7 things you need to know about: Poetry Therapy

By Victoria Field

vickyfVictoria Field qualified as Certified Poetry Therapist with the National Federation for Biblio-Poetry Therapy in 2005 – she has since done a two year training as a mentor-supervisor for the, now, International Federation for Biblio-Poetry Therapy. She is a poet, playwright, fiction and memoir writer,  a member of the British Psychological Society and an International Fellow at the England Centre for Practice Development at Canterbury Christ Church University – full details on www.thepoetrypractice.co.uk  Read her inspiring and thought-provoking new book, Baggage: A Book of Leavings – part travelogue, part memoir, part reflections on loss and redemption – https://goo.gl/mZgz1m

Poetry Therapy is not just poetry
We work with the ‘poetic’ in all literary forms – and even beyond ,with music, movement, film and visual arts. The arts open an imaginative space in which we can encounter the full potential of our lives and humanity.

But poetry is special
The way a poem can convey rich ambiguity, be beautiful, memorable, moving, personal and universal, is for me, something magical. I never tire of taking a poem to a group and hearing the infinitely varied responses of individuals encountering it in the moment. I’m always surprised.

Connection is everything
In a typical session, we connect with a poem, our multi-faceted selves, the selves of others and the world around us in a way that is profound and meaningful. Being disconnected is, I believe, at the root of distress whether individual, collective or universal. Finding connections is a way of getting to know yourself better and that can lead to improved life choices as well as being able to respond in a nuanced way to this beautiful and broken world. 

Poetry therapy is accessible and inclusive
Working in community settings, I often have no idea who will turn up to a session. Somehow, once we are a group around a table – which mimics the way human beings have sat in circles around the fire for millennia – the social trappings fall away and we see ourselves mirrored in the poem and in each other. 

Poetry therapy is both receptive and expressive
We read poems on the page and write in response. In the UK, these are often seen as separate activities but the US-model in which I trained is based on close reading, discussion and then creating in response. One of the pioneers in biblio-poetry therapy was a librarian, Sister Arleen Hynes, at St Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington who noticed that when patients discussed books they’d read, they seemed to benefit more and when this was done in a group, the impact was even greater. 

What if I don’t like poetry?
‘Poem’ is shorthand for a text that can elicit an emotional reaction – a feeling response rather than an intellectual one. We use all kinds of texts and these can be film clips, stories, memoirs, songs as well as every kind of poem. If someone actively dislikes the poem, that’s all grist to the mill. How about writing a letter to the poet? What would you say? How can that illuminate your own values and enthusiasms? 

What if I don’t want ‘therapy’?
Poetry Therapy works with the ‘positive psychology’ model of what it means to be human. We all have strengths and weaknesses and suffer losses and challenges and medicalising these can be unhelpful. Sometimes, though, suffering is so profound, or behaviour so challenging that specific treatments of disease or illness is called for. Poetry Therapy, like all the expressive arts and anything we do that is absorbing, meaningful and contributes to a common good, can be useful in most situations whether we talk about therapy, healing, wellbeing or use another word entirely.

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