The healing power of poetry

The healing power of poetry

Louise Kim, Contributing Writer

This past spring, I spent most of my days lost in a sea of Google Docs. I typed tens of thousands of words for school, yet I felt disconnected from the role writing used to play in my life — a safe haven and a way for me to express my creativity. I struggled with a lack of inspiration and barely wrote in my favorite genre, poetry, for months. I wanted this summer to be a return to writing on my own terms, a chance to reflect on my experiences through poetic meditation.

This summer, I filled an entire notebook with poems, spare lines, and other scraps of writing. After months of sprinting through my to-do list on autopilot, I appreciated the newfound time to explore who I was and am — what brings me joy, what is important to me, what motivates me to do what I do. I also began to work on what I hope to be my second self-published writing collection, currently a twenty-page Word document featuring topics ranging from spirituality to astrology to nature.

Through poetry, I embraced a new perspective: letting go of the pressure to be perfect and making space for growth. I realized that in everything I did, from schoolwork to personal projects, I had been seeking perfection and my mental health suffered as a result. This constant search for excellence even hindered the way I approached writing at the start of summer break. In the early weeks of vacation, it often seemed as though the “right” words had escaped me. I would scour thesaurus.com, digging for synonyms of “tempest,” “shattered,” and the occasional antonym, sometimes despairing when none of the words embodied the expression I was looking for. Consequently, I would end any attempt to write something by crumpling up the empty Google Doc and throwing it into the digital trash can.

Eventually, I accepted that something needed to change. I opened every internet tab I could about self-development and breaking perfectionism, discussed the topic at meetings with my therapist, and tried to write more and more. I ultimately reaffirmed a profound truth: to write from the heart, one must release expectations of completing a poem when writing it down for the first time. Only then can one relinquish stagnation to embrace evolution and positive change.

One way that I overcame this barrier of perfectionism was by returning to freewriting, a technique where one writes in a stream-of-consciousness manner with no pauses or editing. I was inspired to try free-writing over the summer after reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. In adopting the method, I was able to reflect on the past year by writing liberally on whatever ideas or memories surfaced, unconstrained by a single topic, my “inner critic,” or expectations to produce something coherent. Finally, I could see the empty page not as an intimidating space to fill, but as a blank canvas where I could determine my own rules and embrace conceptual bravery.

Tossing words, anecdotes, and reflections towards a page open to catching them also allowed me to explore my existence without restraint. Through poetry, I discovered I could accept the intersectionality of my identity and search within myself for desires and motivations. Poetry doesn’t force me into a label, a box, an epithet; it offers me a blank canvas with limitless opportunities to explore the nooks, crannies, and crevices of myself. 

Finding emotional catharsis was another driving force in my process. For years, poetry had been a space where I could heal. By being honest with myself in my writing, I was able to find closure and better process traumatic events. After the Atlanta shooting this March, my mental and physical health deteriorated and never quite recovered. I could do no more than keep my pain, a newly reopened, festering wound, under wraps. For months, I felt empty and bitter as I went about my day-to-day life. When summer arrived, it was as though I could finally express my rage and grief properly through detailing my experience coping with the aftermath of the shooting. Writing down my emotions gave me the clarity and strength I needed to reckon with the violence.

I also took time over the summer to reaffirm the sense of community that is so important with literature. I participated in the Kenyon Review creative writing program, where every day for a week I read, wrote, and shared writing with peers in an intensive workshop, enjoying afternoon events like open mics and poetry readings. Even though the meetings were over Zoom, people were still able to come together to revel in one another’s words. Attendees used the chat to spam compliments and favorite quotes from the piece being read. As my screen glowed with the poets’ enthusiasm, my cheeks hurt from smiling.

I wrote my first poem in fifth grade, and it’s safe to say that writing has changed my life in many ways other than truly learning the value of words. I find that an excerpt from my poem, “sometimes my words were the only thing keeping me afloat,” best encapsulates my affinity for the art. “[A]s i kept writing/poetry became my diary, my confidante./i poured my soul onto the page and it absorbed all…now poetry has been with me for a third of my lifespan./i consider it my everything, the beauty of it all.” Scribbling down some lines, freewriting, when inspiration strikes you, or recording an intriguing detail from your daily life, can be the start to emotional healing, communal joy, and perpetual growth.