Where poetry is practiced as a healing art

The Baltimore Sun

TAKOMA PARK -- Dappled light moved across Anne Becker's living room, stretching toward the multicolored rugs, dried flowers, piles of books, a creeping white cat and a thumping, massive St. Bernard-Weimaraner mix. Becker, Takoma Park's poet laureate and a connoisseur of texture and taste, had laid a table for eight, replete with mismatched mugs, earthenware teapots and a small feast of cheese, pumpkin bread, rhubarb chutney, hummus, apples and teas with long names and hints of cinnamon or smoke.

It's always a mixed crowd that gathers at her home on Sunday afternoons for her poetry class: experienced poets and newbies, government workers and artists. But they have something in common: They have all faced life-threatening or chronic illnesses as patients or caregivers. They have had cancer or heart problems or persistent pain. Some have struggled with grief or, as care providers, faced sickness and loss.

The workshop, which Becker calls "Writing the Body," is not therapy - few of the participants like to use that word. Yet many of them take for granted the idea that melting down their thoughts into forceful, poetic kernels and writing an ode to the bladder or poems about awakening from anesthesia or nursing a spouse can be healing in some way.

"I find that when I'm in the act of writing poetry, my brain goes into a different mode," said Martha Barker, a psychotherapist who was drawn to the idea of a poetry class for people who feel betrayed by their bodies. "It's probably a state similar to what happens when one meditates or prays."

The focus on a recent Sunday was "flesh." After the tea was poured, after eyes closed, after the white cat settled in someone's lap and the room hushed, Barker read her poem, which went, in part:

even sightless, feel the surprise

of baby flesh, mothering

our irresistible longing

to hold, touch, kiss, caress

this flawless vellum,

this innocent page, awaiting

the first pen stroke.

Writing about bodies in an appreciative, curious way can change one's relationship to one's body, she said later.

Becker, 59, has never been one to shy away from intensity or emotion. So when a friend with cancer asked if she would start a poetry class for people dealing with illness, her immediate response was, "Oh yes. I can do that," she recounted. She offers the class three times a year.

Writing and thinking about bodies and sickness was not new to Becker. Her father died shortly before she formed the workshop, and she had struggled with illness through much of her life, starting with a bone infection that was misdiagnosed as cancer when she was 9. About 15 years ago, she had back surgery, and it was during her recovery that she came to a fuller understanding of the mind-body connection.

In a talk about pain theory, a therapist explained that what people think, say and feel can affect pain.

"It justifies what I do," Becker said. "I spend all this time working with words and feeling like they should affect us in some way on a physical, bodily level." And they do, she said.

Though poetry can't necessarily take away pain, "If you're suffering from different illnesses or trauma, poetry can be a powerful substance," she said. "I write to change my life, and it changes my body."

The practice of using writing, and poetry in particular, to help people who are sick or otherwise suffering has become more commonplace in the last 15 years, said Sharon Bray, a California-based author and educator who leads writing groups for people with cancer. The trend has been bolstered by a growing body of research on the subject and a slew of related books - including Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making by John Fox and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James W. Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor who has studied the health benefits of writing.

At the same time, poetry therapy associations and similar groups have mushroomed. Paul Sznewajs, who teaches poetry to chronically ill children and serves as president of the Washington-based Society for the Arts in Healthcare, said membership in his organization has quadrupled in the last five years.

Engaging in creativity is part of rediscovering what it is to be human, Bray said. "It's reclaiming your voice and ability to express yourself, which gets silenced in disease and illness and suffering."

John Harms, 69, joined Becker's group after his wife died in a car accident and as he dealt with heart problems that prompted him to retire from his job as a buyer at the General Services Administration.

He had never taken a poetry class and was nervous. But he also had the feeling that clearing his arteries was somehow connected to opening what he reluctantly calls his "spirit." Harms describes his poetry as heartfelt and direct. "You don't have to guess much," he said.

Sometimes he writes about his wife. His answer to the flesh assignment was at once about the loss of a friend, his mother and another family member.

In a way, he's writing for his children, he said, "but I'm doing it for myself, too. It makes me feel better when I can put something down. Maybe it's cathartic. It allows me to open myself up and reflect some inner feelings that I might be reluctant to do."

JoAnn Thacker, a geriatric psychotherapist, saw a notice about the workshop shortly after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. In the 100 or so poems she has penned since joining the group in 2001, she has occasionally written about her body's limitations, but more frequently, she reflects in her poetry on the death and sickness she constantly confronts in her job.

"It's a therapeutic process for me. Expressing myself through poetry is a way of dealing with difficult things in my life," she said. "Of course talking to a friend or therapist can be creative, too. With poetry, you end up with a product that's a demonstration of where you've gone and what you've done with what happened to you."

While some group alumni have developed into - or arrived as - respected, published poets, Thacker says that's not what the workshop is about for her. She made her family promise that when she dies, they will not publish her poetry or organize a tribute reading.

But it is different reading in the quiet intimacy of Becker's house. Poetry is a way to get closer to the "bone of the person," Becker likes to say.

The week the class was exploring flesh, Thacker wrote a poem called "GONE," about a client who was dying.

"The flesh is gone now," the poem begins, "skin stretches taut over facial bones/clings to tendons recently revealed."

A few short stanzas later, it closes.

The babies grow old

Their children nurse now

The flesh is gone and yet lives on

flickers in the smile of a dying woman

embraced in the memory of flesh.rona.marech@baltsun.com

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