Poetry Therapy, or poetry which is used for healing and personal growth, may be traced back to ancient times when religious rites in which shamans and witch doctors chanted poetry for the well-being of the tribe or individual. It is documented that as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the words could be physically ingested by the patient and take effect as quickly as possible. It is also recorded that around 1030 B.C.E., the music of a shepherd boy named David soothed the “savage breast” of King Saul.
Historically, the first Poetry Therapist on record was a Roman physician by the name of Soranus in the first century A.D., who prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed. It is not surprising that Apollo is the god of poetry, as well as medicine, since medicine and the arts were historically entwined.
For many centuries, the link between poetry and medicine remained obscure. It is of interest to note that Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in the United States, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751, employed many ancillary treatments for their mental patients, including reading, writing and publishing of their writings. Dr. Benjamin Rush, called the “Father of American Psychiatry”, introduced music and literature as effective ancillary treatments. Poem writing was an activity of the patients, who published their work in The Illuminator, their own newspaper.
Poetry Therapy & its Relationship to Bibliotherapy
“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 metaphor, imagery, rhythm, and other poetic devices. Samuel Crothers first used the term “bibliotherapy” in 1916. It was adopted by librarians who saw the value of having a special designation for the practice of selecting and using books helpful to psychiatric patients. Early use of the term specified the use of informational books, such as Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind as well as of selected imaginative novels whose characters could serve as models or warnings to the reader. The Menninger doctors of Topeka, Kansas, collaborated closely with hospital librarians because they felt that the librarians knew both the patients and the literature that might draw them out. While librarians kept the use of the term “bibliotherapy” alive, the services did not include planned discussion of the reader’s personal reactions to materials. This form of the “interactive process” or “interactive dialogue” evolved later with the popularity of group therapy in the 1960s.
Modern Medicine Recognizes the Power of Poetry
Meanwhile, great figures in the world of medicine were recognizing the important relationship of the arts to healing. “Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious,” wrote Freud. Other theoreticians, such as Adler, Jung, Arieti and Reik also confirmed that the poets were the first to chart paths that science later followed. Moreno suggested the term “psychopoetry,” as well as the term “psychodrama”, for which he is famous. By the 1960s, with the progressive evolution of group psychotherapy, therapists were delighted to discover that “poetry therapy” was an effective tool which they felt comfortable incorporating into their work. Poetry Therapy began to flourish in the hands of professionals in various disciplines, including rehabilitation, education, library science, recreation, and the creative arts.
Mental health professionals were exploring the therapeutic value of literary materials, especially of poetry. Their contribution to the emerging discipline was two-fold: 1) emphasis on the evocative value of literature, particularly poetry; and 2) recognition of the beneficial potential of having clients write either their response to poems written by others or original material, drawing on the clients’ own experiences and emotions.
The Association for Poetry Therapy
In 1928, Eli Greifer, an inspired poet who was a pharmacist and lawyer by profession, began a campaign to show that a poem’s didactic message has healing power. Poetry was Eli’s passion, and he gave his time and energy to this life-long interest. He organized the Village Arts Center and the Messagists Club on 8th Street in the Village of New York City, and then he created the “Remedy Rhyme Gallery.” He became a volunteer in order to test his theories. In the 1950s he started a “poemtherapy” group at Creedmore State Hospital. In 1959, Greifer facilitated a poetry therapy group at Cumberland Hospital with two supervising psychiatrists, Dr. Jack J. Leedy and Dr. Sam Spector. Although Greifer died in 1966, this remarkable humanitarian played a key role in the development of what we now call “Poetry Therapy”. He passed along his love of “poemtherapy” to Dr. Leedy, whose drive and pioneering spirit led to the creation of the Association for Poetry Therapy.
While Dr. Leedy continued to explore the therapeutic benefits of poetry at Cumberland Hospital and the Poetry Therapy Center in New York, Ann White (co-author with Deborah Grayson of Parents and Other Strangers, 1987) was working with the Nassau County Recreation Department and created an experimental project that brought the therapeutic benefits of poetry to hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and schools for special children. Concurrently, Gil Schloss, Ph.D. (author of Psychopoetry, 1976) was conducting “psychotherapy” sessions with individuals and groups at the Institute for Sociotherapy in New York. In 1969, they joined with Dr. Jack Leedy to found the Association for Poetry Therapy. Morris R. Morrison, Ph.D., poet and educator (author of Poetry as Therapy, 1986) was a great supporter of the Association and drafted the first systematic set of standards for certification in the field. This document was published in the Association of Hospital and Institution Libraries Quarterly in 1973.In 1972, Marc Kaminsky, a poet and gerontological social worker, initiated "poetry groups" at JASA (the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged). In these groups, he linked the techniques of poetry-writing workshops with the healing power of reminiscence and the life-review process (See What's Inside You It Shines Out of You, The Uses of Reminiscence, and "Voices from within the Process, in Poetry as Therapy). He was invited by Dr. Leedy to present a paper on his work at a poetry therapy conference in 1974: and for many years, he and Morris Morrison kept up a collegial dialogue that was vital to both of them. Morrison included a presentation of Kaminsky's poems at a poetry therapy conference that he directed in 1984.
Around the country, many gifted individuals who were helping professionals were using Poetry Therapy. From the first few months of poet Joy Shieman’s pioneering research in 1962, within a mental health unit of a hospital in California, her method was termed “thera-poetics.” Authentically and naturally, this right hemisphere of the brain approach to the healing action of Poetry Therapy attended to what she has always viewed as a lack within the psychiatric picture – “realignment of the soul”. In 1971, Arthur Lerner, Ph.D., poet and psychotherapist, was appointed Poet-in-Residence and Poetry Therapist at a private psychiatric facility, the Calabasas Neuropsychiatric Center in California. Ruth Lisa Schechter, poet (author of Poetry Therapy: A Therapeutic Tool and Healing Force, 1983), became the first official poetry therapist at Odyssey House, in New York City, working with addiction clients and victims of rape and incest in 1971. Librarian Eloise Richardson convinced the Governor of Maryland to hold a Poetry Therapy Day, sponsored by the state of Maryland in 1974. Poet and educator Aaron Kramer, Ph.D. opened new worlds to the deaf and disturbed (see Poetry the Healer, 1973). Poet Art Berger, Ph.D. wrote about poetry as a vehicle for self-discovery for both teachers and youngsters (Poetry the Healer, 1973), and used rock, blues lyrics, and “jazz cinquains” to elicit writing from children. Dr. George Bell (The Self-Discovery Notebook, 1990), a minister from Ohio, was incorporating poetry into his counseling, and developed “the feedback poem,” a technique enabling the counselor and counselee to understand each other better. Clearly, Poetry Therapy was being used successfully with many different populations.
The 1970s also saw the development of several groups or training institutes. Arthur Lerner, Ph.D., RPT (Poetry in the Therapeutic Experience, 1976) founded the Poetry Therapy Institute on the west coast. Arleen Hynes (co-author of Bibliotherapy – The Interactive Process: A Handbook, 1986), librarian at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, founded the Bibliotherapy Roundtable. Morris Morrison founded the American Academy of Poetry Therapy in Austin, Texas. Jennifer Groce Bosveld (author of Topics for Getting in Touch, 1982) created the Ohio Poetry Therapy Center and Library in Columbus, Ohio.
Publications reflect the burgeoning of interest in the field. In 1927, R.H. Schauffler published The Poetry Cure: The Medicine Chest of Verse, Music and Picture. Unfortunately, there is almost no record indicating how this precursor of the contemporary creative arts therapies was used. In 1960, the psychiatrist, Smiley Blanton wrote The Healing Power of Poetry, based on several years of practice. Dr. Jack Leedy ascribes his early enthusiasm for poetry in psychotherapeutic practice to Eli Greifer, who published a pamphlet, Principles of Poetry Therapy in 1963. By 1969, Dr. Leedy had motivated several mental health practitioners to contribute articles about their use of poetry to his historic collection, Poetry Therapy: The Use of Poetry in the Treatment of Emotional Disorders. Molly Harrower, a psychologist, came out with The Therapy of Poetry in 1972. Dr. Leedy, in 1973, provided further evidence of the use of poetry in practice when he edited Poetry the Healer.
In 1978, Rhea Joyce Rubin, a librarian, published two books which contribute to theory and are valuable evidence of the growth of the field, Using Bibliotherapy: A Guide to Theory and Practice, and Bibliotherapy Sourcebook. In the same year, Arthur Lerner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, published Poetry in the Therapeutic Experience. Arleen Hynes and Mary Hynes-Berry provided the field in 1986 with the first comprehensive text, Bibliotherapy – The Interactive Process: A Handbook. In 1987, NAPT started the Journal of Poetry Therapy: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Practice, Theory, Research and Education under the editorship of Nicholas Mazza, Ph.D., RPT, a professor of social work. The most comprehensive history, theory and practice of poetry therapy can be found in Nicholas Mazza’s (2017) Poetry Therapy: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed.
From the 1980s to the present, there were many excellent books and articles published about therapeutic writing and poetry therapy. The Journal of Poetry Therapy is the richest and most comprehensive source of current theory, research and technique.
The Development of Standards in the Field
By 1980, the field was represented by different institutes giving their own training certificates, but uniform requirements for training poetry therapists had not been established. In 1980, Sherry Reiter, as Vice-President of APT, called a Board Meeting which invited leaders in the field to deal with issues which were impeding the profession’s growth as a viable, national creative arts therapy group.
The leaders in attendance were: Jack Leedy, M.D., Arthur Lerner, Ph.D., Morris M. Morrison, Ph.D., Akhter Ahsen, Ph.D., Arleen M. Hynes, CPT, Rosalie M. Brown, CPT, RPT, Art Berger, M.Ed., George L. Bell, D.Min., Joy Shieman, CPT, Anthony Pietropinto, M.D., Deborah Sklarew Langosch, MSW, CPT, Gilbert Schloss, Ph.D. and Sherry Reiter, MA, CPT.
Two important developments resulted from this meeting: 1) It was unanimously decided that APT become NAPT, a national non-profit association; and 2) Arleen Hynes chaired a steering committee and became the first president of what developed into the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy, an organization founded by early activists in NAPT in order to consolidate their concerns for continued excellence in the field. This group has now taken over the function of credentialing Poetry Therapists with designations as a Certified Poetry Therapist (CPT) or Registered Poetry Therapist (RPT).
Kenneth F. Edgar, Ph.D. and Richard Hazley, M.A., who did some of the first research studies of Poetry Therapy in the 1960s, published a curriculum proposal for training poetry therapists (see Poetry Therapy, 1969). The proposal required the establishment of a new curriculum that would embrace training in both psychology and literature. To date, no university has adopted this approach, although individual courses are offered at universities throughout the United States.
The first comprehensive training program was created in 1974, by Arleen Hynes, a librarian at St. Elizabeths Hospital, with the encouragement and support of Kenneth Gorelick, M.D. Standards and criteria for practice were a continuing focus for Hynes and Gorelick, who collaborated with Sherry Reiter, certification chair of APT, to make Morris Morrison’s 1973 standards specific to the St. Elizabeths Hospital training program. In 1976, Rosalie Brown was appointed as the first Federal Bibliotherapist, a job title which never existed before. Persistence and high standards helped to make this achievement possible.
The professional standards and requirements were set by the Certification Committee of NAPT, and as of June 2000, the Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy is the only organization qualified to grant Certification, Registration, and Applied Facilitation in Poetry Therapy. NAPT is the official membership organization representing poetry therapists and applied poetry facilitators. It provides information and publications, sponsors a national conference, supports education, research and training, represents the field to other organizations and promotes the growth of the field along with the interests of practitioners and the public. NAPT is also an affiliate of the National Coalition for Creative Arts Therapies Associations (NCCATA).
The fact that Poetry Therapy is a “non-traditional” form of therapy and one which is still in its early stages of public acceptance makes high standards a necessity. NAPT is proud to welcome those who choose to enter this field and become fellow pioneers. The future of Poetry Therapy will be written by you.
Adapted and revised with author’s permission from Hynes, Arleen M. and Hynes-Berry, Mary (1992) Biblio/Poetry Therapy: A Resource Bibliography. St. Joseph, Minnesota: Bibliotherapy Round Table. A more in-depth overview and history is in the making. There are many individuals whose names have not been mentioned, who have worked steadily and passionately in the field of Poetry Therapy. NAPT wishes to acknowledge their efforts and dedication. This is by no means a definitive history.
Peggy Heller, longtime NAPT member and leader in the field of poetry therapy, offers this:“The symbol of this steed of the Muses was tooled on (Journal of Poetry Therapy Editor) Nick Mazza’s briefcase when I met him at a social work conference in 1981 where he was presenting on poetry therapy. It has been an insignia of poets and poetry lovers for centuries. According to the Greek myths, Pegasus was sired by Poseidon upon Medusa when the formerly gorgeous Gorgon was hanging out in one of Athena’s temples. The grey-eyed, jealous goddess did a number on her for that trespass, turning her into the freaky character we now know. As a part of Athena’s curse, Medusa could not deliver her progeny and Pegasus, with twin Chrysaor, was long in gestation. He was born, fully-grown, when Perseus chopped off the Gorgon’s snaky head whose glance turned plants to coral, men and beasts to stone. Freed from his “meré” and her petrifying aspect, Pegasus was tamed by Athena and, when not assisting with rainmaking or heroic deeds, spent his time on Mt. Helicon, home of the Muses. There, it is said, his hoof struck the earth, activating the well of Hippocrene which burst forth in a fountain whose waters, get this, inspired people to write poetry. Seems to me a fair interpretation is that creativity, particularly the poetic kind, frees life from the stony stuckness of fear or grief, lifts us on its wings and empowers us to face challenges.”