Poetry as a Healing Art?
Do any of you ever think about the effect of your poetry on the mental and physical health of your readers? I sometimes do. Often, I admit, I'm thinking about "writing a good poem." I have a poet friend I e-mail with who once read one of my poems and said it depressed her, it ruined several hours of her day. Is this what I want?
I don't think poetry should just be about "making people happy," though of course we all want to be happy --- right? But should poetry AVOID making people unhappy?
Of course "healing" is not just about happiness and unhappiness. For example, there's the grief process, which involves plenty of unhappiness, but is necessary for healing.
What kind of question was that, "should poetry avoid making people unhappy"? I mean what kind of control do we have over the effect of our poetry? Sometimes it's precisely "happy" poetry that rubs some the wrong way.
Do we write poetry primarily for ourselves? I know I write some poems because I "have to," emotionally. Yet sometimes people thank me for writing, or reading a poem. They have apparently gotten something out of it, either I have articulated something that have felt, or I have said something that gave them insight into something in their lives, or I have somehow, despite myself, said something uplifting.
Why did I write that poem about the bird? How did people react to it? My guess had been people found the poem creepy and didn't know how to react or what to say. Was it a depressing poem? Did it ruin anyone's day? I didn't have any particular intention when I posted the poem, I just did because I had written it and thought: well, I could post this new poem. Perhaps it was a healing poem for me. The fact is, I tortured myself about that bird the entire day I wrote the poem. I checked on its welfare about every five minutes. I obsessed about what I could possibly do with the bird, where I could keep it, what I would feed it --- but I concluded that it would probably die no matter what I tried to do.
The funny thing is, the cats found another baby bird last night, and Rae did exactly what I didn't do with the first bird. She picked it up, brought it in the house, put it in the safest place she could think of (a paper bag). This morning she broke off little bits of banana to feed it. The bird was hungry and devoured the banana, and kept opening its beak for more.
Probably, Rae's bird will die like mine did, but at least she will have tried to help it. She wouldn't have been able to live with herself if she hadn't. She may or may not write a poem about it. I had to write a poem as a way to live with myself. But it's a creepy poem. It makes me sound like a cold unfeeling person.
I raise questions on this blog about what poetry "should and shouldn't" be about, but I don't honestly believe there are any rules, or if there are, each poet makes her own rules. Yeah, there are the extreme exceptions, like if a poet broke the law in some heinous way and wrote a poem about it as a confession, readers might contact the authorities. But I do think, though, that it's worth thinking about why we write, and the effect our work can potentially have.
Those of us who are enrolled in an MFA program read quite a lot of poetry. For us, one the one hand, no one poem is likely to make too much of a difference --- if we read a depressing poem, we go on and read a "happy" poem ten seconds later. On the other hand, when we read and read, there are going to be poems that stand out --- we are looking for such poems. Some of them are going to be poems we find hilarious, some that awe us, some that we think are just especially successful, some that we find disgusting, some that are so depressing we almost wish we hadn't read them, but since we have, we won't soon forget them.
Perhaps healing is only one of a large number of purposes poetry can have. If a poet writes to facilitate her own healing, as some poets have obviously done --- Sharon Old's father poems come to mind --- is this a selfish thing? Well, Olds' poems have probably helped many with similiar grief issues and conflicts. If the writing is deeply engaged with processing and healing, and the work is powerful, it is unlikely that only the poet will benefit. But some benefit more from writing and reading humorous poetry. Or poetry that makes light of dark subject matter.
I'm happiest when I'm writing poetry that "feels important." For poetry to feel important to me, it has to be about something that matters, and if it's something I think matters to The World, and not just Me, then it feels more important. And yet, if I can write something that makes people laugh, there's something important about that as well.
So my conclusion is, there's really no conclusion. It's just something to think about, or anyway something I think about, that I wanted to share. I'd be interested to hear any thoughts other bloggers have about these questions.