Fresh Thoughts on Finding a Healing Voice and Poetic Language within Yourself by John Fox
Underneath What language can’t reach is so much. The hook dangles from the fishline, while the fish swim by. The sea urchins are un-interested, the kelp waves, a whole world expands. The hook finds a few slender words, pulls them to light. Maybe I can cook them. ~Barbara McEnerney
The courage to spill words on the page is essential to developing trust in your creative voice. Trust is nurtured by providing a safe environment and offering genuine curiosity. The tendency to critique ourselves and evaluate others before we even begin holds us back from discovering the voice that is great within us.
We do not have to live by calculation, judgment and competition. Contrary to the popular example of TV shows like Survivor, The Bachelor, and Fear Factor—the verbal food-fights of social and political pundits—it’s possible for human beings to be with one another in a way that does not rely on some producer’s idea of what constitutes the “survival of the fittest.”
Poetry is a form of communication that challenges us because it asks us to listen to one another. This may account for why it is less popular than those TV shows! Poetry takes patience on the part of both listener and writer. By its very nature, poetry (and patience) allows the richness and variety of human experience to emerge.
Wildflowers emerge under all kinds of conditions and in every place where seeds take root: in an open field in the Berkshires, through the concrete of a city block in Sao Paulo, or even sometimes, through glacier ice in the Himalayas.
Likewise, your words can “grow” from a place of depth much more meaningful and more sacred than the mental agribusiness of our media-saturated culture generally acknowledges.
This is at the heart of the work that I call Poetic Medicine.
But it’s necessary to explore this possibility for yourself to discover if what I am saying is true.
When I use the word “sacred” I am not suggesting that we write only about things that keep us comfortable—God or present poems approved by the church!
What I mean is words—the words that flow to you, through you, that are in you— words that celebrate, that rage, that cry out, that touch what’s true and speak that truth, these words can grow out of life’s real grit and a place of mystery and grace.
These Days Whatever you have to say, leave the roots on, let them dangle And the dirt Just to make clear where they come from ~Charles Olson
Even within the community of spiritually aware and socially conscious people, there is a tendency to rely on others to say what we also think. A star culture predominates in that world too. We let others do the talking. These fine teachers can indeed be inspiring. It is surely healthier than popular culture but I am not sure it is helping us to realize how each of us matters.
In a very real sense no one else can speak for you. What I have found in twenty years of working with poetry as healer is that each of us has something to say, something that no one else could possibly say. There is nothing to compare to the satisfaction of speaking your own truth.
Poetry as healer is about writing and saying what matters to you in a way that feels right. It is your sense of what “feels right” that keeps you in touch with the place where art and healing meet. Poetry allows you to give shape to your unique voice, to begin to distinguish and distill within what feels truest to your unique experience.
Again and again in workshops across the country I experience how people who have never written poetry are able to write from an astonishing depth when a safe space is created. Providing safety does not mean the absence of allowing risk. For me it means the letting go of judgment about your writing. It also means protecting the integrity of the space in which we create, so that each person is able to follow his or her own process.
Often, poem-making starts because some pain or hunger in your life compels you to say something—anything. You may have stuffed your voice long enough! I believe that our writing may turn itself on (often at 2 a.m.) like an immune system activates when toxins attempt to overtake our body.
Poem-making also springs from a conscious choice to live with greater soul, honesty and meaning—a choice rising up from within your core, insisting you pay attention. When Ruth Stone writes—
Dear children, you must try to say Something when you are in need. Don’t confuse hunger with greed; and don’t wait until you are dead.
—she is calling our attention to the value and necessity of saying what we need, of naming what matters to us. Poem-making distills those things. The poem gets us to the point.
This way of finding language through poem-making is very different from the manner in which words are selected and organized by the discursive/rational mind. There is a discovery in this process that reveals “words” to be quite different from what you were led to believe by your fourth grade spelling teacher!
I like to ask people, when you took your spelling test as a child, did your teacher also ask you, “What words on your list do you just like the sound of?” Not many reply affirmatively to that question, yet it was the sound of words we often had such fun with as children.
This process of writing and using words in a healing way may also include creating a greater awareness of your life. It’s opening to your unique experience and relationship to the world, your inner life and the earth. It’s making direct contact with seasons, element and sense—and perhaps even more, allowing them to contact and enter you. A child recently wrote to me, “poetry is putting objects on paper.”
Poetry as healer is not just thinking words onto a page but exploring the actual place where Spirit, aliveness, Eros, living connection, feeling and awareness are discovered within yourself.
Can you experience yourself as a living, breathing word? And what of “words” that breathe in what is all around you? What if you could touch and then settle into the thing a word was made for? Where do you step “barefoot into reality?”
I am asking about those things you love and are passionate for which often are the same things that cause you, as a sensitive human being, to hurt and cry out as well as celebrate and sing.
This may be a significant relationship, the natural world, your family and home, your work and play, your service to others, your spiritual path. Anything that holds your attention, ignites your passion or suffuses your deepest awareness is a place where your muse calls.
What if there was a “language” within these things that you could make contact with to give voice and shape to?
This kind of writing is certainly personal, yet it might be important for you to share it with a counselor, a trusted friend or within a supportive community of others doing the same kind of work. Listening matters. The practice of listening that makes possible speaking aloud your truth to others can help your healing and creative process. Or, your writing could be the way you do self-care and find your balance day by day whether anyone is there to listen or not. The most essential thing is to value your own words.
John Fox ... a poet and certified poetry therapist.
... an adjunct associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He also teaches in the Graduate School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California, and the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto.
. . . a facilitator of workshops at Esalen and Omega Institutes and throughout the United States in hospitals, churches and schools.
. . . president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, 2003–2005.
. . . the author of Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth & Creativity Through Poem-Making and Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. You can reach John Fox at www.poeticmedicine.com or contact his program coordinator, Valerie Bowman, at [email protected]. He lives in Mountain View, California.