Poetry for Personal Change: Discovery and Wholeness

19 Aug

poetry-river

Poetry for Personal Change: Discovery and Wholeness

by Miranda Barnes

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Part of my current research is exploring how the subjective, human experience creates this place within poetry that is “both.” Both a place of mystery, permeable and open, shifting like a ghost. A place where we receive. But also simultaneously a place that insists on precision, microscopic focus, finding the exact way to say a thing, so fiercely accurate that it is not repeatable. Clarity and accuracy meeting what cannot be pinned down, on the head of a pin.

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Something happens at the meeting point, a dialogue between the hemispheres of the brain. A dialogue between mind and spirit. A place where our connections increase, both within ourselves and to the world around us.

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I have heard it said that the creative impulse begins with the hunger for, or attraction to, what is beautiful. While passion for beauty is certainly a part of the truth for most creatives, I find that what is more powerful is the hunger for meaning. Meaning and significance. Meaning-making is the business of poetry, and when we connect to this meaning within ourselves, we find significance.

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Poetry, and more broadly literature, has always offered more than just the benefit of something to read. From encounters with good literature, good poems, we find ourselves altered and awake to the dilemmas of human existence. Through adjacency with the stories of others we view our own significance, within the expansiveness of life. And the way a poem condenses meaning into the boldest, most impossibly true little mouthful of language, this leads us to eureka. Through the discovery of something so true, so profound, we find out just how big and how small we are at once.

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I wouldn’t be the first to assert that exposure to the arts and humanities gives people a renewed sense of individual purpose and meaning. But in a current world climate where the importance of these studies seems to be declining, it’s even more urgent point out their powerful affects on people’s lives. One example comes out of Stanford University in California. Their Program in Ethics in Society offers humanities courses in the arts, philosophy, and history to residents of Hope House, an addiction treatment and recovery facility for women. The residents here learn the stories of historical female figures such as Emily Dickinson, Hildegard of Bingen, and Sojourner Truth.

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The impact of these courses on the participants goes much further than traditional addiction treatment alone. Through the study of humanities subject matter the Hope House students encounter ethical dilemmas and philosophical questions, encouraging deep thinking and interaction with their own humanity. Over the course of the studies, each of these women are able to see herself as more than just an addict or an alcoholic, a shamed or reduced self, but again as a whole person. Rob Reich, who is a Stanford professor and director of the program, says of the course’s impact: “Because ‘the  humanities revolve around questions every human being grapples with,’ study of humanities subjects creates ‘a sense of possibility and agency that many [of the Hope House students] haven’t experienced in a long time.’”

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Poetry specifically does accomplish something unique. The way poetry is composed, both in the context of its musicality (the meter and rhythm) and also its often surprising use of language, has an intriguing effect on the brain. It very literally spikes the brain’s electrical activity. In new research from Liverpool University, reported on by the Telegraph in January of this year, exciting brain imaging studies were done on readers who read passages of poetry and literary prose, versus more simplified prose with the same meaning.

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The scans revealed that areas of intense brain activity lit up in both sides of the brain: the left part concerned with language, as expected, but also areas of the right hemisphere that relate to autobiographical memory. What this activity in the brain suggests, in response to the poetic language, is that poetry triggers what are called “reappraisal mechanisms.” These cause the reader to reflect on his or her own personal experiences and think of them in a new way, in light of what they are reading. The leaders of this research, including scientists, psychologists and English academics, plan further brain imaging study using the work of additional poets. Hope is that there will be real evidence of a therapeutic benefit to poetry that could be applied in future treatment. Philip Davis, Professor of English at Liverpool University and one of the university’s academics who has worked on the study, says of the study’s implications: “This is an argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.” Clearly many different methods of treatment and therapy are needed across the board for the large spectrum of individuals who require it, but this research sheds light on poetry’s potential role in the future.

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Poet and neuroscientist Sean Haldane (more officially a clinical neuropsychologist for the NHS) has been practicing in the fields of psychology and neuropsychology for many decades. However, he has been a poet for even longer, and amidst an interesting time for official poetry posts in the UK, he was interviewed for The Guardian’s Observer column . Therein he discussed the power of poetry to change an individual.

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Haldane works primarily now assessing diseases of memory and dementia, but was trained in Reichian psychoanalytic therapy and has written a psychological crisis handbook called Emotional First Aid. In spite of his many years of professional practice, he seems to know that poetry has a strength that does even deeper: “In fact, I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy. If you read a poem and it gets to you, it can shift your perspective in quite a big way, and writing a poem, even more so.”

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A further point of interest that Haldane mentions in this interview regarding the neuroscience of poetry is that a poem may activate the same portions of the brain that react when a child experiences separation from its mother, “A deep sense of separation and longing.” Perhaps there might even be some poems that activate a sense of recognition, or of reunion, of closure. Hopefully future studies will continue to examine the ways that our brains respond to poetry, and maybe even what occurs in the writing of a poem.

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While Haldane wouldn’t recommend poetry at a therapeutic practice (“Never.”), nor would many folk (both participants as well as practitioner) suggest that poetry is any sort of replacement for therapy, there is something to its power. I am just beginning to dig into the many ways that poetry finds its way to the heart behind the mind, or through. But both writers and readers of poetry have always known the impact of a powerful poem to change their lives.

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For some, the act of writing poetry has been a significant part of therapy, and possibly the most successful component. A reporter for the BBC’s  coverage in Iraq, journalist Patrick Howse found poetry a primary part of his pathway to healing through episodes of acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he developed while in the war zones of Iraq. He was recently featured on PoetryZoo.com discussing how the act of writing his poems, by articulating his experiences and giving them representation, allowed him to process the trauma that he was constantly reliving.

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For Patrick Howse, the process of writing poetry was pivotal to him making sense of what happened to him, the events and images that lead to his constant state of sleeplessness and fear. By combining images of his own making with the feelings experienced in the traumatic events, and by aligning these images to the images from reality that he took in, he was able to come to terms with something that penetrated his world so vitally. Because of the intimacy that poetry can offer us with ourselves, this pathway to understanding can be incredibly healing.

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Howse refers to a quote by UK poet Cecil Day-Lewis which is personally significant to him: “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” He says he wrote his poems for himself, in order to understand, first and foremost.

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I personally object to Day-Lewis when it comes to the notion that we do not write in order to be understood, but only to understand. The creative act is a combination of both. In fact, a great deal of what comes with the human need for connection is that very thing: to be understood. The pathway to healing for many necessitates increased connection to find wholeness.

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Sherwin Nuland, American surgeon, author, and professor of bioethics at Yale, has written a number of books examining the mysteries of the human body and the processes endured at death, among many other celebrated texts. In How We Die, Nuland shares personal stories of his life, including that of his grandmother. He received many letters from readers thanking him for this inclusion, as they saw someone of their own in her description. From this experience, he found that “The more personal you are and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are.” And while Nuland is not a poet, what he says rings true for what makes poetry so powerful: personal experience.

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In an interview with the renowned Krista Tippett, published in the lovely collection of her interviews titled Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit, Sherwin Nuland speaks candidly about what he has found to be pivotal to every human soul. He says that once a person can recognize that the experience of pain, and the human response to pain, is universal, there’s a shift. A recognition. Understanding. And with this, we change how we treat each other, and move toward healing. As Nuland puts it, “You know what everybody needs? You want to put it into a single word? Everybody needs to be understood.”

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Indeed. And couldn’t poetry bring us closer to recognizing each other?

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To be understood is to be recognized. To be recognized, by yourself and by others, pulls you from a one-dimensional, reduced existence to a three-dimensional creature bestowed with possibility. And how important it is to find pathways to this wholeness. In both the acts of reading and writing of poetry, there is certainly much to be gained by the participant.

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One cannot say that all poetry can produce a certain effect, or accomplish a specific thing or set of things. Some poetry is certainly more successful than others at creating that moment that I call “the punch in the gut,” the moment of visceral recognition that, for me, so often precipitates the instant of being changed. But a truly good poem at the right time can certainly be a powerful catalyst for transformation.

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Jane Hirshfield, one of my favorite poets writing today, is author to a magnificent book of essays titled Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, which deftly investigates the art and craft of poetry and the depths of our interaction with it. In the first essay, “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” Hirshfield strikes at the heart of some of poetry’s power:

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“Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections…It begins, that is, in the body and mind of concentration.” She clarifies: “By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.”

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The concentration that poetry requires is a wakefulness of mind and spirit, an alert consciousness, an attentiveness to the connection to everything in the self and outside the self. A willingness to receive, a lack of rigidity. This sort of duality is part of the secret of poetry, these seemingly opposing states of being intently focused, precise, but also an openness. And isn’t this mindset the perfect place to allow oneself to be changed?

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Hirchfield also says this of poetic concentration: “In the whole-heartedness of concentration, the world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” Possibility and agency are a natural part of the mind of concentration.

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Our participation in poetry offers the promising possibility of finding a place where we cohere the parts of ourselves and simultaneously, a place of enlarging of our own possibilities. But maybe what makes poetry so powerful is that the thread of it comes in through the mind with language, words that make meaning out of our perceptions, but the whispers to us gently to engage us in a way that can be deeply unexplainable. Like knowing. Like being. Poetry, good poetry, can change us. Sometimes right when and where we need to be changed.

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You can follow Miranda on Twitter here:

https://twitter.com/petalsandflames

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4 Responses to “Poetry for Personal Change: Discovery and Wholeness”

  1. atalinamarie September 10, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    Beautiful, well written and heart felt, with love Atalina Marie

    • ArtiPeep September 13, 2013 at 5:40 am #

      Thanks so much for your comment Atalina. I’ll pass it on to Miranda. She’s both a poet and academic; a great mixture for insightful writing. Nice to have you visiting us! All the very best. Nicky

      • mirandalynnbarnes September 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

        Thank you for your generous introduction, Nicky. And for passing on the comment. And of course, thanks again for bringing me to your blog! It is lovely meeting both of you. Cheers, Miranda

    • mirandalynnbarnes September 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

      Thank you so much for your very kind words, Atalina. It means a great deal to me to hear that you found my guest piece here to be touching and affecting. It is definitely heartfelt! Poetry is incredibly significant in my life, and I believe it is so very important. Thank you for reading, it is appreciated. Warmest, Miranda.

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