POETRY AS THERAPY?
By Valerie Volk
Illustration by Jonathan Wolstenholme
People write poetry for many reasons; even our ancestors in caves and village settlements wrote and sang pictures depicting their daily lives. Over the centuries, such musical and imaginative storytelling has provided people an invaluable means of self-expression, including the millions who have found the writing of verse a way of articulating the deepest emotions they feel – or even just an effective and satisfying way of recording experiences from daily life. Many writers have pondered the question why? What is it that moves us to express ourselves like this? What do we discover about ourselves and our place in the world as a result?
One answer that is sometimes advanced to these questions is that poetic expression is a form of self-healing. Although I’ve written, and even given guest speeches, about the value of poetry as therapy, it’s a notion that I’d now like to challenge.
The idea of therapy suggests something far too deliberate, even utilitarian, about the act of writing – as if the settling at the keyboard, or the lifting of the pen to write, has a conscious aim of bringing about a desired effect: a purposeful healing.
This implies a much more pragmatic approach than the creative process usually involves. It’s almost the equivalent of the commissioned piece, the magazine article designed to make money. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the occasional piece of commercial writing; after all, starving in a garret may be traditional, but it’s not actually mandatory to qualify as a writer. Nor is it really creative prostitution to meet the requirements of an editor or magazine publisher.
It’s when one starts to define poetry as therapy that I get uneasy. When I have a problem, a disappointment, a crisis, a tragedy in my life, do I now think: “Yes, I’ll deal with this by writing?” If so, this is where the balance has shifted, and what ought to be a spontaneous urge towards expressing some emotion becomes subverted. Even subjugated – to a need to bring about some outcome that is extrinsic to the act of writing.
So, if therapy is, as defined in many dictionaries, a course of “treatment of physical or mental disorders, other than by surgery”, I’d reject the notion that “poetry is therapy”. The outcome may indeed be ‘therapeutic’, the bringing about of healing, but this is not the primary objective of the writing.
No matter which of the thousands of definitions of poetry one subscribes to, all have as their focus the words themselves, not some extrinsic purpose.
When I wrote the poems that comprise my first published collection, In Due Season, they emerged during a period of strong and often turbulent emotions, as my much-loved husband of almost fifty years, died from multiple myeloma. I did not consciously think “I will deal with this by writing.” I wrote because I was impelled, even compelled, to express my feelings during a year of intense experiences. To be able to do this was, I felt, a gift.
I wrote of my days with him in hospital, of moments of anguish:
I reach out eager hand, stripped of safeguarding glove,
only to see him flinch and hear him say
‘Your hands are cold. Don’t touch me please.’
They are balanced by moments of joy
He looks up, smiles, and all my fears subside.
Writing these poems, through the long months of his dying, and the aftermath months with their welter of emotions, was for me a spontaneous expression of feelings, with no conscious aim of therapy, and certainly not of publication. Even the elegiac end to the final poem, after listening to the Four Seasons concertos,
The music stops. It’s over. Reluctantly,
with tender hands I put the CD in its proper place.
Vivaldi’s Seasons now have ended; yours also.
For others, somewhere, spring will come again –
yet, in due season, all we needed has been ours.
was written out of a need to say these things, with no agenda.
Coincidentally, even ironically, my latest book my tenth, after years of novels, short stories, travel books, as well as much poetry) has returned me to the same realisation: I write because I need to express what is inside me, not for any deliberate outcome. This is ironic, because my latest collection, Marking Time – A Chronicle of Cancer, is also a highly personal record of a troubled time, as my new partner went through diagnosis and then treatment for aggressive Stage 4 lymphoma, but this time with the happier ending of full remission. Once more I found myself writing simply because I had to, from the first poem, ‘Beforehand’:
That small distant cloud
began to swell, to grow,
until day turned from blue
to dark with thunderclouds
threatening storms to come
Coiled like a snake
for twenty years
waiting, waiting …
Now it strikes
I continued through the miserable months of chemotherapy;
Bad chemo day.
Your face is grey and drawn,
lines etched more deeply,
under what were once your brows.
until the final joy of the verdict of remission;
We dance light-footed
down the corridor.
But it is lined with chairs
and faces grey with care.
It would be too indecent
to show our bubbling joy
so, sobered now,
we slow our steps.
Was it therapeutic to write these poems? At times, but that wasn’t my intention in writing them. I wrote them because I’m a writer – and what I feel I write from an inner compulsion, not for any pragmatic outcome. The fact that the Cancer Council of South Australia has encouraged me to publish this collection because they believe the poems will be helpful to others undergoing similar experiences is not something I had ever anticipated. Of course, I’m hoping that many will order the book from my website or buy it from a bookshop and find it “therapeutic”. But this is not why the poems were written. If they prove a healing gift to others, that is an unexpected bonus.
Poetry is poetry. Therapy is therapy. They may meet occasionally in some very desirable way, but they are not identical!
Valerie Volk is an award-winning writer of poetry, short fiction, novels and travel books. She has published ten books, including the inaugural Omega Writers poetry prize-winning In Due Season. She holds a PhD from UNSW, and several master’s degrees, including one in Creative Writing from Tabor Adelaide. Visit www.valerievolk.com.au for more information.