October 5, 2018

The healing power of poetry

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It’s no secret that literature is powerful. For many of us, there are times in our lives–a loved one’s passing, our first heartbreak–that we frankly could not have made it through with a few extraordinary books, poems, or perhaps even just a few words strung together.

Photo via Jad Limcaco/Unsplash

Whether it’s something we intuited whilst pouring over pages of Judy Bloom, brooding to Sylvia Plath, words have always been there for us. We knew the connective power of literature all along, but now there’s science behind it.

A number of studies have shown that poetry provides a number of benefits for patients suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses. A randomized clinical trial by researchers at the University of Maranhão, for example, which set out “evaluate the effect of passive listening to music and poetry on the variation in pain, depression, and hope scores” of 75 adult patients hospitalized in a cancer facility, came back with fascinating results. Researchers discovered that music and poetry both lessened pain intensity and depression, but only poetry increased hope scores.

After listening to poems from Linhas Pares by Claudia Quintana, one participant said “I feel calmer when I hear those words. That agony, that sadness passes. They are important words, they show me that I’m not alone.” What is about those words that gives them the power to ward off agony and sadness, and, moreover, to bring peace and comfort? As reported in NautilusCatherine Belling, associate professor of medical education at Northwestern Medical School, puts it, “poetry has a structure, which is something we can experience with our bodies.”

Using something called functional magnetic resonance imaging (basically, measuring brain activity by detecting changes in cerebral blood flow), researchers were able to ascertain that the recitation of poetry engages the mesolimbic pathway, the primary reward circuitry in the brain. While poetry will not cure the disease–now, wouldn’t that be lovely?–it can help patients deal with the pain, both physical and emotional, associated with the illness. Treatment is important, but what physicians tend to forget is that healing is equally crucial for successful recovery. And healing is not just a matter of the body, but one of the mind and spirit, too.

Photo via Snow City Arts

But, there’s more. Eric Elshtain is an author, editor, and teacher of poetry for various nonprofits. In his work with Snow City Arts, whose motto is “Doctors find the illness, we find the artist,” he teaches poetry to pediatric cancer patients in a number of hospitals throughout Illinois. Elshain told Nautilus that his students primarily write about life outside of the ward, about sports or their favorite stuffed animals, about the things that make them human just like everybody else. Twelve-year-old Ailani wrote about fireworks in her poem “Spark of Light,” featured to the right.

In the context of terminal illness, communication between patient and physician extends beyond mere descriptions of physical pain, and transcends to more personal, and even more difficult to articulate conditions, such as mood, morale, and fatigue. As Hannah Arendt, philosopher and political theorist, wrote in her seminal work in social and political theory, The Human Condition: “…poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” Through poetry, doctors are able to better understand the mental state of their patients and as a result, better aid people in the healing or treatment process.

Individuals who feel isolated from the world in some way, can find a dual benefit from an experience with reading and writing poetry: it is a way to deal with the past, but also to look towards the future. Hope springs eternal, that and self-expression are means of survival.

Julie Goldberg is an intern at Melville House.

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