Poetry as Therapy
Sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s, Tony, Marti’s husband of 27 years, gave her an ultimatum. He said either she come home and be a proper wife or the marriage was over. The ultimatum was not unexpected and Marti’s answer was a forgone conclusion. Home was the Caribbean island of St. Thomas where the couple had lived for many years and had raised their five children. However, Marti had been spending more and more of her time at her second home in Charlestown, Rhode Island and she had no intention of returning to the role of “proper wife.”
As her children had gotten older and left St. Thomas for better schools, Marti had found less and less to hold her on the tropic island. In Rhode Island, however she got caught up in a new passion: poetry, especially the idea that using poetic forms to express deep feelings could have therapeutic benefit.
Tony became her x-husband, she wished him well, made Rhode Island her full time home, and became a poetry therapist.
The idea that writing poetry can have therapeutic benefits is not a new one. It wasn’t even new thirty years ago when Marti got a masters degree in Creative Arts Education and taught poetry in state institutions, including hospitals and prisons serving the criminally insane. The National Association for Poetry Therapy offers this description of the roots:
Poetry Therapy, or poetry which is used for healing and personal growth, may be traced back to primitive man, who used religious rites in which shamans and witchdoctors chanted poetry for the well-being of the tribe or individual. It is documented that as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the words could be physically ingested by the patient and take effect as quickly as possible. It is also recorded that around 1030 B.C.E., the music of a shepherd boy named David soothed the "savage breast" of King Saul.
Historically, the first Poetry Therapist on record was a Roman physician by the name of Soranus in the first century A.D., who prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed. It is not surprising that Apollo is the god of poetry, as well as medicine, since medicine and the arts were historically entwined.
Early in her career, Marti had a mentor and partner in her work as a poet therapist. His name was Dr. Art Berger. Art was a charismatic presence in psychology in Rhode Island at that time. Partially through the influence of his brother Stan, who was chairman of the psychology department at the University of Rhode Island for many years, Art, who was more artist than clinician, more hipster than academician, was an early advocate and practitioner of expressive therapy, working with inmates in the prison system and patients at various state hospitals. The work that he and Marti did was funded by state grants in the arts and in mental health. Together they wrote about the theory and practice of poetry therapy and put together anthologies of the writing that came out of their workshops. Writing in 1984 they had this to say about their work:
In a mental health institution the reading and writing of poetry can be a therapeutic process… The writing of poems is a problem solving activity using fantasy to elicit fresh meaning, exaggeration to clarify, symbols to illuminate. Transforming feelings into words heightens awareness of self. Giving form to thought is a growth experience compatible with therapeutic aims… We use as stimuli films, poetry, popular music, folklore, advertising and journalism. Our goals for these groups are to (have patients) compose out of their inner self and life, thereby keeping alive the sense of who they are, and to assist the growth in others through a sharing of their experience and values.
To read these words and Marti’s descriptions of her visits to locked wards is to be reminded how much the field of psychology has changes in thirty years. Marti began doing this work before the height of the historic push for deinstitutionalization, before psychotropic drugs reached their current level of effectiveness, and before length and type of treatment was determined by insurance companies rather than doctors.
In the current era, when mental health services are judged mainly in terms of economic efficiency, Marti’s faith that writing poetry can make you a healthier person may seem a little naïve. On the other hand, no poet, or artist, or musician will need much convincing of the validity of this premise, because they will have had their own experience of being kept sane, engaged, and fully alive through artistic expression. Read some of the poetry that was written with Marti’s guidance.
I played hero
I saved my brother
from my father’s blows
I have played helpless
but got beat up anyway
my father said he was sorry
when he was 45 and couldn’t
drink any more
then he died
I play forgiving.
How to be running water
is a flowing kind of thing
even though I’ve been polluted
I can’t be destroyed
I have different currents
and feel no fear
I started at the mountain tops
and flow down into the valleys
I can break dams
and release myself
I can make electricity
and light up cities
I keep flowing and lead,
like sunlight through the air.
I’ve slept under bridges, on roofs
One time, drunk I slept in a dryer
At a laundry mat and was woke
By women stuffing clothes on me
I slept in a dog house
And in the park with the birds
Slept in cars and most anywhere
Because I had no place to go.
The prison inmates and mental hospital patients, having written these poems, would then be written by the poems. It seems obvious that struggling for these insights, seeking the words to express them with clarity, committing them to paper, sharing them publicly would change the writer.
Poetry as Eros
I spent this past February 15 attending Marti’s workshop on erotic poetry. I thought what better way to spend Valentines Day than being encouraged by an 83-year-old poet to think about and write about sensuality. Marti teaches by providing examples from both her own poetry and from more famous poets; Carl Sandburg, Galway Kinnell, Morton Marcus, May Swenson, and ee cummings among them. She moves through a series of stages from the sensual, to the erotic, to the bawdy, providing writing prompts for the group to respond to. She responds to each participant’s written efforts with enthusiasm and delight. I remember feeling this way in kindergarten; as if I was the only five year old who had ever done quite such a good job of writing his name. Of course, I want my next poem to be even better so I can again get Marti’s encouragement and praise.
Marti says that when you awaken your personal sexuality your entire erotic self becomes alive and robust. You adopt a whole new way of being in the world, open to all the beauty around you. When we accept the pleasures of the sensual the whole world shifts. The image of the arrow shot by Cupid is an image of arousal, but arousal as a bridge to connection, to love. “When we are making love, the whole world is making love with us and that is the erotic.”
Marti says that in all world mythologies the gods are sexual beings and sexuality is held sacred. Therefore, she offers the prompt to write about, “a truly erotic experience worthy of the gods.”
I write the first draft of a poem called “Beyond The Reach of Science”.
Seismologists in white suits
Take core samples of the earth.
Drill down a million years
To predict the potential for rumbles and quakes.
Naked in our bed,
We undermine their work.
We slip below the surface into cracks and crevices,
We flow like water, like lava, deep down
Where science can’t reach.
With our tectonic slip and slide,
Our subterranean liquid jiggle,
With the amplitude of our shaking and
The magnitude of our thrashing and
The oscillation of our body wave moaning,
We are the log-a-rhythm of the earth’s holy vibration;
The epicenter of its transcendental throbbing.
Without us for lubrication,
The earth would seize up, become static.
It couldn’t hum and buzz as God intended.
Its hard work, somebody’s got to do it.
I’m glad it’s us.
I want to thank Marti for the inspiration. I can’t wait for next Valentines Day.
Life as Poetry
Sometimes life rhymes just like poetry. Sometimes a stanza gets repeated and brings things full circle. Sometimes the repeated stanza has a whole different meaning because of the poem that precedes it.
After many years of promoting the creativity of others, Marti is making more time to write her own poetry. Long ago, she recalls a therapist saying to her, “You’ve met your obligations to others. It is time to meet your obligation to yourself and the to world.”
Certainly, that is not an either/or proposition, but a balancing act we all have to perform all the time. Marti does it with grace and generosity.
Marti recently wrote a series of poems called Want Ads. Here are two:
A circus person
Who can pitch big tents
Promote local show
Control excited crowds
Must love big cats
Dub in as a clown
Fly the trapeze
Be at ease with elephants and antelopes
Finder of lost children
Be willing to travel
Consider the circus as home
Experienced ring master
Should also be Freak show barker
Bare back rider
Certified animal analyst
Must enjoy stars in children’s eyes
Does not mind sweeping up popcorn
If available visit us in person
When the circus is in town
Among my reactions to these poems are the following: they sound like a pretty good description of the advertiser and they are also good descriptions of what it takes to live into old age with creativity and vitality.