Healing Through Poetry

by Jude Fay

The Solstice, Poetic Soul Workshop took place in Dublin on 20th December 2014 and was facilitated by Siobhán Larkin and Ger Murphy.

There are many routes to healing, and I have explored a few over the years. Poetry was never one that particularly appealed to me; I like to say that I am too impatient for it. There are still echoes of reciting poems by John D. Sheridan from the stage in the Father Mathew Hall. Later, it was some of the pieces from Soundings that I took in unwillingly and ungraciously. These experiences have combined to leave me with some resistance to poetry as a medium.

So what drew me to this event, where poetry was a core component? A good question, and one to which I have no satisfactory answer, other than to say it felt right. Perhaps as Pablo Neruda put it:

And it was at that age…Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river…
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

(Neruda, 1996: 442)

Brought into the warm, welcoming space by some initial chanting, we started with a check-in, and an exercise to help us to connect with ourselves and with others. Coming from the hustle and bustle of the pre-Christmas rush, with all the tinsel and glitter of this time of year, it was challenging to be totally present to another person, and through them to allow myself to pass into the great beyond encountered in their eyes.

We were each invited to select, at random, three cards from a large collection. On each card a poem, or part of a poem was reproduced. I selected two by Rumi, and one from Adrian Mitchell. Each of the pieces I chose so casually from the hundreds contained in the wooden bowl placed on the floor spoke to me as if I had chosen them deliberately and specifically, although perhaps as Neruda says, they were in search of me.

We were invited to read aloud from one of the cards. I chose to read this piece by Rumi:

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, Meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

(Rumi, 2003: 179-180)

I often find myself at a loss to express what I feel in words that will make sense to someone else. At those times, language seems to be a curiously inadequate vehicle of expression. I am aware of this as I try now to convey to you what I feel as I write. One of the things that I loved about this workshop was that words crafted by someone else could be a channel for me to express something within me at deep and subtle levels. As I read his words aloud to the group, I had no need to explain or tell the story of what Rumi’s words touched in me, even had I known. And I could see in the faces of the others in the group, that the words I read touched them too.

A poetry dive
We were invited to lie on the floor with eyes closed, or to sit quietly in a chair, while the facilitators recited lines and verses from a collection of pieces. The words ran into each other like a stream, washing over my consciousness. I was listening to them, but not very attentively, enjoying the sounds of the words and the shapes they made in my mind. Then, when they finished speaking, we were asked to write down the words that had stayed with us, perhaps those we’d last heard. And from there to write whatever came into our minds, whatever wanted to be written. If nothing came to us, we were to write nothing.

I was struck by the image of the “blue cashmere sweater” (Bass, 2014) from Ellen Bass’ poem, Relax, reminding me of the pain of so many laundry accidents. As I began to write, smiling at the recitation of commonplace calamities that can cause us so much suffering, something darker emerged in me, about uncertainty and the risk of engaging in everyday living, and about how much energy I can expend in running from the tiger that chases me, only to find my avoidance creating yet another tiger.

One at a time, we spoke our own words into the group, in whole, in part, or not at all, as we wished, and were received and acknowledged, through the simple reflection back to us by group members of words and phrases that had struck them. Again, there was no need to explain or analyse, just a warm acceptance that whatever had been discovered was okay.

A piece of poetry that had meaning for me
We had each been invited to bring a piece of poetry that had some special meaning for us. We worked in pairs reading our choices, alternating the role of listener and speaker. As listener, our task was to receive the other, and to help deepen the experience by encouraging them to focus on one part, perhaps repeating a word or a phrase, perhaps exaggerating a movement, perhaps making a sound or shape.

I chose to bring a well-known piece by Rudyard Kipling which had hung for most of my teenage years over the kitchen table in my family home. One of my siblings had bought the poster in the Dandelion Market in Dublin, and it had been allowed to stay. If is written in the form of advice from Father to Son, and is a tribute to the character of military leader, Leander Starr Jameson. It has been parodied and put to music, and in many ways become clichéd, circumstances that left me slow to admit its power over me. I find it reassuring, however, that Kipling himself was startled by the momentum his words gathered, “the mechanism of the age,” he said, “making them snowball” (Kipling, 1991: 111).

I don’t remember setting out to learn it by heart, but the words remain etched on my brain all these years later. Written in the last decade of the nineteenth century, it is redolent of the British colonial stiff-upper-lip to which Kipling would have been no stranger. Overall, the impact of this poem was to provide me with a template for the person I should aspire to be. I carried a belief that if only I could change myself into Kipling’s person then I would be safe from whatever tigers might come to chase me in life. Through my own therapy, I had come to realise how I had taken their meaning very literally, applying the words as if they were a rule book.

In so many ways, this poem represents a core part of my journey to let go of the opinions and standards of others, and allow instead my own self-concept and self-worth. A journey too, to engage fully in the dance of life with its quirks and foibles, its darkness and light, without the solidity of a rule book at my back. There is a lot I could say about the meaning the poem has for me, but two pieces of the work have particular resonance:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone

And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: Hold on!

(Kipling, 1994: 605-606)

The energy of forcing myself to do or say things which I was not ready to do, had clearly served me in the past, helping me to move past obstacles that would otherwise have left me cowering in a cupboard. However, they had also left me deaf to my own wants and needs, and with a level of tenacity that owed more to pride and perfectionism than to effectiveness. The power of the words has gradually been replaced by something kinder and gentler, and an appreciation of my own quiet inner voice, with more freedom to choose.

…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

(Kipling, 1994: 605-606)

These last lines had been the subject of heated banter in our family. My youngest brother (probably trying to assert his place among so many sisters) had loved to substitute the words ‘You’ll never be a Man, my sister’. At some level I had absorbed the message that I was not good enough, because even if I were able to meet the demands of Kipling’s idealised concept of human behaviour, my gender was against me!

Although I have moved through and let go of the pain that Kipling’s words evoked for me, reading this piece aloud to another person, who simply witnessed and acknowledged me, allowed me to connect with it and with myself in a new way.

The day was one of warmth and depth. We engaged as we felt able to do so, supported in no small part by the safe and caring presence of the facilitators. The workshop was flagged as offering me ‘an opportunity to meet yourself at depth through poetry. A shared engagement with the poetic word, combined with movement, sound and silence, will deepen our meeting of the dark in ourselves, our lives and the world’. For me, it certainly achieved its aims. And not only did it allow me to meet the dark in myself and others, it also allowed me to do so in a way that said loudly that the dark is not all there is in me, in others, or in the world; that there is also love and joy and goodness, and an acceptance of the place and wonder of it all. And on a practical level, as a therapist, it helped me to expand my ideas about how to help clients to connect with themselves through poetry.

I am truly grateful to have been a part of this rich, moving experience.

Jude Fay practises psychotherapy in Naas and Celbridge, Co Kildare. She also provides support for therapists in relation to the business aspects of running a therapy practice. Her blog can be found at thisbusinessoftherapy.com.

Barks, C. (2003). The Guest House. Rumi, The book of love: Poems of ecstasy and longing. New York: Harper.
Bass, E. (2014). Relax. Like a beggar. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press. Kipling, R. (1991). Something of myself. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kipling, R. (1994). If. Collected poems of Rudyard Kipling. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.
Neruda, P. with Kerrigan, A. (transl.) (1996). Selected poems/Bilingual edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.