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Obituaries

Arthur Lerner; Promoted Use of Poetry in Therapy

April 08, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arthur Lerner, a clinical psychologist, poet and professor who pioneered the use of poetry therapy in Southern California, has died. He was 83.

Lerner, former president of the National Assn. for Poetry Therapy, died of a stroke April 1 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

As an orphan growing up in Chicago, Lerner had his first poem published when he was only 7. As he matured, he became intrigued with the power of poetry to help people express their feelings.

"Our aim is to help the individual learn the art of helping himself or herself," Lerner told The Times in 1987. "We believe strongly with Walt Whitman, who wrote, 'I am larger, better than I thought/I did not know I held so much goodness.' "

After earning a bachelor's degree and four master's degrees, Lerner moved to Los Angeles during military service in World War II. He stayed on to earn a doctorate in psychology and another in literature at USC.

He was next invited to become a poet-in-residence at the old Woodview-Calabasas Psychiatric Hospital in Calabasas.

Lerner practiced there for 16 years, then at Van Nuys Hospital for more than a dozen years and later at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey. He taught psychology and the uses of poetry therapy at UCLA and Los Angeles City College, in seminars across the country, and to classes as young as kindergarten.

He founded the Poetry Institute in Encino to train other therapists, helped organize the National Assn. for Poetry Therapy to certify them, and wrote, along with several books of poetry, "Poetry in the Therapeutic Experience."

In his later years, Lerner also conducted poetry therapy sessions at senior citizens facilities to awaken memories and feelings in patients suffering from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, heart disease and stroke. Poetry could not cure them, he said, but could increase their awareness of their surroundings and improve their quality of life.

"Our aim is not to make poets, but to allow people to express themselves in a meaningful and appropriate way," said Lerner, who often asked patients to write as well as read aloud or listen to poems. "We try to get them to enjoy and open up to a point where they can relate--anything to reach the level of their feeling and understanding."

Lerner said poetry therapy dated to the ancient Greeks. In use on the East Coast in the 1960s, it was moved west by Lerner in the early 1970s. Despite skepticism on the part of many psychologists and psychiatrists, he helped expand use of the therapy in mental hospitals, prisons, clinics, drug abuse centers and schools.

Lerner, who favored the poets Whitman, Robert Frost, John Ciardi and William Shakespeare, ended each of the sessions he conducted with a line from W.H. Auden: "In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start."

Widowed after 43 years of marriage to Matilda Fisher, Lerner is survived by his companion, Marilyn Tentler, and several nieces and nephews.

Memorial contributions can be sent to the National Assn. for Poetry Therapy, P.O. Box 551, Port Washington, NY 11050.

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