To me alone there came a thought of grief; A timely utterance gave that thought relief, And I again am strong.
--William Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality"
A solemn woman with an Eastern European accent was reading Elton Evans' "The Man in the Glass," the flat tone of her voice a reflection of the depression that was the reason for her confinement. The poem concluded: For it isn't your mother, father or wife
Whose judgment you must pass;
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass ... . "
Dr. Arthur Lerner, director of poetry therapy at Woodview-Calabasas Hospital in Calabasas, gently ask her what the poem meant to her.
"It means that you have to believe in yourself and that what you think is important, not what somebody else will tell you is important," she said.
The woman was one of a handful of patients at the poetry therapy group led by Lerner, a pioneer in the field of using poetry to bring about a breakthrough in the treatment of mentally ill people.
'Unseen' Member of Group
Poetry in the therapy setting, Lerner has written, "acts like an unseen but felt member of the group. In the process of hearing or reading a poem an individual may uncover large chunks of despair, fright and rigidity that keep him or her from acting in an effectively healthy manner."
Though centuries old, the use of poetry as therapy has increasingly established itself as a form of treatment practiced by more than 2,000 psychotherapists, psychiatrists and other professionals who work with the mentally ill, according to the National Assn. for Poetry Therapy, of which Lerner is president.
In June, the seventh annual poetry therapy conference will be held at Columbia University in New York. Among the topics expected to come up is how to generate money for research to establish the effectiveness of poetry therapy, which dates back to Aristotle. The sage was the first to speak of catharsis, the purifying of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through art.
Lerner, an energetic sexagenarian who holds doctorate degrees in psychology and literature from USC, conducts several weekly poetry-therapy groups at Woodview-Calabasas and Van Nuys psychiatric hospitals.
17-Day Stay Is Average
Perched on a bluff above the Ventura Freeway, Woodview-Calabasas Hospital is home to about 100 patients at any given time, whose average stay at the sprawling, contemporary retreat is 17 days. While they are residents of the hospital, patients are placed under the care of psychologists and psychiatrists who may prescribe poetry therapy sessions for them. Poetry therapy is similar to its sibling therapies of art, music and psychodrama, all of which are typically practiced in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy or psychoanalysis.
The format in poetry therapy sessions is flexible. While many poems are chosen by the therapist, patients are encouraged to share their favorites, whether written by others or themselves.
"Whatever the emotional traffic will bear," Lerner said. Among the poets he finds the most effective are Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, John Ciardi and Shakespeare.
Reading poetry for many patients at first can be as intimidating an experience as it often is for students anywhere. Unlike conventional poetry classes, however, where the emphasis is on literary analysis, here the focus is aimed at the individual's free-association response to the emotional content of the poem.
"Our aim is to help the individual learn the art of helping himself or herself," Lerner said. "We believe strongly with Walt Whitman," who wrote, "I am larger, better than I thought/I did not know I held so much goodness."
"Did I promise you a poem?" Lerner paternally asked of the small group gathered one evening for the unusual poetry reading. He handed a copy of a poem titled "What Somebody Said When He Was Spanked on the Day Before His Birthday" to a friendly teen member of the group.
The boy, dramatically dressed in clothes geometrically splashed with black and white, read the poem haltingly. Finally he stopped and said, "It scares me."
The youth, whose periods of awareness are fleeting, Lerner said, is given permission to instead read the poem that he has written during the week. So pleased is he with his own creation that he cannot resist singing it and in the process breaking into laughter several times, even though his poem graphically and painfully describes the degradation of three people in the throes of a drug orgy.
Lerner then read a poem titled "Trippin," written, he said, by a drug addict and chosen for its relevance to the boy's problems:
"I love you drugs I love the high that you give when deep down I know that you are a sin I love you drugs but I know that you are only teasing my brain . . . . "