To Your Health
A Poem A Day
Brings Health and Good Cheer
by Joy Jones
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.
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
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.
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.
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
by Joe Beasley
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."
his mini-miracle taken place--as a result of our poetry?
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.
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.
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?
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 pray my advice
A younger one.
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."
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.
his words I felt chastened, then inspired.
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.
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.
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:
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.
in Pathways, Fall 1992, p. 11.
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