Creative Arts Therapy Feature: Poetry Therapy

Do you enjoy the arts? Have you ever wanted to see how getting creative can help you mentally? This feature is just one in a series of entries exploring the different types of creative arts therapy. You can learn more about other outlets here!


raphael-schaller-88040-unsplashSometimes it can be hard to discuss how you are feeling out loud. There can be a sense of pressure to try to find the exact words to fully describe how you’re feeling and the worry your words won’t come out how you want them to, leading the other person to misunderstand how you are feeling. One way to express your emotions without having to talk about them is to write about them in a poem.

Poetry therapy is a form of expressive arts therapy that uses poems, narratives and other spoken or written media to promote well-being and healing. Therapists might use existing literature or encourage those in therapy to create their own literary works as part of treatment. The goal of a poetry therapist is to offer a safe, nonjudgement environment for people to explore written expression and their associated emotional responses.

thought-catalog-470876-unsplashThe idea that words can heal dates back to 4000 BCE when Egyptians used to write words on papyrus, dissolve them in liquid and give them to those who were ill as treatment. In the mid-1700s, The Pennsylvania Hospital began using reading and writing as supplementary treatments for those with emotional and mental distress. In the early 1800s, poetry was first established as a form of treatment due to Dr. Benjamin Rush. Eli Griefer, a poet and a pharmacist, started “poem therapy” groups in 1928 at two hospitals with the help of Dr. Jack L. Leedy and Dr. Sam Spector. Dr, Leedy would then go on to start the Association of Poetry Therapy (APT) in 1969. This led to all of the leading figures in the poetry therapy field gathering to write guidelines for certification and training leading to the creation of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT) in 1980.

Poetry therapy works by

  • Providing an outlet for expressing emotions that might be difficult to express
  • Helping therapists gain a greater insight about their client
  • Promoting self-exploration and reflection
  • Validating emotions and experiences when done in a group setting

tom-rogerson-516368-unsplashIn a therapy session, the poetry therapist might select material to read from. They are free to choose any poem as long as it has poetic value. Additionally, it must be concise, address universal emotions and experiences, offer a degree of hope and contain plain language. Some techniques used in a poetry therapy session are based on the 3 Components Model by Nicholas Mazza.

  1. Receptive/Perspective Component: In this component, a poem is read aloud by the therapist or a person in therapy. Participants are told to make non-verbal or verbal reactions to the poem while it is being read. The therapist will note the reactions and discuss certain reactions when the poem is done.
  2. Expressive/Creative Component: For this component, creative writing is used for assessment and treatment. Therapists might ask their clients to select a line from a poem that touched them and have them create a poem based on this line. Or they might give them a single word, topic or sentence and ask the person to write something in response. The process of writing is supposed to be cathartic, giving one a voice and the ability to free blocked emotions.
  3. Symbolic/Ceremonial Component: This component uses metaphors, storytelling and rituals as tools for effecting change. Metaphors are used to explain emotions and experiences in precise, confound ways. Rituals are used to help those that have experienced a loss address their feelings about the event.

Research suggests that poetry therapy creates and communicates meaning. Additionally, poetry therapy might help facilitate internal connection with the self and external connection with heart-care-1040250_1280others. This helps the participant develop a greater awareness of self and others, which aids in identity building. Furthermore, therapies involving writing tasks have been linked to improvements in well-being and health. Writing tasks help a participant with self-regulation, re-framing and dealing more effectively with negative emotions.


Have you ever written or read poetry for yourself? Do you have any recommendations? What are your favorite poems?

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Moderator ★

Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: https://sova.pitt.edu/i-need-help-now We look forward to talking to you!

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