Better Living

The Healing Potential of Poetry

Poetry offers a unique and natural path to joy and connection
BY Amy Denney TIMEJune 2, 2022 PRINT

Poetry offers a unique outlet for our creativity. It can let us bring expression to beautiful memories, or share something on a more essential level.

Magdalena Montagne knows the value of poetry through her own experience as a frequent writer and published author with a degree in literature. Now she’s trying to help the elderly, in particular, discover what poetry has to offer.

Years ago, she held poetry circles for children in California Central Coast schools. After stepping away from that, she pivoted to libraries and assisted living facilities.

“I started thinking about other populations that might benefit from poetry. I don’t think I realized what I was getting into,” Montagne said.

Those with Alzheimer’s disease, memory impairment, and other cognitive issues gravitated to her offerings. And what she witnessed was “magical.”

“The thing is, it’s not really about poetry at all,” she said. “The main thing is they feel so grateful that someone was taking the time with them and cared what they had to say.”

Montagne, author of “Earth, My Witness,” launched WisdomVerse in 2011 with the simple idea that everyone has a story to tell and deserves to be acknowledged and heard, regardless of their age or ability.

WisdomVerse is getting more notice since receiving a grant from the Institute for Poetic Medicine. Founded by John Fox, the institute offers tools and support to heal body, mind, and spirit through the creative and therapeutic processes of hearing, speaking, and writing poetry.

The institute’s support has allowed Montagne to begin offering an online course for facilitators—training teachers to go into elderly communities and hold poetry writing circles as she’s done.

As she describes it, the facilitator course allows her to reach the people on the frontlines of the population she serves.

“There are so many facilities and I’m only one person,” Montagne said. “I wondered if this is going to work because a lot of people are intimidated by poetry.”

In her gentle style, she emphasizes it’s not so much about the poetry but the process, and she empowers facilitators to think on their feet and collaborate on the spot to write group poetry.

Epoch Times Photo
Magdalena Montagne ( Photo by Lynn Rebbeck )

“It’s more about the connections,” Montagne said.

“Poetry connects people at a level that is far deeper than linear thinking,” she wrote in her proposal to the institute.

“An integral component of the program is my belief in the sacred quality of words and the profound truth that each individual holds and the understanding that these can be experienced through writing poetry together.”

Montagne likens WisdomVerse to Music & Memory, a program that creates individual playlists for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia with familiar songs and beloved pieces. This non-pharmacological approach to dementia is evidence-based and improves the quality of life across the country in certified organizations in the United States and other countries.

In fact, there’s evidence that both music and poetry can awaken the brain, bringing with them experiential joy.

“Using psychophysiology, neuroimaging, and behavioral responses, we show that recited poetry can act as a powerful stimulus for eliciting peak emotional responses, including chills and objectively measurable goosebumps that engage the primary reward circuitry,” report the authors of a study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in 2017

“Importantly, while these responses to poetry are largely analogous to those found for music, their neural underpinnings show important differences, specifically with regard to the crucial role of the nucleus accumbens.

Poetry, much like music and movies, can be easily remembered and has a potent emotional component. According to the study, poetry-elicited chills differed from those evoked by music based on neural points that responded uniquely to poetic language but not music and singing. This suggests that both music and poetry have a place in therapeutic approaches.

The results might seem surprising, in part because few of us experience the joy poetry can offer during our formative years. This may be due to too analytical an approach to poems in early learning and widespread skepticism that poetry is capable of eliciting an emotional response.

But poetry’s power is garnering attention more broadly. Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the renowned researcher who coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder and pioneered the use of light therapy for its treatment, recently published “Poetry Rx: How 50 Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life.”

Epoch Times Photo

In response to the acclaimed book, he’s formed a Facebook support group community for sharing stories and encouragement about the role of poetry in healing.

For Montagne, poetry offers her benefits similar to those her husband gets from meditation. She can’t sit still long enough to meditate, but sitting to write poetry is very calming for her brain.

“When it’s not about the final product, you come up with really good stuff. There’s freedom,” she said.

And when poetry is done as a group, another form of magic unfolds.

“We’re connected in this heart-centered activity, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful,” she said.

An Exercise in Poetry

To try out a WisdomVerse exercise with an elderly loved one, or even just by yourself, you can do one, or all, of the following:

  1. Read a poem aloud, perhaps several times. Even reading or hearing poetry can be therapeutic.
  2. Create a theme for your own poem. Suggestions include a holiday or a single word like “love” or “bird.”
  3. Make a word box with a lot of random words in it. Draw a word from the box and make that word fit with your theme to write a line or stanza. Repeat as desired.

The Beauty of Love

A group poem written by the VNA Adult Day Facility in Monterey, California, in February 2016

Home is beauty.
Imperfect, yes!
Like water in the desert
that turns to wine.
The mystery of the night.
Charming and lovely
as a wedding in February.
With loud drumming and dancing
the magician performs the wedding ceremony.
The bride, a slim queen for the day in her autumn wheat gown
No longer available for her sad suitors, waves goodbye…
Now dedicated to the groom,
handsome and pleasing.
The progress of marriage is magnificent!
A journey of twenty five years…
When we get to know our best friend better.
and love is no longer elusive.
Every day we see the unfolding of our crazy life together.
Like gypsies on the road to adventure.
We stumble on the essential fragrance of beauty.
Like inhaling the aroma of a bouquet of red roses.

WisdomVerse

The specific goals of a WisdomVerse poetry writing workshops are to:

  • Set participants up for success
  • Foster connections—between pathways in the brain, between facilitator and participants, and also among participants in the workshop
  • Stimulate the language part of the brain
  • Call up memories
  • Acknowledge thoughts and feelings
  • Entertain and enliven residents with the playfulness and musicality of words
Amy Denney
Amy Denney is an award-winning journalist, certified Holy Yoga instructor and light therapy specialist. She works with clients looking for natural, side-effect free solutions to pain and stress.
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