The Medicine of Poetry

An entirely new world of healing

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.


Saved by a Poem by Kim Rosen

Poems repeated over and over magnetize feelings, memories, longings, and visions to the surface of my consciousness.

Kim Rosen’s book Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words opened up an entirely new world of healing for me. Like Kim, I too was turned off from poetry, because of the way it was taught in school. So when she asked me to read a special poem for the CD that accompanies her book, I thought, “Are you kidding? I don’t have any favorite poems. I don’t even like poetry.” But as I read through the book, I realized that I did, in fact, love poetry. And, as a lover of words, had always loved poetry.

The way poetry was taught in school was deadening. It was like trying to appreciate the magnificence of a dolphin by dissecting a dead animal instead of watching it play with its pod in the waves! Kim taught me that when you speak the words of a poem you love out loud, those words create a kind of transmission throughout your body and soul that can heal you. I have found that to be true.

I have also found myself moved to tears by the sound of Kim’s voice reading poetry—to the background music of cellist Jami Sieber. Her CD Only Breath and also the CD that accompanies her book Saved by a Poem are life changing, and belong on everyone’s iPod (in my humble opinion). I have also started to collect my favorite poems. And, just like Kim says, find them coming to my rescue over and over again because they remind me of my essential nature. – C.N.

The Medicine of Poetry
An entirely new world of healing

By Kim Rosen

The Medicine of Poetry

Nearly every day, poetry saves me. Some favorite line or surprising image will rescue my vagrant attention from the careening bandwagon of my thoughts and redirect it to the path of my soul. My mind quiets, my breath deepens, and I remember what matters most to me.

I didn’t always love poetry. In fact, I spent most of my adult life thinking that poetry was a language that belonged to some secret club I hadn’t been invited to join. Most of the poems I came across were indecipherable to me. I just couldn’t crack the code.

Of course, as a child, I loved poetry. Most children do. In fact, in all my travels around the world—from the U.S. to Ireland to Kenya—I have never met a person who was not immersed in poetry as a child. “Little Miss Muffett / Sat on a tuffett / Eating her curds and whey,” croons Mother Goose. Dr. Seuss proclaims, “I do not like green eggs and ham! / I do not like them, Sam I Am!” We learn our ABC’s through rhyme and rhythm, we sing-song our times-tables, we take hands with our playmates and chant “Ring around the rosey / A pocket full of posey…”

Even before we’re born, we swim in an ocean of poetic elements. Our ears are pressed against the meter of our mother’s heartbeat, we are rocked in the rhythm of her breath, the words that reach us in our amniotic world are transmuted into poem-like vibrations in their passage through the fluids that surround us.

So as soon as I could hold a pen, I wanted to write poetry. And all through elementary school, I did.

Then came high school. Suddenly poetry wasn’t the magical world of sound and wonder I had come to call my own. No, it was “iambic pentameters” and “dactylic tetrameters.” It was The Odyssey, and The Iliad, and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”—all of which, I now recognize, is fantastic poetry, but the sacking of Troy and the invasion of the British are not exactly what a 13-year-old girl is thinking about night and day!

So I turned away from poetry. I adventured instead into psychology, religion, and spirituality. Eventually I became a teacher of consciousness.

Then, in 1994, I was gripped by a depression the likes of which I had never experienced. My family was in crisis. Both my parents had had heart attacks within weeks of each other. None of the psychological or spiritual teachings I had studied and taught could touch the depths of my despair. I was giving workshops and sessions about igniting the creative spark, yet I could not find even a glowing ember within myself. I wanted to die.

When I’m really depressed, I clean. Cleaning has a beginning, middle, and end. You can feel (at least for a couple of hours) that you’ve done something that made a difference.

I was cleaning under a radiator in my foyer, when I came upon a dusty, unmarked audiocassette. Mildly curious, I dropped it into the tape player and started doing the dishes.

A man’s voice speaking poetry filled my house. But these were poems unlike any I had ever heard, poems of the inner life. His words seemed to reach directly into the places where I felt irreparably broken and alone. They touched me as no psychological or spiritual teaching ever had.

I stood at the sink, frozen. “You will love again the stranger who was yourself.”Poem1 When I heard this line, the knot of tears in my throat burst open. I put down my sponge and wept.

It took a bit of detective work to sleuth out the fact that the cassette had fallen out of the purse of one of my clients several days earlier. The speaker, she said, was a poet named David Whyte, who had dozens of poems in his memory, his own and those of other poets. Born of an Irish mother and English father and brought up in the hills of Yorkshire, he was steeped in a culture that has never forgotten that poetry can be as essential as breath.

Since I was too depressed to write poetry, I decided to follow David’s example and start memorizing it. Memorization, it seemed to me, was like cleaning. It was an act of will, not inspiration. It had a beginning, middle, and end. And when it was over, you had something to show for the work you had put in.

At the time I was traveling once or twice a month to visit my parents as they recovered their health. The road between my home in Upstate New York and theirs outside of Boston was one long, straight highway. I determined that I would print out a few of the poems David Whyte had introduced to me, place them on the passenger seat of my car, and memorize them as I drove.

As I spoke the lines aloud, a miracle began to unfold. I didn’t end up memorizing those poems. I learned them by heart. Theoretically, both terms mean the same thing. But actually, learning by heart is vastly different. It means taking a poem so deeply into your body, breath, feelings, and life energy, that it comes alive within you; it takes up residence in your heart.

I discovered that when I repeated the poems over and over, they magnetized feelings, memories, longings, and visions to the surface of my consciousness. They drew out unconscious wounds that desperately needed healing. They evoked untried dimensions of my voice: a shout of rage I’d never expressed, a whisper of tenderness that melted my own heart, an authority I did not know I possessed.

My depression started to lift. The healing came not only through the beauty of the truths in the words of the poems, but also through the way the rhythms that entrained my pulse, the sounds that changed my brain waves, the lengths of the phrases that deepened my breathing as I spoke them.

These physical elements are what I now call the “Shamanic Anatomy” of a poem. A shaman’s drum or rattle entrains the body’s rhythms, literally changing biochemistry and brain activity to open mind and body to healing and revelation from outside the confinement of ordinary thought. The same thing happens when you read or speak a poem or prayer that you love. The rhythms, line lengths and sounds can affect your breath, pulse, and voice, creating an inner shift of awareness that allows for a gasp of insight, a sense of wonder, an “Aha!” moment.

When I learned my first few poems by heart on that long, straight highway back in 1994, I had no idea I would end up with over a hundred poems in my memory. I thought I’d learn six or eight of my favorites and that would be that. But then I got a taste of the fruits of my labor. Of course there was the thrill of being able to speak a poem to a friend or to myself at a crucial time. But even more compelling was a subtle, pervasive shift in my whole way of meeting the world.

This was quite obvious because so much of my poem-learning was done en route to visit my parents, with whom some of my least appealing behaviors tended to run rampant. Patterns of my childish reactions seemed to be inscribed in the very air around them: my withdrawn silence at the dinner table or the way I could become as petulant as a four-year-old whenever I felt criticism coming my way. Now, instead of clamming up and giving whoever seemed to be threatening me “the look,” I sometimes found a poem blossoming into my consciousness with a perfect medicine for me. “You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver would whisper in my inner ear. Or, “So long as you have not experienced / this: to die and so to grow, / you are only a troubled guest / on this dark earth,” Goethe would warn my prideful temper. It was as if I had a throng of guides within me, calibrated to show up at the perfect moment, 24 hours a day.

Gradually it became clear that I had inadvertently stumbled upon a powerful medicine that was saving my life, poem by poem by poem.

By the way, learning by heart is far easier than you might imagine. It has nothing to do with having a good memory. I have a terrible memory. I can’t remember what I did with my keys or where I wrote my computer password, much less what it is! Learning by heart is a function of falling in love with a poem so deeply that it becomes a part of you—like the words of your favorite song, affirmation, or prayer.

However, you don’t need to learn a poem by heart to receive its medicine. Read it over and over. Put it on your refrigerator, or write it on a sticky note and attach it to your mirror or computer screen. Get a beautiful blank book and inscribe your favorites to be read before sleep, or just as you wake, or to a friend in a moment of need. These poems will become like a deck of divinatory cards: the right one will show up at the right moment to lasso your lurching mind, bringing you instantly into alignment with who you really are.

Adapted with permission from Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, © 2009, by Kim Rosen, published by Hay House.

Kim Rosen, MFA, has touched listeners around the world with poetry’s power to awaken, inspire and heal. She is the author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words (Hay House, 2009) and the co-creator of four CD’s of spoken poetry and music. Combining her devotion to poetry with her background as a spiritual teacher and therapist, she gives performances, lectures, and workshops in the U.S. and abroad.

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  1. This line is from a poem by Derek Walcott, “Love after Love.”
Last Updated: March 18, 2010

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.

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