Poetry matters because it gives the heart a way to express its deep reservoir of emotions.
This act gives the heart permission to grow and heal. This is the essence of mental health:
To allow the heart, heartfelt expression. The heart is not concerned with answers to problems.
It wants resonation and understanding with another human being to bear life’s problems.
Without a voice, the heart feels lifeless, like a “barren field frozen with snow” (Langston Hughes).
These emotions might include romantic feelings of love or give birth to painful grief. Emily Dickinson
comments on the hearts scrutiny of loss in her poem I measure every Grief I meet:
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow , probing, Eyes -
I wonder if It weighs like Mine -
Or has an easier size.
Here is one poet’s attempt to share a deep emotion common to the human condition. Emily Dickinson was not the only person to have experienced this examination of loss. As a reader of the poem, it may resonate with others who have had similar experiences. This connection between writer and reader allows healing or what therapists call “acceptance.” Letting these deep emotions go in a healthy way, increases the quality of life. Leaving them stuck inside results in more suffering. The same is true of positive emotions such as love or joy. Emotions don’t want to stay buried. When the heart is full of joy, it feels like it will burst if isn’t shared. News of a job promotion drives you to tell a spouse or close friend at the earliest opportunity. The birth of a baby demands announcement to all family members. These are everyday examples of a basic, underlying need for the heart to speak. Poetic speech is perhaps, the highest form of this expression.
Poetry can capture an emotion from the past as well. William Carlos Williams’ poem The Red Wheelbarrow demonstrates the entrancement of the heart through the mere observation of a child’s toy:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Such simple lines can make one feel alive again, like a child. It brings up all the memories of the past and allows one to accept them, dark or light. For that brief moment where the image of the wheelbarrow engrosses the mind, life is restored. This is not a part of conscious thought or logical concepts that one can control by sheer act of will. It is a matter of the heart. More specifically, it is the language of the heart that enables one to embrace the mysteries of life, not achieve its mastery.
Poetry can also remind one of the beauty in everyday life as in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem Spring:
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
Poetry has been a “Spring” in the middle of many Winters.
This surprise of a Spring in our Winter moments can cause the heart to blossom. Poetry gives new life and warmth to a heart that aches from the coldness of life. In the face of dark times, “hope springs eternal” through poetic words.
Of course, many people find ways to give the heart voice without any real admiration for poetry. They wrongly believe they couldn’t write a poem if they had to. Writing poetry, like any healing effort, takes hard work. To makes matters worse (or better depending on how you see it) a million dollar greeting card industry makes it so people don’t have to be a poet to express a sentiment of the heart. This still verifies the need of the heart to find its voice. An anniversary or birthday seems incomplete without a trip to the store to pour over dozens of pre-written cards to find just right one that captures the hearts intent. Hazrat Inayat Khan, the philosopher, knew this truth long before greeting cards arrived in the marketplace, when he wrote: “Poetry came before language. It was the poetic spirit in man that made language.” In Western society, we see it the other way around. Consequently we get tied up in formulas for success and strive to manage our health care system in order to get a return on investment. While our ability to function may stabilize, many people experience an ongoing sense of alienation. We have a primal need to connect poetically to others and the world around us.
This language of the heart is not reserved just for human beings. It has a Spiritual ingredient as well. Call this your higher power or Christ or whatever, but mankind looks for a Spiritual connection to explain the unexplainable mysteries of life and death. Poetry is part of this spiritual/heart language.
The mystical poet, Rumi, illustrates it this way:
In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.
Additionally, when the Psalmist of the Bible says that “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” he is expressing a deep need for connection to something bigger and more powerful than himself. This is perhaps one of the best-known psalms because it resonates with a feeling of the need for a divine caretaker in the lives of hurting people through the ages.
All of these examples reference a path for mental health that is often the “road less taken” (Robert Frost). The heart is at the core of mental health and poetry is one “way [that] leads one to way” and for those that follow this path, it is one that may make all the difference.
Poetry is comfort for the suicidal teen. It is hope to the newly divorced mother of three. It is the answer to the man in mid-life crisis. It is the adoptive child’s promise of a forever family. The poetic therapist can use words ancient and modern to help hearts find their voice. Even with the constraints of a managed care system, mental health practitioners can use poetry as a “talking cure” that creates a new narrative to life. Poetic expression opens up new possibilities and unique outcomes by offering the heart a new way to open up, grow and heal.
For an individual suffering a malady, Poetry helps her/him move through dark places. As Wendell Berry wrote: To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms, and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. Poetry allows hurting souls to nurture themselves and heal. The healing is not quick, no matter what managed care systems believe. What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). Poetry lends a hand to these steps as reflected in the Japanese poem by Kojiju:
Merely to know
The Flawless Moon dwells pure
In the human heart
Is to find the Darkness of the night
Vanished under clearing skies.
This Flawless Moon of poetry shines in the human heart and connects us to one another, beauty, and to the Spiritual.