Poetry as therapy can help to guide us through darkness

By Myra Dutton | Contributing Columnist

Myra Dutton is the author of “Healing Ground,” which was a finalist for the New Age Retailer Award. She is the founder of the Evolutionary Poets Theater Troupe and director of Beat Nite in Idyllwild. (Courtesy of Myra Dutton)

I began writing this on Mother’s Day, as my heart seemed buried by the weight of my son’s recent diagnosis of an incurable, debilitating disease –– an inherited illness that remained silent for decades and then suddenly emerged again. This affected everyone in the family. A loved one had been struck down, and it had come out of nowhere.

Now as I travel to the post office or the store, as I prepare meals or go out to eat, as I watch the stars spin in the sky and the moon wax and wane, my thoughts, words, and actions must remain positive for the sake of my son and my family. Life has become a ritual, where each moment is attuned to the miracle of living on this planet as an individual, a family, part of humanity, part of all life on Earth, part of the Earth, and part of the stars.

The weight of his suffering was too much to bear, and I reached for the words of wise ones to help me be strong, to help me process what had just occurred. Poems like “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa” by Ada Limon, “I Am a Prayer” by Joy Harjo, “Sonnets to Orpheus” by Rainier Maria Rilke, and “Who Says Words with My Mouth” by Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rumi helped me tread softly into the midst of my grief. I contemplated stacks of poetry books, gathering my favorites around me like a cushion.

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Writing and reading poetry has always been essential for me. It was the one way I could sink into the depths of my being and find comfort there. I began writing poems when I was quite young. I remember writing my first poem, proudly showing it to my mother and father, and having them disbelieve that I had actually written it. The mystery began at that moment. What created this desire in me to write? Obviously, my parents had not encountered this in their own lives, and it felt rather odd and sad that they would doubt my ability.

Writing became my therapy. It restored my hope and, ultimately, gave me the awareness that there was some kind of wisdom inside me. Where it originated from, I had no idea, but it came through loud and clear. The ability to write poetry, full of imagery, and the ability to write stories came to me naturally. I was a child, capable of flexible thinking, something so important in a challenging world. Poems provided emotional support, increasing my insight of symbols, stories, metaphors, and imagery. Their power healed my thoughts and emotions and helped me cope with stress.

Now, as curator of Beat Nite in Idyllwild, I gather poetry for the Evolutionary Poets to perform with the improvisational accompaniment of Dr. Marshall Hawkins on bass and Paul Carman on sax. The combination of their music and our words lights up our minds and our hearts, as we read from our souls, uncovering the essence of who we really are.

Brendan Constantine, an LA poet and teacher, will be performing his phenomenal, incomparable poetry at our next Beat Nite at Middle Ridge Winery in Idyllwild from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on July 22. Brendan’s fan club awaits his arrival every July. We know he teaches poetry at the Idyllwild Arts Summer Program during that time, and no one wants to miss him while he is here. His performances are good medicine, filled with brilliance and humor. No doubt there will be a big crowd. Brendan takes this wonderful talent that he has and develops poetry workshops for people with aphasia and dementia. His work reactivates their ability to express themselves confidently and artistically. This is his gift to the world. It is another aspect of the power of poetry and how it can help us all.

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Psychologists, educators, counselors, and occupational therapists use imagery in stories and poetry to help others see the world from a new standpoint. They know that poetry affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The gray matter of the anterior part of the frontal lobe that is highly developed in humans plays a role in behavioral flexibility. Our prefrontal cortex lights up when we listen to music and poetry. We literally become enlightened. It is like wearing a hiker’s headlamp to guide us through the darkness.

Myra Dutton is the founder of the Evolutionary Poets Theater Troupe and curator of Beat Nite in Idyllwild. She is the author of “Healing Ground: A Visionary Union of Earth and Spirit,” which was a book finalist for the New Age Retailer Award.

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