Soothing Words: How Poetry Can Help You Cope with Grief, Loss, and Depression
Posted on March 27th, 2014 at 7:00 pm
“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” —William Carlos Williams
Do you have a favorite poem or a few lines from a poem that really grab your attention? When you read it, what feelings are present? Like a picture painted with words, poetry speaks through image. A relationship is created between reader and poem in the form of the images and feelings unique to each poem and each person. This relationship creates an internal resonance; a good poem has the ability to help express how we are feeling when we ourselves do not fully know. The relationship between poem and perceiver is a kind of internal mapping of our emotional state and can us help deal with difficult emotional experiences like grief, loss, and depression.
When overwhelmed by emotions, the stress hormone cortisol is produced, which has adverse affects on how we feel. Our brain may also produce adrenaline, triggering what John Gottman calls “emotional flooding,” nervous system overload. When given significant metaphors, as through reading a poem, the brain creates an internal simulation in order to understand (1). The Latin maxim Similia Similibus Curentur, “like cures like” fits here. The act of perception through approximation moves us from emotional overwhelm to understanding, however small that understanding may be. The resonance, or similarity, between the image the poem contains and our internal state promotes de-flooding, a precondition for healing.
Reading a poem does not make an emotion go away, however. Nor should it; emotion dismissing has negative repercussions. But it does make a difference—from feeling overwhelmed to some assimilation of experience. Resonating with a particular poem, we can find an understanding, and at times even a label for, our emotions. We can then better deal with life, finding our own unique path through difficult times.
Everyone has their own taste in poetry; the important thing is to find words that move you profoundly. The following exercise is one way to get started; the 7 steps describe how you can access a deeper metaphorical knowledge when other resources don't seem to work so well:
How to Create a Poetry Habit:
Collect: Scan through the internet, favorite books, songs, and write down what grabs your eye. It may be a full poem or a line or two. Add these clips to an empty tissue box, e-document, or scrapbook. By adding to your poetry library here and there, you increase the resources available to you. Titles, a line from a song, a phrase from a book also work.
Reference Your Library: When having a tough day, look through your collected works, stopping on a poem or line that catches your eye.
Read Deeply: Read the selected poem a few times, then, standing in front of a mirror, read it out loud. Try to get a sense of the unique character of the poem and the quality of feeling it contains. Write this down in a journal or on your phone.
Find your Emotional Resonance: Ask yourself, “What is the quality of the emotions I am experiencing right now?” This is where the poem can help—the intersection between poem and perceiver. What colors, images, tastes, memories, scenery, seasons are present for you? Write your thoughts in a journal or take some mental notes. You can also sketch or paint an image from the poem as a way of getting a sense of internal resonance with your feelings.
Breathe: Breathe deeply while reading the poem. Are there any physical responses? Bring your awareness to any part of your body that is tense. Deliberately increase the tension by contracting muscles and then relax slowly. Is there a quality to the physical sensation you feel? Note what this is. Does it add to your understanding of your emotions? It may take several minutes to feel your way from overwhelm to deeper emotional understanding.
Do a Daily Check-in: Flip through your personal poetry library and see if there is a poem or phrase that epitomizes how you feel today. You can do this at the start of your day and at night, as a way of organizing your emotional experience at the end of your day.
Post a favorite poem on your fridge, wall, mirror or place you frequently look (like desktop background or smartphone).
One client described her feeling of overwhelming grief as being like drowning, and the understanding gained through reading a little poetry as being like the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: a profound feeling of the transiency of things; a small but important emotional understanding for her. Other clients have used the above steps in dealing with depression, ending of a relationship, death of a loved one, moving, or simply when looking for inspiration. Poetry can also help refresh yourself, like a sip of water on a hot day.
If you have trouble resonating with a poem, try James Hillman’s advice and “stick with the image” (2): see a poem as a naturalist would. Watch the image (the poem), looking for its unique intrinsic character; remember to follow rather than lead. The goal is to be curious about the image rather than reduce it to a formula. This perspective will bring you back to the poem’s essence, and by the process of parallel resonance you may find some deeper information about yourself.
Personally, I find poetry, both reading and writing, helps center me for the day. My website is spinkled with poetry quotes and when writing a blog I find the right quote sets the tone. What words move you? Consider the following selections from some of my favorite poems:
“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?
―Theodore Roethke (In a Dark Time)
Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
― Mary Oliver
"The Bright Heart of Failure" ―Rumi (title of poem, Coleman Barks, Ed.)
Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. ―W. B. Yeats
“The birds of night peck at the first stars that flash like my soul” ―Pablo Neruda (Leaning into the Afternoons)
The question, O me! So sad, recurring--What good amid these, O me,
That you are here-that life exists and identity,
That then powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
―Walt Whitman (O Me! O Life!)
As you live
deeper in the heart, the mirror gets
clearer and cleaner
―Rumi (Ed Coleman Barks)
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots to pall, and that should teach us,
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will. ―Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Moving from one room to the next I inhaled in passing that incense of an old library which is worth all the perfumes of the world. ―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Wind, Sand, and Stars)
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress
―W.B. Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium)
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures. ―Antonio Machado (Last Night As I Was Sleeping)
References: Wolff, P., & Genter, D. “Structure-Mapping in Metaphor Comprehension.” Cognitive Science 35 (2011) 1456–1488. Hillman, J. A Blue Fire. (Moore, T. Ed). Mary Oliver quotes: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/23988.Mary_Oliver. Antonio Machado:www.goodreads.com