The therapeutic value of poetry

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Poetry is a funny thing.  It is merely a collection of words on paper (or stone, or spoken through the air).  But its value is disproportionate to its apparent modesty.


Perhaps its true therapeutic value lies in its density.  By density, I mean the way it manages to compress whole networks of meaning into one small space.  An analogy I often use is jewellery-making.  An expert jewellery-maker will think about their craft; plan their design; and ensure that there is no wasteage in the way the item expresses itself and fulfils its function.  In the same way, the writer of a poem thinks about the form, the arrangement of their words; will take care over their order and pacing; and try to make sure that their poem expresses, economically and richly, the experience they are sharing.


The words we have for emotions are quite poor in themselves.  Psychologists have even tried to reduce human character to six key words.  This tendency of the caring professions to reduce emotion to a few key words can be quite distressing to clients.  It can create a disjoin between what someone knows they feel, and the words they seem to have available to express whats inside.  ‘I’m anxious’, or ‘I’m depressed’ doesn’t seem to cut it sometimes.  It’s great when you need a diagnosis, or a quick way of categorising where you are and what help you might need.  But as a rich expression of experience, these words are lacking.  And it’s made worse by the diagnostic manuals’ insistence on reducing these key words to a set of predefined symptoms, which usually have to be miraculously felt for six months, or a year, or some equally improbable and artificial time span.


Again, the caring professions often rely on the emission of tears in order to be able to say that subtlety of emotion is being expressed.  Trainees talk of ‘breakthrough moments’, but sometimes don’t realise they are merely taking the moment a client cries as an indication of depth of feeling.  This is great, and often true.  But it ignores the fact that, for many clients, tears are not the most subtle expression of what’s inside.  The clues to their depth of experience are differently expressed, perhaps in a turn of phrase, perhaps in a movement of the hand.  To limit depth to crying is absurd.


Poetry is attentive.  There is an understanding between writer and reader/listener that attention has been paid to its production, and attention is being paid to its communication.  Poetry is ‘the communication of special words in a special form’, if you like.  As such, for the person-centred practitioner, there is already, in the transaction, a version of the three most famous, so-called ‘core’ conditions, positive regard, empathy and congruence.  Poetry as a transaction relies on positive regard for its successful communication; it seeks to understand, and so empathy is in its bones; and it seeks truth in a situation, and therefore congruence is its meat.

Poetry offer us an opportunity to communicate with one another at great depth.  What is more, in terms of time, poetry works differently to normal conversation.  Because it is produced in such a dense way, and written down or memorised, it acts as a lasting record of what is felt about an experience.  Communicants can return to it again and again for strength or exploration, and parts of poems can become iconic in the memory, landmarks on the emotional landscape if you like.


There are already many practitioners who use poetry in one way or another.  Some of the key ways in which it can work are:
  • A client can introduce a therapist to poems that mean a lot to them.  The bringing of a poem, or any meaningful piece of art, becomes a kind of gift, received by the therapist, and part of the sharing relationship.  The client can learn a lot about whether to trust the therapist by watching how the therapist handles the introduction of such an object.  It offers a third thing in the room, which can acts as a structure around which empathy can be gently offered, and join exploration can happen.
  • A therapist can encourage a client to write some poetry of their own.  This encourages a form of self-exploration in expression akin to meditation or yoga.  The client is daring to stop and listen to themselves, and then to choose a mindful action which matches or expressed what is going on for them.  Poetry in this sense is an intimate act, and can help a client to develop the ability to communicate and self-extend in other social situations.  The therapist can, by unconditionally accepting the poetry, and taking an interest, demonstrate to the client that they matter, and that what they have to say matters.
  • A therapist and client can work on poems together.  The client may be afraid of more direct forms of interaction, and working together on a poem, perhaps one the client has drafted, can help the client to learn interactions through an indirect medium.  The two people are focused on a third thing, which enables some clients to communicate what they find it hard to communicate face-to-face.  Furthermore, it is an analogy of many therapeutic interactions: the client offers an expression of self; the therapist offers understanding and clarification; both work together to hone and manage the joint expression of what is happening until a new reality is found, or at least a new way of seeing, for both parties.


In my therapeutic practice, I have had the privilege to experience, several times, the introduction of literary influence by the client.  Not always, but often, it has had the following three stages:

  1. The client tentatively introduces into the room a book, a story, a poem, or a picture.
  2. The therapist receives the offering, listens carefully, and communication begins about what the object might mean.
  3. The interaction is used by the client as a kind of test of the therapist’s authenticity.  If the object is dismissed or somehow belittled, then the client knows not to trust the therapist.
  4. A new understanding is reached by both parties about the client, and usually about the relationship in the room.  A great sense of appreciation often results, a kind of indescribable gratitude that such sharing has been possible.
  5. The art work becomes iconic in terms of the therapy, either for the client, or the therapist, or both.  It is useable as a reference point, a lasting reminder of a shared experience and a new understanding.
Remindful UK logo
SUMMARYI am encouraging you to consider introducing appreciation of written poetry into therapy.  In particular, I am suggesting that encouraging a client who wants to, to write some poetry of their own, can enhance the therapeutic experience, and provide several advantages that are quite hard to get any other way.  I have explored the reasons for this.  How poetry is carefully designed like jewellery around our experiences.  How it offers greater depth of description of emotion, beyond our poor few official words for feelings.  And finally, how it offers a new communication experience between two people, which, if appropriately valued, can build great trust and understanding.