personal sorrows especially if they were using poetry – an art, a craft which opens up the senses, questions, challenges, puts the best words in the best order – as some kind of therapy without addressing the reader or the listener. An outpouring of pain is not poetry.

And poetry is not just another form of therapy. It’s so much more.

UA Fanthorpe says:

It’s important to admit your fears. But the most important thing is to survive and you can’t survive if you’re eaten up by terror.

She also says:

A poem is the conversation between the poet and the reader.

A therapeutic ‘poem’ would be a one-way thing – not a conversation.


So how can anyone argue that, poetry is just another form of therapy when there is so much evidence to suggest it’s far from that?

The point of poetry Paul Muldoon says :

…is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us on the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away.

If Paul Muldoon is right then it’s far from being therapeutic.

Poetry is. Poetry is communication, language, conversation. It disturbs, challenges, questions, explores. It is about making art, making sense. Poetry can attempt to paint the colour of the wind. Poetry can console, uplift, encourage, provide new insights.

But, poetry cannot cure. It cannot stop us committing suicide. It cannot put our cancers in remission. It cannot mend a broken leg. Poetry cannot be the remedial treatment of illness or disability.



                                                        Moira Merryweather

                                                        October 2005 

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