Poet's words are therapy for grief


After another afternoon of combs and cakes and roses,

she will sit at her desk, and write something.

She will hide it away, withered and brown,

a nosegay of dead flowers, in a lovely lacquered box,

tucked away in a closet, her place to keep the ugly.

- from "Nosegay" by Anne Barney

Grief will gobble you up if you let it, and Anne Barney almost did. But she was saved by her pen.

"I wrote every single day for a long time," she says. "It was the one thing that helped me get through that period."

It was more than a decade ago, but the wounds will always be raw. Barney, an Ellicott City poet, and her husband, financier Steve Van Order, had endured numerous infertility treatments that led to the birth and death of two children: a daughter who was born premature and a son who was stillborn.

But Barney finally found solace from her sorrow in the poetry she wrote, which was published as Stolen Joy: Healing After Infertility and Infant Loss in 1993 by Icarus Books of Baltimore.

Her latest collection of poems, titled Nosegay, which includes poems written in voices other than her own, has been accepted for publication by Pudding House publishers of Ohio, specifically because of its empathetic qualities and potential application in a process called poetry therapy. The book is due out in the fall.

"Nobody wants to admit they have bad feelings, but everybody does," says Barney, 44. "I use poetry to free myself, to write about negative feelings and get them out of my system. ... Some might pound clay or work in wood or paint; I write."

And others read. After Barney's first collection was published, women in similar situations began sending her letters of thanks, she says, because they knew they were not alone.

This is one piece of the theory behind poetry therapy: that others might realize their experiences and feelings are not so different. Another aspect says writing poetry helps to process a situation or pull thoughts from the subconscious to the surface for exploration. Yet another facet says that maybe poetry will help people understand someone else, such as a spouse or parent.

"Poetry therapy in the formal sense is practiced by trained psychotherapists with a master's [degree] in it, who use reading and writing as a therapeutic technique," says Kenneth Gorelick, a psychotherapist and a founding member of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT) in Washington. "In the lowercase sense, it is the use of literature for growth and healing and may be used by writers, poets, librarians and other folks not formally trained as mental health specialists."

Gorelick, 60, co-directs the Wordsworth Center in Potomac, where doctors and other practitioners can obtain certification in poetry therapy.

Ann Bracken of Columbia is a few credits shy of earning her certification, though she is not a psychiatrist or a social worker. She is an English teacher at Howard Community College.

"I've always written poetry, but [in the mid-1990s] I went through a depression, and it became a way to help myself deal with a lot of those feelings of darkness," says Bracken, 50. "It was a way to objectify what I was feeling."

At the time, a cousin sent Bracken a tape by David White, who talked about poetry as a means to "self compassion." She found it helpful and got on White's mailing list. Through that, she was formally introduced to NAPT and poetry therapy.

Bracken uses her Wordsworth training in classes to help students understand issues they might feel are far removed from them, such as segregation. For that, she asks her class to read Langston Hughes' poem "Merry Go Round" in which a young African-American boy in the early 1900s asks where the Jim Crow section of the ride is so he can get on. She then prods the class for their memories of such rides and asks them to imagine what this boy feels. "Poetry is a wonderful tool for helping people experience something in a deep personal way," she says.

Arts as therapy has a growing base of believers. Organizations claim drama, art, music, dance, psychodrama and poetry as a means to healing. They have joined forces in an umbrella alliance called the National Coalition of Arts Therapies Associations. But membership in NAPT is relatively slim, and stands at about 500, which is still a 400 percent increase since 1990, Gorelick says.

Jennifer Bosveld, editor and publisher at Pudding House and a member of NAPT, says poetry is a natural tool for promoting mental health.

"Think about the traditional session a person might have with a psychologist," she says. "One of the major things the psychologist is trying to do is to help this person focus or see something for what it is rather than [distorted]. Poetry enables you to play around with that journey and maybe stumble onto something that can lead to an aha! experience."

That's the quality of Barney's work that struck Bosveld.

"She has the ability to take the day-to-day struggles of an everyperson, and either say something new or insightful about them in very few words," Bosveld says, "or give us that shock of recognition that makes you shake your head or even slam a hand on the table and go, 'Yes! That's it!' She can do that, she can pull that off."

And that's why Bosveld gave Barney her pet award, the Red Wheel Barrow Award (named after William Carlos Williams' poem), which Bosveld reserves for a member of NAPT. Nosegay is not a cheery work, Barney says, but it does have promise for clinical use because the poems explore issues of losing a spouse, or killing someone while driving drunk, or having cancer.

Barney's prize is the publication and 20 free copies of her work (such are the capital spoils of a poet's profession). But more than that, it's an affirmation of the ability of others to connect with her work.

"It's therapeutic to write," Barney says. "But there's also the idea that someone else is reading it and saying 'Gee, somebody else has been there' that is so rewarding."

"Nosegay" can be pre- ordered for $8.95: 740-967-6060, or www.puddinghouse.com.

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