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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?
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.
Kloser, K. (2013). Positive youth development through the use of poetry therapy: The contributing effects of language arts in mental health counseling with middle school-age children. Journal Of Poetry Therapy, 26(4), 237-253. doi:10.1080/08893675.2013.849042
Brillantes-Evangelista, G. (2013). An evaluation of visual arts and poetry as therapeutic interventions with abused adolescents. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 40(1), 71-84. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2012.11.005
Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2014). The greatest magic of harry potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, doi:10.1111/jasp.12279
Fields, A., Snapp, S., Russell, S. T., Licona, A. C., & Tilley, E. H. (2014). Youth voices and knowledges: Slam poetry speaks to social policies. Sexuality Research & Social Policy: A Journal Of The NSRC, 11(4), 310-321. doi:10.1007/s13178-014-0154-9
Greenberg, M. A., & Stone, A. A. (1992). Emotional disclosure about traumas and its relation to health: Effects of previous disclosure and trauma severity. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 63(1), 75-84. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166. doi:10.1111/j.1467 9280.1997.tb00403.x
Pennebaker, J. W. Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice. Retrieved from
Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and
immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal Of Consulting And
Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 239-245. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.56.2.239
We asked Howard Community College student Katy Day for her perspective of poetry on campus. Take a look at what she delighted us with:
As I scurried through the halls of Duncan Hall at Howard Community College, on my way to Introduction to Creative Writing, I ignored the framed student poetry scattered throughout its walls, all the way up to class. After all, how good could a student’s poem be, especially to someone like me who didn’t even like poetry?
In class, I was already envisioning my name sprawled across a half dozen book covers in large font as my professor, Ryna May, informed the class that we would all be required to submit a piece of our writing to the school’s literary and arts magazine, The Muse.
I loved my Creative Writing class even more than I had anticipated. Each week I put more hours of work into my short stories than I did for any of my other three classes. Combined. I dreaded, however, the two weeks Professor May had dedicated to poetry. How would I be able to get through two entire weeks without writing a single story? More importantly, how would I be able to write poetry if I couldn’t even understand it?
I don’t think I was the only person in the class with these concerns and Professor May was already on top of that. She gave us all copies of the previous edition of The Muse and asked us to find a poem that we liked. I read through all of them and was shocked by how much I actually liked some of them. I realized it wasn’t that couldn’t understand poetry; I just hadn’t come into contact with it at any point during my adult life. I was blown away by the seemingly endless possibilities offered by a single page of words. I didn’t have a favorite. I had a list.
May showed us videos of current poets like Billy Collins and Taylor Mali; genius on her part. I will never be able to thank her enough for that. She sat back as we watched, casting her line out into the sea of non-poetry believers and patiently waited. She didn’t give us an opportunity to ignore poetry. She captivated us through sight, sound and pleasure as we all soaked in these universal, current poets. So this is what poetry is today, I thought. By the end of the videos, we were all swarming around the bait, snapping wildly at it. She had us hooked.
Of course, once the door to poetry is opened, there are endless other doors and hallways to get lost in. Like a mouse venturing through the walls of an old colonial house for the first time, many paths in poetry can lead to a dead end. People are easily scared off by it, but May was always there, pointing us in a promising direction.
At the end of the course, she encouraged me to submit my work to The Muse. After waiting three excruciatingly long months, I finally heard that they’d be publishing one of my short stories and one of my poems. I was ecstatic.
Professor May also invited me to read a poem at the Blackbird Poetry Festival, an event organized by both Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo. At the festival, I knew that a lot of students were being exposed to poetry in their adult lives for the first time, and I loved being a part of that. I was nervous, of course. Who wouldn’t be nervous doing their first poetry reading in front of their teachers, classmates, their mother, and RIVES, who was front and center, chanting my name as I walked to the podium.
Despite the fact that I was trembling with fear on the inside, I made it through the reading and was immediately praised by Tim Singleton, Board Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitSo, who announced after my performance that he liked it so much he would have liked to hear it twice. Professor May said I did great and assured me that I didn’t look nervous at all. One student told me after the event that my poem was his favorite. Rives even said that he loved my poem and I had excellent stage presence. Reading my poetry was like a rollercoaster ride. I was scared out of my mind but so high off of the adrenaline afterwards that I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Luckily I didn’t have to wait long because The Muse reading was only a couple of weeks later. That was a whole different experience of elation, as I picked up the first publication that contained my own work. I can’t express how lovely instructing the audience to turn to page 47 in their book to find MY POEM felt.
Howard Community College didn’t just introduce me to poetry. It provided me with all of the assurance and reassurance I needed as a writer. It gave me door-opening experiences that have fueled me to continue my journey as a poet. The dedicated and passionate English Literature professors gave me an outstanding jumpstart into poetry. Now when I’m strolling around in Duncan Hall and I come to a framed poem on the wall, I take a few moments to read it, and I’m always pleasantly surprised.