The Healing Power of Poetry

Young couple spending their leisure time together, reading a book at the park.

Do you ever find it difficult to express what you’re feeling?  This is a rhetorical question since it happens to all of us.

It can be challenging to express our feelings in words for myriad reasons. For example, if we grew up in a household where emotional language was never used and emotions were not addressed or seen, it would make sense that we have difficulty identifying our feelings. This is especially true when it comes to those emotions that were least acceptable in our homes.

Added to any number of biopsychosocial reasons that we may find it difficult to express our emotions in words are intrinsic limitations that come with using language. Words, unlike emotions, are constructs. Emotions are physiological events that occur in our body that predate the use of language, and experiences are an amalgam of external and internal events, which include thoughts, sensations, and emotions. 

A Moving Expression in Metaphor

In a way, words are very much like boxes: anything that fits the definition of the word is contained within that box, and anything that does not fit the definition of that word does not go in the box. The very term definition connotes a sense of limitation, a boundary, if you will. This is very useful because it allows us to speak about one thing and have a natural understanding of what we are discussing without it being about everything at once. 

Continuing with the words as boxes metaphor, let’s say you have an internal experience that does not quite fit into any word. You may find that some words get close but are not accurate, and you may feel the frustration of being unable to fully express what you’ve experienced. This is where poetry has a lot of healing potential. 

Poetic language is metaphorical language, and metaphorical language is more web-like than box-like. Because when we’re speaking in poetry, all the words present in the poem can connect in various ways to create totally brand new and innumerable meanings, surpassing and encompassing much more than the individual words do themselves or when only connecting sequentially. So, in this way, poetic language, as opposed to literal language, allows a person to convey an experience, which is mimicked by the way the words are being put together, not just with the words themselves.


Let’s look at an example.  

These lines are from the poem “Hyperion” by my favorite poet, John Keats:

A living death was in each gush of sounds,
Each family of rapturous hurried notes,
That fell, one after one, yet all at once,
Like pearl beads dropping suddenly from their string:
And then another, then another strain,
Each like a dove leaving its olive perch,
With music wing’d instead of silent plumes,
To hover round my head, and make me sick
Of joy and grief at once.

In these lines, a fallen Titan describes “a new golden melody” sung by the young god Apollo. By combining words that connote paradoxical images together at once, Keats beautifully captures the experience of listening to music that is so sublime it causes “joy and grief at once.” Even though he seems to state it simply at the end, the entire poem puts together words and meanings that seem to not fit together but do fit together in perfect snapshots that evoke larger meanings than the picture itself (“a living death;” and the “hurried notes” that drop “one after one, yet all at once,” which he likens to the way pearl beads drop from a necklace string – one after the other yet all at once).  

Creating a Fuller Expression

And if you simply compare my sentence summarizing the excerpt versus actually reading the poetry, you can understand how the poetic language creates a fuller expression of the experience, allowing for a deeper connection to what it is the speaker of that poem was feeling when they heard the indescribable music of a god.

The abstract nature of poetry helps us loosen our psychological rigidities, fostering greater psychological flexibility. Greater psychological flexibility means that we are more able to accept new ways of thinking and find creative solutions; it makes us adept at transformation. 

A Vehicle for. our Deeper Expressions

Because poetry is abstract and metaphorical, it has a greater ability to sink into the depths of our psyche and also to call forth that which is living in those depths. The reason for this is similar to what I mentioned before, which is that much of what is hidden in the unconscious mind is preverbal, and that means that literal, linear language is not always well suited to be a vehicle for communication with those deeper parts of ourselves. Think of the unconscious as part of our mammalian and reptilian brain, and we think about how we communicate with our pets. We can ascertain that there is a way to communicate that does not involve literal language. 

Because poetry still utilizes words we understand and is also able to branch out into multiple meanings at once, even meanings we are not completely consciously aware of but we may feel somewhere deep inside of us, poetry is a beautiful bridge between those parts of us that are nonverbal and our conscious mind, which has learned to make sense of things through language.\