What Is Poetry Therapy?

„Writing is the ultimate psychiatrist.“(CH. Bukowski)

Poetry has been humankind’s guide since the ancient times; it is one of the oldest forms of literature. Just like other forms of art, poetry, too, has a powerful emotional influence on a person, holds the power to create moods and atmospheres and allows to abstract and transform emotions into words, thereby solidifying the lived experience. Humans have been drawing from it in the times of both joy and misfortune; through poetry they find harmony with their own experience, joy or even solace.

As much as one cannot express the complete depth of human experience in words, they are still a truly powerful tool. The process of writing and reading poetry itself is therefore an intimate examination of personal experience, during which both the reader and the writer may gain a new outlook on the lived experience. “Through poetic language one can pronounce the unpronouncable, express the unexpressable, perceive the inperceivable and explore dark and distant forests, which would otherwise be left unexplored,” conclude Jeffs and Pepper (2005, pp.90). The Greek basis of the word poetry, poiesis, means to enable existence to that which had not existed before then (Gorelick, 2005) and then share it with others.

We find references to the medicinal potential of poetry across various cultures. We can suppose that using words for the purpose of healing has started with the Shaman charms (Gorelick, 2005). In Ancient Greece we find Askléplos, the god of healing, the son of Apollo, the leader of the muses and the founder of poetry (Hudlička, 2010). Aristotle saw the creation of poetry as a potential for transforming human problems, a way to transform grief into a force (McCullis, 2011). Another proof ot attributing specific characteristics to poetry can also be found in the Chinese character for poetry (“shih”), which consists of two images: yen (art of speaking) and szu (temple). Poetry is therefore a “holy temple of words” (Gorelick, 2005). In the Innuit language the word anerca means both “to breathe” and “to create poetry”. Hence, we can think of poetry as a certain food for the soul (Longo, 2006). The Japanese haiku, which date back to 17th century, are associated with capturing the atmosphere of the moment and release in a difficult situation, or maybe a tuning of the inner state (Hudlička, 2010). Ever since 18th century and alongside the development of group psychotherapy, therapists have been discovering that poetry therapy is an effective tool which can be flexibly incorporated into practice (NAPT, 2004). In a Pennsylvanian hospital they created a magazine called The Illuminator – writing poetry for the magazine was one of the activities with a therapeutic purpose which was being offered to the clinic’s patients.

Formerly used only intuitively with its existence merely suspected, the medicinal potential of poetry is currently actively made use of in a relatively new expressive therapy – poetry therapy. The goal of poetry therapy, just like numerous other expressive therapies, is self-expression with the goal of personal growth or finding solutions for an individual’s particular problems. The main means of poetry therapy is the poem or any other poetic text, all the while one makes use of its rhythm and its ability to evoke feelings, memories and moods. The reading of poetry, the consequent discussion, as well as the creation of poetry, has a vital place in practice.

Poetry therapy leaves great room for symbolic expression and the use of metaphors and other figures of speech. Several layers of meaning in poetry hide some things and uncover others, so the writer feels safe. Just like with other expressive therapies, the quality of created poetry is not what truly matters. What truly matters is the process of creating a certain confrontable and modifiable reality through words and seeking the individual’s needs as well as their means of fulfillment. When put down on a paper, the problems that previously seemed devastating gain a certain framework and become more bearable.

Last but not least, poetry is an intimate matter, a subtle invitation into the intimacy of human experience. At the same time, it acts as an offer to share something from one’s own life with others (Hudlička, 2010). In the process of poetry therapy, sharing creates room for relationship growth; there’s an atmosphere of trust and people are more willing to open up about their inner world. If this induced intimacy isn't abused, it spurs first the growth of the collective self-esteem and eventually the growth of the individual self-esteem (Svoboda, 2007).

Despite the rich history pointing to the positive relationship between poetry and spiritual health, and despite the scientific proof of its efficiency, poetry therapy still belongs among the lesser known and less-used therapies. It developed most in the USA, where the National Association for Poetry Therapy is established. It is currently the only organization, which guarantees a certain level of standard and systematically develops this therapy. In the USA, poetry therapy is sometimes used as a primary form of therapy, whilst in Slovakia and the Czech Republic it is still perceived as more of a supportive, complementary method to other means of treatment (Hudlička, 2010).

The world of words is playful, it sparks creativity and enables a person to rest from the turmoil of everyday life. Poetry therefore shouldn’t be left to the pens of the greats. Poetry therapy is a way to peek into one’s soul and into the worlds of other people, a way to seek inspiration for life and solutions for our problems, and a way to leave some troubles on the paper, because

the days were dark

and yet thousands of poems, words

shone straight through them.

Ivana Bruteničováivana-brutenicova.jpg

She studied medicinal pedagogics at the Pedagogical faculty of the Comenius University in Bratislava, as well as psychotherapeutic studies at the Masaryk University in Brno. In her practice of a medicinal pedagogue she puts expressive therapies into practice with people with a health disadvantage. She has researched poetry therapy as a part of her thesis research and later practiced it in a group setting with people suffering from mental illness.

English translation by Martina Tomašovičová


Gorelick, K. (2005). Poetry therapy. In Malchiodi, C. (Ed.) Expressive therapies. London : Guilford. 117-141.

Hudlička, P. (2010). Poetoterapie – léčebné psaní. In Vybíral, Z., Roubal, J. (Eds.) Současná psychoterapie. Praha : Portál.

Jeffs, S., & Pepper, S. (2005). Healing words: A meditation on poetry and recovery from mental illness. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 32, 87–94.

Longo, P. J. (2006). Tearing the darkness down: Poetry as therapy. In Strozier, A.,& Carpenter, J. (Eds.) Introduction to Alternative and Complementary Therapies. Routledge : New York.

McCullis, D. (2011). Poetry therapy. In L´Abate, L., & Sweeney, G. (Eds.) Research on writing approaches in mental health.
Bingley : Emerald, 93-115.

NAPT (2004-2007) The National Association for poetry therapy. History. About NAPT. Dostupné na: http://www.poetrytherapy.org/about.html.

Svoboda, P. (2007). Poetoterapie. Olomouc : UP Olomouc.