How does poetry affect mental health?
“You have a great writing skill, your words are magical and you are knowledgeable, if so, why don’t you use your skills to write something more uplifting, you know, something happy?”
“Your performance was phenomenal; can I ask why you were so aggressive?”
“Why do all your poems sound so dark?
These are some common forms of criticism almost every poet gets. To which the poets have no answer for. And If we have, we’d still choose to write a poem about it, and it would still come out hostile. If these people go back and visit the lives of the famous figures who have marked their works for generations, they would conclude that all poets are in fact morose. Are they wrong? Let’s see.
Sylvia Plath; diagnosed with depression, Edgar Allen Poe; who suffered from recurrent depression and a bipolar disorder, and Virginia Woolf; who also suffered from bipolar disorder are few of the prominent names which come up when we speak of allusive, emotional, and surreal writing.
Woolf was known for her “Stream of consciousness” delving in the minds of her characters, focusing on feelings and ruminations, in a way the reader can track the fluid mental state. On another page, Plath used poetry as a form of confession. Hence, her writing style was referred to as “Confessional poetry” as she writes in first person dealing with subjects such as death, trauma and depression. Whereas Edgar Allen Poe explored gothic writing regarding themes of death, regret, and lost love.
The affiliation between poetry and mental illness was further studied by Dr. James Kaufman in his retrospective study in 2002. Kaufman conducted a study on 1,629 writers. The study showed that poets are more susceptible to mental illness than other creative writers. Ever since, the link between creativity and mental illness is frequently referred to as “The Sylvia Plath Effect” named after Sylvia Plath, who died by suicide at the age of 30.
In all this, we evidently witness how poets take their pain, struggles, confessions, and sometimes if fortunate, healing, all on the paper. Again, the pain serving as a muse while their pen a maker. In which case, I think Charles Bukowski has said it better when he said,
“He asked, “What makes a man a writer?” “Well,” I said, “it’s simple. You either get it down on paper or jump off a bridge.”
Modern Day Poetry
This fitting together didn’t stop with the famous names we know. The art where poets take their trauma and anger to different stages is a drive, we see these days practiced by modern poets. The difference then and now being, we now have a whole community of poets all around the world, who listen and talk back in poetry. Poetry is now a transcontinental conversation.
We watch poets breaking down, in rage, and sometimes even taking a step right there on the stages they perform or if they don’t then within their journals. We then see how many people coming forth to buy the books stating how it has helped them express what they felt but didn’t have the words to voice it. Let’s take a look at two excerpts from two poets who opened up about their struggles taking over social media. Reading these pieces, you would find yourself right there between the lines.
“Anxiety holds me a hostage inside of my house, inside of my head.
Mom says, “Where did anxiety come from?”
Anxiety is the cousin visiting from out-of-town depression felt obligated to bring to the party.
Mom, I am the party.
Only I am a party I don’t want to be at.
Insomnia has this romantic way of making the moon feel like a perfect company.
Mom says, “Try counting sheep.”
But my mind can only count reasons to stay awake;
So I go for walks, but my stuttering kneecaps clank like silver spoons held in strong arms with loose wrists.
They ring in my ears like clumsy church bells reminding me I am sleepwalking on an ocean of happiness I cannot baptize myself in.
Mom says, “Happy is a decision.”
-Sebrina Benaim – Explaining My Depression to My Mother
“The first time I saw her…
Everything in my head went quiet.
All the tics, all the constantly refreshing images just disappeared.
When you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you don’t really get quiet moments.”
when she said she loved me, her mouth would curl up at the edges.
At night, she’d lay in bed and watch me turn all the lights off… And on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off.
-Neil Hilborn – OCD
These two poets performed taking their audience with them in every line they delivered. The struggle in their gut, the fight in their fists, their pain tied in their throats, gives you a glimpse of what they are dealing with if you have no idea what it’s like to be in such a state. But, if you are an individual already familiar with their struggle, then you’d feel like you have found your home within their poems.
Did you know there is a term called Poetry Therapy?
Yes, the power of words has been recognized and is being studied by many. The National Association for Poetry Therapy defines poetry therapy as, “the use of language, symbol, and story in therapeutic, education, growth, and community-building capacities. It relies upon the use of poems, stories, song lyrics, imagery, and metaphor to facilitate personal growth, healing, and greater self-awareness”
Now, this is not to say poetry can replace therapy. Yet, therapists encourage their clients to keep a poetry journal to help them better understand their emotions and automatic thoughts by using cognitive behavioral therapy.
Poetry encourages communicating feelings openly. Because it triggers parts of the brain tied to reward, emotion, and memory, it strengthens overall cognitive health, self-reflection, relieves depressive symptoms, and to feel more connected to others.
The art is no longer a hobby, a distraction we write ourselves out of a boring class, it’s a collective energy even when it’s personal. It gives a creative outlet to explore challenging existential issues and deal with traumatic moments in the past and be at peace with ourselves.
As we sit down to write, the healing begins with ourselves
As we read out loud, we let go.
About The Author
Kalkidan Getnet is a poet and an aspiring concept/Minimal artist. She runs a poetry blog titled “Everted” with the theme “Poetic Disruption through Bold and Uncensored Self-expression”. Her poems explore various emotional states which fall mainly in grief, depression, and solitude, collected from her own experience and mere observations.
how does poetry affect mental health?