Verse Better Than Prozac


While roving through umpteen poetry sites on the Internet, one is amazed by the amount of angst, anguish, and pain, expressed.

Agreed that the age groups of wailing poets differ. From who-am-I and what-is-my-purpose-in-life of 20-somethings to the poetry of loneliness by poets in the evening of their lives, myriad voices give vent to our inner turbulence. Dark poetry of madness, phobias and aggression is as popular as love poetry.

Is poetry some sort of a therapy? Can verses better than Valium, or Prozac?

It surely seems so, going by the response one gets from poets who write of gloom and feel better once the words are out there, and thoughts purged — at least for a while.

Like art therapy, poetry has been used in psychiatric aid, rehabilitation clinics, special schools, prisons and mental hospitals since the 1960s. It has helped the severely disturbed to look at their emotions and also express them usefully.


Poetry written under stress is known to relax people who are stressed, the ill to recover and the isolated to relate. Writes Jack J Leedy, psychiatrist and author of Poetry Therapy and Poetry, the Healer, “Poetry is one of the most effective grounding mechanisms that exists. Addicts go from being hooked on heroine to being hooked on Hopkins and Homer.”

In the 1960s, the term ‘bibliotherapy’ was used more than ‘poetry therapy.’ Bibliotherapy literally means books, or literature, to serve, or help, medically. Poetry therapy is a specific and powerful form of bibliotherapy, unique in its use of metaphors, imagery, rhythms, and other poetic devices.

Poetry has been used extensively in moody blues, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Proponents of poetry therapy deem that poetry helps people get out of their shells. It helps ‘soften’ them enough to open themselves slowly and talk about their issues. Like Robert Frost’s, “Something there is that doesn’t love walls,” poetry brings down walls, whether they are between a person and their social surroundings, or within oneself.


Poetry helps in many ways. Metaphors used in poems are said to be extremely effective in projecting a better grasp of the situation. A metaphor helps one to hold on to something. It also lets you step back from your affliction to look at it from a more objective perspective.

Poetry helps us to take a second look; it puts us in a viewer’s role for a few moments and helps us reframe our experiences. Reading good poetry, like good prose, helps inculcate the courage to change things we can and to accept things that cannot change, for many have gone through something similar, or even worse. One would have no control over the situation, yes, but we would all have a possible choice how to express oneself. Poetry helps clear confusion; it also alleviates fears and reduces apprehension.


Poetry helps us cope physically too. I met two people who have recited some of their favourite poetry over and over again while fighting physical pain. They said that it acted like an ‘anaesthetiser.’ I decided to check it out and during a particularly intense episode of physical pain, I tried it. It proved to be effective.

Poet Joy Shieman did pioneering research in the 1960s within the mental health unit of a hospital in California, US. His work was termed ‘Thera-poetics.’ It was based on the detail that the right hemisphere of the brain approach to the healing action of poetry enabled a “realignment of the soul.” We say what we need to say. Poetry gives us a way to say it. It makes us feel better.

Studies suggest some interesting facts about poetry and physiology. Psychotherapist Dr Joost A M Merloo found out after exhaustive research that verses tend to be clocked to a poet’s bodily rhythms. The poets we like best are said to be those whose body rhythms tend to match our own. Merloo clarifies that poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme, but there is rhythm even in free verse.

When we consider preventative medicine as one of the best goals in life, the importance of poetry therapy can only be extolled like no other.

It certainly helps us to stock our favourite work of poetry in our medicine chest.


While The Journal of Poetry Therapy is a rich and most comprehensive source of current theory, research and technique of poetry therapy, Dr Jack Leedy offers this poetic prescription: “Take two poems instead of one aspirin.”

Here are some of the poems he prescribes in ‘practice:’


Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman
I’m Nobody! Who are You? by Emily Dickinson
The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost
The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by W B Yeats
Time, You Old Gypsy Man, by Ralph Hodgson


Light Shining Out of Darkness, by William Cowper
On His Blindness, by John Milton
Ode to the West Wind, by P B Shelley
The Celestial Surgeon, by R L Stevenson
The Eternal Goodness, by John G Whittier


Hymn to the Night, by H W Longfellow
To Sleep, by John Keats
Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allan Poe
Oft in the Stilly Night, by Thomas Moore
Tintern Abby, by William Wordsworth.