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14 posts categorized "Healing Poetry"

August 22, 2006

The Shelter of Poetry

Several years ago now, in the May/June 2001 issue of Poets and Writers magazine, a series of articles appeared on the topic, “Writing as a Healing Art.” Among these, perhaps the most compelling was a feature by Felicia Mitchell on Frances Driscoll, the author of a volume of poetry, The Rape Poems. Driscoll was working as a poet, beginning to publish her work, when in 1987 she was raped. She stopped writing after the rape. She believed, she said, that she would never write again. And then, gradually, poems began to come.

One such poem is entitled, “Island of the Raped Women.”
It contains these lines:

We all sleep through the night. We wake eager from dreams
filled with blue things and designs for hats.
At breakfast, we make a song, chanting our litany
of so much collected blue. We do not talk of going
back to the world. We talk of something else. . .
(Read the whole poem here.)

In the article in Poets and Writers, Driscoll speaks about the responses she gets to this particular poem:

Little girls barely out of their teens ask. Sometimes college women ask. The question is always whispered. The question is desperate and urgent. The question always breaks my heart. The question is, ‘Where is the island?

Where is the island? It’s such a moving question, such a poignant question. It also points to what is possible: words powerful enough to create an island. Words powerful enough to create shelter.

For the reader?
For the writer?
For both?

November 27, 2006

Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski: A Featured Piece

[I am very pleased to introduce this poem submitted by Danielle Crawford, a young woman at Fairhaven College in western Washington state. She began writing this poem while in her first "official" poetry class, four months ago, and she is now, she tells me, passionately pursuing a double major in creative writing and fine art.] Four Chambers for Tyler David Tandeski In memoriam [October 1, 1999] I. It stinks like cotton swabs turned cold beside Mother’s under-ripe belly. Six months have passed. She sits, waits: hunched, hurt on that inhospitable bed. I can’t tell her this, but she’s aged a decade in a day. Never looked so frail: a daisy, withered by the worst of winters. The October sky— Mom’s crying again, laying above peppered linoleum, under so many lights there’s nowhere left to hide. She’s naked, barren beneath the gown. I try to resist, but join her, weep. * The doctor’s eyes are dull with mock concern. I, twelve, confused, want to escape. In their crisply clean uniforms— uniform sterility— they stare, then speak: The human heart has four chambers… How were we to know God gave you only two? * Years of wait and worry plagued my parents. Mom’s stiff as the starchy parchment paper she’s now lying on. Emotions repressed, her words are strangled: It’s done. II. Did we make the right choice? After the initial miracle of you, I guess we believed in invincibility. An age-old wish, the desire to rewind. Would it have been selfish—? We thought of the steps you never took. We kissed the ground you never set foot upon. Since you’ve been gone, we’ve lost our footing, our solid ground. I try to picture what you’d be like now. I’ve dressed your name up in costumes, cloaked your memory with denial, anguish, rage… anything I could muster, paralyzed. I don’t wish to remember you this way. I’m back where I began: without a clue. The cotton, the clothing, that cold room, my memory, too— it’s all too white. I can’t help but wonder if, taken, you took color from our lives. ‘99. Now seven more. You would be eight, Tyler, had you survived half a heart and Down Syndrome. I’m greedy; I want you next to me. You still are my brother. I think of you, whose footprint—only an inch!— left a lasting imprint. The human heart has four chambers… Your heart was stronger than mine for letting you go. We need your malformed heart to mend our own.

December 08, 2006

A New Path to the Waterfall: A Recommended Book

This book is the most beautiful example I know of a written mosaic or collage. It began, as near as I can tell, in September of 1987 when Raymond Carver, a gifted writer of both short stories and poems, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The following March the cancer metastasized to his brain, and, then in June, lung tumors recurred. These are the facts that initiated his illness and which Tess_Gallagher, his wife, and a gifted poet herself, describes in the introduction to this, Carver’s last book: A New Path to the Waterfall. Tess Gallagher also describes in her introduction the literal making of narrative in the grip of these facts.

First, there are the poems—the elemental pieces of the narrative. Some of these poems Carver had written before the onset of his illness. Many, like “What the Doctor Said,” and “Gravy” and “Late Fragment,” were written and revised during the illness itself. Also during his illness, Tess Gallagher began reading stories by Anton Chekhov and then she began sharing the stories with Carver. During this same time, Carver was reading a book, Unattainable Earth, by Czeslaw Milosz, the polish poet and Nobel laureate. Milosz’s book is a kind of patchwork quilt which incorporates passages from other poets, and this book, according to Gallagher, was key in inspiring Carver to want to find for his own book “a more spacious form”. Then, at some point, something clicked. A new path? First Gallagher, and then Carver, began to see how certain passages in the Chekhov stories could be reconfigured as poems and how these pieces, as well as pieces from other writers, could serve as elements in the narrative that he was trying to make.

Finally, the last step: taking all of these pieces and putting them together to make a narrative. In the introduction to Carver’s book, Gallagher describes spreading poems out on the floor of their living room and literally crawling among them on hands and knees and beginning to arrange them into a pattern: “reading and sensing what should come next, moving by intuition and story and emotion.” It’s a vivid and tactile description of finding a pattern—finding a form. And the result—this book—illustrates (among other things) that a narrative does not have to be linear in order to be beautiful. The gaps become part of its beauty. The breaks. The fault lines. The juxtapositions. The pieces reflecting and refracting, one off of another. And all of that white space around and between.

December 15, 2006

Notes in Bathrobe Pockets

Foggy this morning. I’m thinking (again) about those pieces and images that can pierce through fog. For a writer. Or for a reader. The kinds of things that Janet Desaulniers is talking about, I think, when she talks about collecting. In his book, A New Path to the Waterfall, a book about, among other things, navigating loss, and navigating the approach of death, Raymond Carver includes an apparently simple poem: “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes”. The poem is made up of of thirteen fragments. Here are three:

Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up

the house after being away for three months.

“We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able

to maneuver.” Spock to Captain Kirk.

The rabbi I met on the plane that time who gave me comfort

just after my marriage had broken up for good.

December 22, 2006

Whatever Leads to Joy

The book, What the Living Do, was written by Marie Howe in the wake of her brother’s death from AIDS. It’s a book that, perhaps better than any other book I know, walks that delicate balance between making memorial—remembering who and what has been lost—and choosing life in the wake of such loss—figuring out, day by day, what it is that the living do (after). There’s joy in the book—and in the poem—but it’s that bittersweet kind of joy—

The poem, “My Dead Friends,” can be found here.

The poem consists of only thirteen lines. Here are six of them:

I have begun,

when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear. . .

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling—whatever leads
to joy, they always answer. . .

January 14, 2007

Wild Geese: An Image for Writing and Healing

Three times in the last month I have come across, in three different places, the poem, “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver. After the third time, I thought this might be a poem I ought to pay some attention to.

The poem opens with the speaker telling us, her reader, that we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. And, then, this line:

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

It’s a radical line. Maybe a radical poem.
It goes against the grain of business as usual.
(The way the mind and the will are so often, for so many of us, yanking the body around to places it doesn’t really want to go—places even, sometimes, that can make the body a tad sick—or sicker.)
(And sometimes maybe this is one of those silver linings of getting sick—or so people will sometimes tell me—the small good part—how a person can begin to learn to quit yanking the body around. The stakes are too high anymore to do all that yanking. Sometimes illness is the beginning, for some people, or so they tell me, of beginning to pay closer attention to what the body loves and needs—and what it doesn’t.)

I’ve been carrying the poem with me this month, looking at it now and then, and now, today, there’s one particular word that seems to jump off the page: meanwhile.
MEANWHILE as the good part?
Because after the speaker of the poem tells us we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles, repenting, we only have to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves, after that she invites us, the reader, to tell her of our despair and she will tell us hers—
And then there’s this shift—this leap—and she writes:

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes. . .
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again. . .

It’s as if the camera had been close in—a history of despair—or a history with some despair in it--but then—a shift—the camera pulls back---a shift to a larger landscape—a leap—meanwhile—somewhere—those wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home.

February 04, 2007

Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer: A Featured Piece

by Eleanor, Louise, Lydia, Nell, Rosetta and Sandra

I love my mother, my brother and my grandmother
But I’m not ready to go and be with them yet
What about my three children?

How are we going to proceed?
What is my chance of recurrence?
How did this happen to me?
Why am I even in this picture?

A lot of people think, “Why me?”
I never did go through, “Why me?”

Pure and simple fear
Fear of what?
Pure and simple fear of pain
Fear of the next thing, and the next

Sometimes you don’t recognize when you’re depressed.
There are some days when you just don’t want to talk on the phone.

I felt like a marionette
My strings being pulled in every direction
They want me to have this scan, and this test,
And this bloodwork.
Where do you want me now?

I left my body and the treatment
And the doctors--
I left them to the guidance of God

The whirlwind, the disruption
The chaos it created in everyone else’s life—
My husband’s, my three sons, their families, my friends, and mine.
Like a tornado had come through
It kept getting bigger

When is this going to end?
Where is the end?

Lost in this never-ending struggle or tunnel
The struggle is the tunnel
On and on

I want to say something about sickness
Not being able to keep anything down
Sickness on top of sickness
Complications of a weakened immune system

So much information
Overwhelmed with information
Three bulging grocery bags
(And you’re sick. When can you read?)

What’s a good night’s sleep?
Waking up exhausted
The lack of energy is indescribable

And more burning
During radiation

So tired doing basic things
Will I ever be normal again?

With all of that you have to deal with generalizations
And stereotypes:
“Oh, you still have your hair?”

Other people’s insensitivities:
“We’re not talking about cancer.”

Other people’s kindnesses:
A bag of tomatoes
A rotisserie chicken.

[This piece was written at Cancer Services in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at a writing and healing workshop in 2004.]

February 08, 2007


One of three places that I've come across Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese, in the last month or so was as a kind of epigraph—before the table of contents—to the poetry anthology, Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley.  The anthology, first published in Britain, is one I would recommend, and I’ll probably get around to writing about it more here on this site one of these days.  Meanwhile, today, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular poem that I found in the anthology—a poem called “Sweetness,” by Stephen Dunn.

The poem is freely available on the web, this because of a project--Poetry Out Loud--which encourages high school students to memorize and recite poetry.
The poem can be found here.
(Incidentally, if you want to browse the poetry on their site you can click here.  They have a fairly extensive online collection---)

But back to the poem, Sweetness—the first seven lines—

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
     has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it. . .

Nice, huh?

The poem makes me think, among other things, of that bag of tomatoes and that rotisserie chicken in Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer.  But any way you look at it, I think maybe he’s onto something-----

February 13, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #23: What If the Moon’s a Balloon?

There’s a poem by e.e.cummings—“who knows if the moon’s a balloon”
It begins like this:

who knows if the moon's
a balloon, coming out of a keen city
in the sky--

The poem can serve as a kind of springboard for making a list of questions that begin by asking: WHAT IF?
For instance------
What if the moon’s a balloon?
What if the balloon pops?
What if the moon is a hot-air balloon and the Wizard of Oz gets into the balloon and floats away, and all of this before you can get into the balloon with him, and you have to find your way back home on your own?

What if. . . what?

Consider making your own list of questions. Write as fast as you can without thinking. Begin with a single question—with e.e. cumming’s question if you like—and then just keep going. Don’t worry about the questions making sense—or the questions being clever—or even interesting. Just write them. Try to write fast without thinking too much.

When you have come to the end of something—a pause—look back over the questions you’ve written. Circle the ones that you like--or that surprise you in some way. Save the questions—especially the circled ones. Who knows? One of them could become the beginning to a poem—or to some other whole new piece.

March 27, 2007

The Wreck and the Treasure: Images for Writing and Healing

I recently came across a poem, Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich. (I found it in Staying Alive, the anthology. You can also find it here.)

The poem is a quest poem—but it describes a different kind of quest, a kind of counterpoint to Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica. Not a quest across the water. But down.

It begins—the first six lines—with a gathering of resources:

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask

It’s interesting to me how just typing these lines allows me to pay a kind of closer attention to the language than I do when I ordinarily read. It slows me down. Especially coming to that last line—the grave and awkward mask.

So, then: a book of myths, a camera, a blade, body armor, those absurd flippers, that grave and awkward mask. These are the resources for this dive. And no companions. Not this time. The speaker of the poem announces this at the end of the first stanza: she’s not doing this with a team like Cousteau—but alone.

A ladder appears.
She begins to climb down.
Down through layers.
Down through blue, then bluer, green—then black.

This is a different kind of quest.
A metaphorical quest.
A quest down through layers.
And why keep going?

In the sixth stanza, she names the reason for this particular quest:

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
And the treasures that prevail.

The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
And then those lines naming two companions:
the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

It seems to me that most people I talk to about quests of one sort or another need to know two things—especially for the difficult quests—the ones that involve some exploration of wreckage, some measure of sorrow. I think we need to know that the exploration itself has some meaning—a purpose. And I think we need to know that there’s some possibility—some hope—even perhaps a promise—of treasure—jewels amid or beneath the wreckage. What Arthur Frank would call the boon of the quest. There has to be some boon.

I had a writing teacher once who used to say that stories need to be bearable. One way, I think, of making stories of wreckage bearable is to figure out what the treasure is—to recognize the treasure amid the wreckage. No matter how elusive—or unexpected—no matter that the treasure doesn’t look the way we thought it would look when we finally come upon it.

April 01, 2007

Robert Frost’s Two Tramps in Mud Time: A Poem for April

I found these seven lines from Robert Frost’s Two Tramps in Mud Time. I think they resonate well with the way that I’m thinking about this month—the way that reversals can happen suddenly—out of the blue—without warning. It might be warm, or at least sunny, beautiful, everything blooming, and then------not so much.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

He’s so matter of fact. This is the way it is sometimes—on certain days.

April 26, 2007

The Journey by Mary Oliver: A Poem for Writing and Healing

A few weeks ago now a reader of this site sent me some poems by Mary Oliver. (Thank you.) Out of the poems she sent, the one that strikes me most—the one that seems to fit best with the thread of this month—two steps forward and one step back—is this poem by Oliver that I’ve seen in a number of places. It’s a poem that speaks to that in the world which would pull us back. It’s a poem that speaks to what can sometimes be required in order to move forward.

The full text is here.

It’s a poem that seems to have touched a chord with a number of people.

Ten years ago, the NAPT (the National Association for Poetry Therapy) did a survey of poetry therapists, asking them which poems they most often selected to use with clients, and it turns out that of twenty-two poems frequently selected, this poem—The Journey—was at the very top of the list.

The poem speaks to a stark truth—that sometimes—in certain situations—one has to do what is necessary to save one’s own life—first-----

It's a poem of rather haunting images and I suspect that’s one of the reasons it so often touches people. The way that images—poetic language—can sometimes touch us at a deep place when other kinds of ordinary language can’t quite—

Today, these images—these eight lines from the middle of the poem—are the ones that strike me most:

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations—
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

May 08, 2007

The Guest House by Rumi: A Quiet Revolution?

I came across this poem, The Guest House, by Rumi, for the first time, week before last, when I was looking for a clean link for Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey. Here are the first twelve lines:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

Who violently sweep your house

Empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out For some new delight.

How wonderful is that? The image of sorrow and all the other emotions—joy yes—but also the difficult ones—anger—shame—fear—all as visitors—some pleasant visitors and some more difficult ones—and all of them guests. And guests with a broom no less. Sweeping through the rooms—clearing it. Rumi’s lines here resonate for me with those lines by Paul Simon from his song, “Sound of Silence”:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again.

But now I’m picturing Darkness with a broom.


See also:

Full text of Rumi's poem

More about this poem at my new site

Healing Poetry entries

November Angels

June 12, 2007

A House with No Door: An Image for Writing and Healing

For the past week or so I’ve been looking for a poem that would speak somehow to revision—and I couldn’t quite find what I was looking for. And then I found this poem by Rumi. It’s not what I thought I was looking for—it does something slightly different. But at the same time it feels like the right next image for revision. For looking again. For looking at the big picture.

And what was it again that I wanted to write? What did I hope would come of this? What can I do with the pages I've written? What do I hope will come of this?

Not infrequently, I find that when people come up against a serious illness or a serious loss--or any kind of significant transition—they may find themselves, eventually, asking certain kinds of questions: And what is it that I'm here for? What is my piece? What is my gift? What do I want to leave behind?

Rumi’s poem, Every Craftsman, speaks to these questions.
Here are the first 17 lines:

I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!
Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting your net
into it, and waiting so patiently?

Rumi’s poem is another way of asking: What is the one piece of writing that you, and only you, can write?

What emptiness is waiting to be filled?

Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer, said (among other things) in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey.”

What sort of life is it that you—and only you—can write about?

What gap is waiting?