Word Medicine: Poetry Therapy with John Fox
Original Photo Credit: Kendra Luck

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a
new tongue.

                                                                                    —Walt Whitman

Some people may associate poetry with academia, musty books forgotten in the corner of the library, or with the Beat Generation. Because of this, poetry may feel somewhat elusive and obscure. However, poetry has been used as a healing tool for millennia, from the incantations of the first shamans to the therapeutic use of literature in American hospitals dating as far back as the 18th century.

The field of poetry therapy as we currently know it began to gather steam in the 1960s and 1970s, when poetry was introduced into hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and schools for children with special needs. According to the National Association for Poetry Therapy, the term “poetry therapy” incorporates several language-based modalities: bibliotherapy (the therapeutic, interactive use of literature), journaling, storytelling, and film.

John Fox, Certified Poetry Therapist, is one such practitioner utilizing the power of poetry in a therapeutic way. As a poet, author, teacher, and poetry therapist, he has served as a leader in the movement of promoting poetry therapy as an expressive art and healing modality for over 30 years. John has brought poetry therapy to hospitals, churches, schools, and retreat centers internationally, and is author of Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity through Poem-Making and Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making.

I was a student in John’s poetry therapy class at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology several years ago. It was a profound and memorable experience. The poetry that we students wrote in his class went to a surprising level of depth, and even more so when we were encouraged to read our poems aloud to the class, fully embodying our words.

I recently spoke with John on the phone to interview him. We discussed poetry therapy, his role in the movement, and how we all can incorporate the power of deep language into our everyday lives.

Chiara Viscomi (CV): How did you become interested in poetry therapy?

John Fox (JF): It was a gradual process. I’ve always loved language—I was immersed in poetry as a teenager. I had my leg amputated at 18 years old. It was a very shattering time. So poetry was a way for me to have self-expression.

I studied English and creative writing initially at Boston University. Poetry was a way to not sink. I also became interested in yoga and meditation. In 1974, I had a profound meeting with Ram Dass. I had been going through a lot of literal and metaphorical death—the loss of my leg, which spurred the death of my ego. One day, when I was freaking out, I was standing with Ram Dass at the corner of Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and he remarked to me, looking fierce, “You couldn’t get away if you tried.” I was stunned—the effect of those stark words was powerful. It challenged me to be with my experience.

After graduating with my BA from Bard College, I moved to California. Poetry had become a spiritual practice for me. It was a way to get insights down. In 1981, I met poet, author, and teacher Stephen Levine, who was a student of Ram Dass. A short while later, I started reading my poems at retreats led by Stephen and his wife Ondrea.

Then, in 1984, through Stephen, I met someone who introduced me to poetry therapy. This person also introduced me to the person who would become my mentor, poetry therapy pioneer Joy Shieman. In 1985, I became a poetry therapy intern, working with her at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View. I felt like I had found my calling.

CV: It sounds like you went on quite a journey after your loss, and that poetry became a critical part of your healing and finding wholeness again. What do you think is healing about poetry therapy?

JF: Poetry empowers people to discover how they feel about something in their own voice. It allows for discovery. I have heard many people say, “I had no idea I thought that way until I wrote it down.” Poetry provides the vehicle for metaphors and images to come through to explain what is troubling or calling someone. Poetry also allows people to have their innermost selves heard in a way that they may not have experienced before. I once had a poetry therapy client write this:

Being deeply listened to is like having a dented cup since childhood be filled up with fresh water.

In addition to the benefits of self-expression and being deeply heard, poetry can provide more embodiment than regular talk therapy. It’s a less linear approach. Poems have their own rhythms, and they are felt in the body. I may ask someone, “Where do you feel this poem?”

CV: As someone who also uses the expressive arts therapeutically, I am continually fascinated by how the arts are able to access deeper levels than simply working with the linear, rational mind. Personally and professionally, I’m also interested in how we can bring the arts and creativity in general into everyday life—outside the therapy room, the clinic, and the hospital. How do you suggest people bring poetry and deep language into their daily lives?

JF: I suggest having people read poetry out loud. That’s how it really comes alive, and even more so with someone on the other end who is listening. Then it can become a dialogue. Also, get a notebook and write down your impressions and reflections. And find ways to play with language.

CV: All good suggestions. What resources do you suggest if someone wants to learn more about poetry therapy?

JF: For practitioners, I would suggest contacting the National Association for Poetry Therapy, as well as my organization, the Institute for Poetic Medicine. I offer professional trainings through the Institute.

CV: Thank you. I’m glad that we finally reconnected all these years after I took your class.

JF: Thank you. It’s heartening to hear that my class made an impression on you and I appreciate the opportunity to share about this work.

Further Resources

Web

California Poets in the Schools

The Institute for Poetic Medicine

The National Association for Poetry Therapy

International Expressive Arts Therapy Association

PoetryAlive!

Books

Finding What You Didn’t Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity through
Poem-Making
by John Fox

Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making by John Fox

About This Contributor: Chiara Viscomi, MA, CMT, is currently pursuing her clinical internship in counseling. She received her master’s in counseling psychology with a certificate in creative expression at Sofia University (formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Prior to that, Chiara received a BA in psychology and a BFA in drama from New York University. She is passionate about expressive arts therapy, Jungian psychology, transpersonal psychology, and integrative approaches to wellness. In addition to her clinical work, Chiara is a longtime professional writer and editor in the healthcare field, as well as a musician and performing artist. To find out more about her counseling work, visit www.lapishealingarts.com.


  1. This is so awesome. To be able to use other ways to “feel out” rather than “figure out” our problems (and/or to grow) makes so much sense! Poetry has spirit, is naturally evocative, powerful, fosters connection to what is unseen and unfelt, is non-pathologizing, and is free. It can be read or written in silence, or carried loudly in music. And poetry requires us to pause – to temporarily exit that goal-directed state of mind that is so persistent. It can help people mourn, or celebrate, or acknowledge. It can bring any emotion – love, joy, fear, or laughter.
    Here is one of my favorite and most helpful poems:

    The Guest House – Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    As an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing,
    and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    • Thanks, Clark. I agree with what you wrote so succinctly–poetry does pull us out of linear, goal-oriented thinking and into the rich potential of the present. That Rumi poem is a favorite, too. Nasruddin and Hafiz are also favorites…

  2. Great article! This reminds me of Pennebaker’s research on the benefits of expressive writing: when people write about an emotional upheaval, it can actually strengthen the body’s immune system (https://www.utexas.edu/features/2005/writing/). It’s really amazing how much writing (or reading about others’ experiences) can help us work through emotions.

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