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.
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 1960’s, 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.
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 1950’s 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.
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 Centre 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 counselling, and developed “the feedback poem,” a technique enabling the counsellor and counselee to understand each other better. Clearly, Poetry Therapy was being used successfully with many different populations.
The 1970’s 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. Elizabeth’s 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 Centre and Library in Columbus, Ohio.