By Katy Day
Mind-shattering. It’s a word that best describes so many current events. People shot dead in a church — Charleston. Church burnings – throughout The South. Reflexive incarceration — everywhere. Uprisings of the underserved — Baltimore. The impoverished. The unfortunate. Inequality. Racism. Hate.
What can one person do to change the current state of the world?
I’ve come to know one place where you can begin to change things. Poetry.
If you hang around advocates of poetry and literature, you’ll often hear claims like “poetry has the power to promote change” or “poetry heals,” and if you’re like me, you’ll want evidence to support those claims. As you may know from a previous post of mine about what I’ve learned from the Humanities, I study both English literature and psychology. I appreciate theories about human nature that poetry and literature provide, but I also appreciate claims that are supported by science.
For the poetic minds, the scientific minds, and for those like me who fall somewhere in between, I have compiled a list of just a few ways in which words can make a difference that are all backed by science.
- Poetry has the power to reduce symptoms of depression and PTSD in adolescents who have suffered from abuse.
- Expressive writing causes increased physical and mental health.
There is a lot of research on the benefits of expressive writing. Dr. James Pennebaker is a leading psychologist in this field of research and has been studying the effects of expressive writing for over 20 years. He has found that people who write about deep emotions and difficult, traumatic experiences visit their doctor less frequently, experience an increase in immune system functioning, and report feeling happier. He has also found that participants in his studies who benefit most use insight and causal words. He posits that the act of meaning-making is, at least in part, responsible for the many benefits of expressive writing. This involves deriving meaning and insight from difficult experiences. Other research has found that expressive writing leads to decreased distress, negative affect, and depression. For advice on practicing expressive writing to improve physical and mental health, visit this website.
- Partaking in poetry therapy causes an increase in self-esteem, motivation for success, self-identity, self-expression, decision-making, and team cohesion in middle school students.
- Reading about friendships between fictional characters from different groups reduces prejudice.
There have been several experiments that studied the effects of reading fiction on reducing stigma associated with certain out-groups. One study found that reading Harry Potter novels decreases prejudice among stigmatized groups, including immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees.
- Youth slam poetry promotes social change.
One study analyzed 50 slam poems written by teenagers and found that poems addressed youth (including their agency, identity, and capacity to be critical thinkers), sexuality, health, and rights. Talking about health, sexuality, and human rights are often stigmatized, but poetry appears to be a place in which these topics are acceptable.
Need more proof? Read this poem by Lucile Clifton and experience the empowering capability of poetry for yourself. Poetry is a foundation for the individual looking out at a crazy world, a place from which change can grow.
won’t you celebrate with me
By Lucille Clifton
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Katy Day, student on the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes Poetry in Motion on the third Thursday of each month.