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Poetry and Silence: Toward Creating a Healing Space

“It’s as if a poem creates the space in which silence can be experienced.”

—Cliff Yates

“I love poetry for numerous reasons, but one very essential reason is that poetry is the only creative writing art form that builds breath into it. It makes you breathe. It not only allows for silence, it demands it. We enter the poem with our own breath….”

— Ada Limón

For many, the pandemic of 2020-21 has been an epic journey of grief and anxiety. Loss of life, livelihood, and health has stressed and compressed us. Simple conversations about how to be safe feel multilayered and pull at trust. Given the complexity of our day-to-day existence and the profound suffering that has emerged, how do we find ways to work with loss of this magnitude? Where do we find the personal resources to tend to this kind of suffering?

A flashback to President Biden’s inauguration. A fierce young woman delivered an elegant and searing poem, “The Hill We Climb” that moved a nation. Might National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gordon’s performance be the opening to “out” poetry and it’s potential contribution to hope and healing? It seems even those who find poetry unimportant or intimidating were impacted by Ms. Gorman’s brave and soulful words. It is both a tribute to her powerful and accessible writing, and our thirst for beauty, inspiration, and light.

In 2017, I started reading poems to hospital patients and families with the hope that the language of poetry could offer a buffer to suffering, a momentary respite, a meditative space to slow down and hear the comforting sound of language. (“A Chaplain’s Notebook: Poetry as Spiritual Nourishment.) In fact, I learned that it could serve this purpose and more.

I found that reading poetry aloud provided patients and families with a momentary escape from helplessness and hopelessness, and a way to slow down time. It functioned to define the in-between space as holy and freeing, and with less judgment. Poetry served as a “holding” place for the listener to focus on the comforting sound of language, and an opening to new associations, feelings, and awareness’s to emerge. It created stretched out space for emotional, spiritual, and soul resonances. It offered a language, through metaphor, for individuals to hear and experience things that they might not be open to otherwise. Poetry appeared to deepen and enlarge the conversation to universal themes of mystery and connection, reminding folks that they were part of something larger and transcendent.

I would like to suggest that poetry read aloud also functions, perhaps counter-intuitively, to open radical space for silence. When we don’t have immediate access to the dramatic quiet found on a remote mountain trail, accessing silence can take heightened concentration and the ability to be reasonably still in our body and mind. Poetry provides an immediate object, i.e., the words and sounds of the poem, for the listener to turn towards. It can serve to pull the listener away from the throbbing ruminations of the self. There are multiple and implied silences: the silence right before the poem is read, in between the words, at a transition between stanzas, and immediately after the poem is read.

Next to radical listening, attentiveness, and compassionate presence, healing work requires some form of silence to be effective, whether poetry is used or not. Silence allows our embodied experience—what is “sensed” in our head, heart, bellies, limbs, in our whole body—to more easily emerge. This is a necessarily precondition for making meaning of what is sensed there. Psychotherapist and author Francis Weller articulates this beautifully here: “Silence is a practice of emptying, of letting go. It is a process of hollowing ourselves out so we can open to what is emerging. Our work is to make ourselves receptive….” (The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 2015) Silence then, is the invitation and opening to reception. We may more easily, then, notice fragments of our heart and soul that can provide some reflective understanding, absorption, and grace.

I am struck by how reading poetry aloud and creating the space for silence may work together to form a magical layer of power and imagination. When a poem is introduced, before it is read aloud, the individual receiving it is asked to let the poem fall on them without attempts to extract or analyze the surface content or deeper layer of meaning. With this intention, the poem is laid out as a sacred offering, and it may communicate something before it is even understood. Similar to dream work, in this in-between or liminal space there may be opportunities for associations that lead to new understandings of self. Add to this the perceived silences that emerge as the poem is read, and we may have created a powerful milieu for exploration and self-discovery.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye speaks about an experience of receiving a note from a Japanese student from Yokohama. The student wrote, “Here in Japan we have a concept called ‘yutori,’ and it is spaciousness. It’s a kind of living with spaciousness. For example, it’s leaving early enough to get somewhere so that you know you’re going to arrive early, so when you get there, you have time to look around….” Another defintion of yutori the student wrote was, “After you read a poem, just knowing you can hold it. You can be in that space of the poem, and it can hold you in its space, and you don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to paraphrase it. You just hold it, and it allows you to see differently.” (On Being Podcast, 7/28/16). Poetry and silence as part of a healing methodology, may help create space to bear witness, tend to, and “hold” the person we are working with metaphorically. This place may be the opening to “see differently.” Might this be at least what is partially needed to move towards renewal and restoration?

Neil is a counselor and interfaith chaplain in private practice and specializes in grief, loss, and transition. In his article, “A Chaplain’s Notebook: Poetry as Spiritual Nourishment,” published by the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling in March 2020, he writes about the use of reading poetry aloud with patients and families in a hospital setting. The article contains stories of the power of poetry to nourish and connect with those facing darkness, fragility and doubt.

In his private practice, Neil helps individuals disentangle the complicated web of emotions and inevitable life changes connected to loss, and begin a process of integration and re-imagination. He helps his clients develop additional coping tools, and rediscover increased energy and resilience towards building a durable emotional and spiritual foundation. More about Neil’s counseling practice can be found at griefandlosssupport.com.

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