To Your Health

A Poem A Day Brings Health and Good Cheer

by Joy Jones

What would you think if your doctor told you to "Take two, poems and call me in the morning"? Or how would your insurance company react if your therapist billed them for a dictionary, a thesaurus and a volume of poetry as treatment for your depression?

Rhymes, verses and iambic pentameter are not usually prescribed by medical professionals for better health, even though it is known that the arts help promote emotional well-being.

I can personally testify to the therapeutic value of poetry. Once, in college, what I thought was a great love affair came to an abrupt end. I cried all day Friday, all day Saturday. Sunday, I decided to write a poem. The poem was called "Suicide" but it worked like a miracle cure. Like an extra-strength headache tablet, creating the poem dissolved much of the pain and I was freed to return to be normal.

Somehow, as I got older, knowledge of poetry's quiet gifts were forgotten. It wasn't until I joined The Spoken Word, a performance poetry ensemble, that I realized there had been a vacant place in me I had not even known was empty but which was now being fed. It had been a long time since I had given my attention to writing poetry--and why should I? There's no money in it, I reasoned, and therefore no value.

But I have had the opportunity to once again witness the gentle healing powers of poetry unfold at the John Howard Pavilion, the maximum-security facility at St. Elizabeth's. Every month for the last three years I have been coordinating a poetry-writing workshop with 25 patients. For the last two years, I have received funding for this project from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities. I am joined by fellow poets from The Spoken Word.

The Spoken Word Poets (l-r), Kenneth Carroll, Joy Jones, Darrell Stover, Director Caprece Jackson, Lasana Imani; and the musicians' Doc Powell, Butch Jackson, and Morton Brooks

Photo by Joe Beasley

I remember the first time Darrell, Kenny, Lasana, Caprece and I did a workshop. Each of us in turn shared our original poetry to an extremely attentive audience. Their warm, intense attention caused my voice to tremble as I recited. The patients' appreciation was as tangible as a mother's arms wrapped around her child. Afterwards, Ed Washington, the chief administrator for the unit said to us, "Did you see the man sitting on the front raw? Tonight was the first time I've ever seen him smile."

Had his mini-miracle taken place--as a result of our poetry?

You group of Poets called
The Spoken Word--
The most touching experience of
poetry that I have ever heard...
And here you come to our most
humble little abode
And have strived to touch and
to oh so gently mold--
A poetic experience that lets
us know we have the power, too
To express our inner Blackness
as poetically as you do.

--Pam, patient

The place where we meet is in a space designated as the "clubhouse." Because the patients are also working to overcome their addictions in addition to their mental health problems, the walls are decorated with Alcoholics Anonymous slogans like "Live," "One Day At A Time," "Easy Does It." There's a large blue sign that lists the 37 warning signs of relapse.

I am not an alcoholic, but this list of character defects that indicate shaky ground serve as an emotional checkpoint--defensiveness; feeling that nothing can be solved; irritation with friends, development of an "I don't care" attitude. Have I been guilty of any of these lately? Does my attitude need adjusting?

When I listen to the poets of the John Howard Pavilion, I feel like I'm in a room of mirrors and maps. Mirrors, because I see so many aspects of myself, my hidden self, reflected in the thoughts expressed by others in the room. Maps, because each person's words and excess serve as a guide for me, pointing out what paths I may want to explore or down which roads I dare not travel. I share the same sentiment that Cricelia F. expressed in her poem, "The Creative Process When I Write":

When I write
I pray my advice
will guide
A younger one.

We have a good time. The demarcation blurs between poets from outside the hospital and the poets from inside the hospital. We minister to them, and they to us. We learn from each other. I am one of those people who sometimes gets angry at God when things don't turn out as I think they should. Why ask and pray in the first place if God isn't going to work it out my way? One evening when I was ventilating, Jimmy S. shared a few lines from his poem. "A Steadfast Heart."

I have prayed many prayers
when no answer came,
though I waited patient and long;
But answers have come
to enough of my prayers,
to make me keep trusting on.
You see, my friend, whenever I am down
and this life begs me for it to depart,
I fall on my knees and pray to God
and am awarded with a Steadfast Heart.

Hearing his words I felt chastened, then inspired.

When we first started holding sessions, Tommy B. would bring in the same little booklet with predictable rhymed verses about flowers, Jesus, and sunshine. I was really impressed, however, the night Tommy brought in his own composition, making the leap from just a reader of poetry to a poet himself. His works, however, were not sentimental verses. One evening he did a veritable multimedia presentation. Well, maybe not multimedia, but his presentation reminded me of a play-by-play report with color commentary. He read several poems about his street hustler days. For each poem, he had several original drawings and he talked about what his life used to be like when possessed by what he called his 'demons' of guns, alcohol, drugs, sex.

Profound things happen when you put your life in words. Telling one's story is healing, as evidenced by counseling sessions, therapy groups and the popularity and proliferation of 12-step programs. Healthier than a cocktail, and cheaper than analysis, writing and sharing poetry has provided the patients--and me--with a low-cost, highly personal pathway to self-knowledge and growth.

I came to St. Elizabeth's expecting to teach something and instead, I received a gift. It's proved to be sharing of the best kind. This is the kind of helping that comes from true fellowship, not a trickle-down arrangement from one's betters, but a circular exchange of equals; me to you, you to him, him to her, her to me. Once again, it is a poem, an ancient anonymous poem, that best expresses that truth with the words:

I sought my soul
But my soul I could not see.
I sought my God
But my God eluded me.
I sought my brother
And found all three.

Originally published in Pathways, Fall 1992, p. 11.


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