By David Chirko, A.B., Psychologically oriented researcher/author and poet

Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Like Goethe, he would someday like to be thought of as a poet-psychologist, reflecting the quintessence of man’s enigma (David Chirko, 1980)1

One night, when visiting a local youth drop-in center where group therapy sessions and leisure activities were held, I found myself, with another student–a burgeoning social worker, and a few other patrons, sharing stories and reciting our poetry.  I presented the only work that I would compose up to that point.  Those present, relishing what I had just offered, egged me on to continue writing, about “The sun, life, love, how you feel, anything!”  “Anything,” for me, would inevitably sometimes include psychological themes.

Flash ahead to a later time, I had a few poetry books, and 138 poems, published.  The latter included psychological titles like “What’s Wrong With Behaviorism,” “Final Verdict And Epitaph For Wilhelm Reich,” “In The World Ronald David Laing Explored” and “Psyche: Diamond In The Well” (a paean to Sigmund Freud).  I discovered that the fields of psychology and creative writing could be intertwined.  This was amplified in my reading of Freud and his allusions to German poet, novelist and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.    

Goethe’s Impact On Freud’s Psyche

The Two Giants

Psychological historian Leonard Zusne (1975, pp. 68-69), documents how Goethe’s writings contained facets of Freud’s libido theory, inspiring the latter to take up medicine.  Moreover Goethe, purportedly, started the phenomenological fashion in modern psychology. In Zusne’s book, Goethe was rated 25 out of a maximum 27 points, as a well-known and historically influential psychologist.  Furthermore, biographer Peter Gay (1988) informs us that philosophers and poets broached the unconscious a century before Freud, and Goethe, “…had found…depths beyond depths in the psyche supremely attractive” (p. 366).  Another biographer, Ronald W. Clark (1980), would acquiesce.  One should, however, add that it was Freud who first applied the activities of the unconscious to psychotherapy.  Interestingly, biographer Ernest Jones (1961) recounts how Freud and his wife Martha, “…often quoted poetry to each other, mainly…Goethe….” (p. 165).  Freud gifted his sister and wife with books and he and the latter were known to pen letter(s) to one another poetically (p. 166).  Chirko (2013), describes how it put Freud, who won the Goethe Prize for Literature in 1930, in “…the…intellection fiefdom, where psychology espoused literature…to extract deep, usable examples of the human personality” (p. 17). 


Charles Brenner (1955, pp. 229) tells us that Freud (1917) even penned a groundbreaking essay on his beloved Goethe.  Nevertheless, there are psychoanalytic historians who speak of Freud’s ambivalence toward all poets, et al.  They say that much of what people believed Freud asseverated, he never uttered.  Like the Freud Museum London (2018), who assert that there is no record of Freud ever saying: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”  Probably an alteration of the aforementioned is another plausible misquote found in Philip Lehrman (1940): “The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious…I discovered…the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.”  However, the Museum does concede that, “…it doesn’t seem implausible…Freud…said this, based on…his love of literature.” 

The Psychoanalytic Legend

Conflicts and the unconscious

Social worker, poetry therapist and poet Nicholas Mazza (2022, p. 12), tells us that Poetry Therapy extrapolates much from the psychoanalytic literature in ratifying its rudimentary theoretical foundation.  He alludes to Freud (1908), who thought that instinctual wishes, the unconscious, and conflict were integral to creating a literary piece or a fantasy.  Mazza also states that such conflicts can be resolved through poetry and therapy, by examining displacement and symbolization.  He therefore refers to Cora Diaz de Chumaceiro (1997, p. 242), who explains how unconscious recall of poetry can enhance comprehension of a patients’ conflicts, leading to a resolution of transference-countertransference resistances that halt a more successful analysis.  Moreover, Jack Leedy, psychiatrist and self-proclaimed “…father of poetry therapy” (Jacob Moreno declared himself the “grandfather”)2 and poetry therapist Sherry Reiter (1980, p. 490) say Freud found that a catalyst to exploring the unconscious was poetry, because it resembled dreams.  

Free association and poetry

Karl Menninger (1958, p. 45), explaining Freud’s psychotherapeutic technique of free association, also states that Freud (1920) alluded to those in literature and science who essentially embraced variations of it.  Free association could then be psychoanalytically connected to poetry.  Mazza (2022, p. 12) explains that, in analysis, the mutual employment of unconscious and preconscious data to identify innermost feelings, with words, gives it shape.  Like I once quipped (Chirko, 1978, August), “’…language is the experience…transcended’ because poetry is…more than…experimentation with words…wonder why…poets are not hired in…psychoanalysis.” 

Literary versus visual

Brenner (1955, pp. 229-235), speaks of unconscious determinants being more accessible with the literary artist, vis-à-vis the visual artist.  To retrieve the unconscious determinants of any writer or artist, Brenner avers that this wasn’t always feasible when merely perusing historically known facts and bios of them, in lieu of gleaning hard data through a personal analysis.  Therefore, with the visual artist, unless psychoanalyzed personally, one must depend on the less arduous conscious determinants.  Even though the affinity is there between either poet, or painter (where the relation to words is, of course, bereft), their pivotal daydreams become the progenitor of any artwork.  Daydreams, which are rooted in unfulfilled wishes, however, are for oneself but poetry, for example, is for an audience and must be literarily constructed in an acceptable way.  Chirko (2008), averred poetry transmits memorable community emotions and ideas.  Like psychoanalysis, it can voice what generally cannot be articulated in everyday speech. 

Poetry and Its Nexus With Other Psychologies: From Egyptian Inscriptions to Group Therapy Room


Bibliotherapist Susan McLaine (n.d.) suggests that bibliotherapy, the perusal of material for therapeutic benefit, originated in the ancient period (4th-21st century, B.C.), when inscriptions were descried over libraries in Alexandria and Thebes, Egypt, which were viewed as a “healing place of the soul.” 

Mazza (n.d.) affirms that writing, reading and publishing of hospital mental patients’ work was inaugurated by Benjamin Franklin in 1751.  Psychologist and bibliotherapist Sharon Henderson Sclabassi (1980, pp 54-56) states that Benjamin Rush, in 1815, introduced bibliotherapy in mental hospitals for psychiatric patients, as did John Minson Galt II, in 1853.  Moreover, Mazza describes how Samuel Crothers coined the term “bibliotherapy,” in 1916.  Further, that librarians utilized bibliotherapy by seeking books helpful for psychiatric clients.  They advocated the use of Menninger’s text, The Human Mind (1930), and colorful novels, whose characters were caveats or models to the reader.  Some worked in conjunction with the Menningers in Topeka, Kansas.  They were cognizant of how to encourage openness in clients.  How the clients reacted personally to reading material was not covered.  Mazza declares that it was covered as, “This form of the “interactive process” or “interactive dialogue” evolved later with the popularity of group therapy in the 1960s.”

Sclabassi (1980) speaks of bibliotherapy utilizing didactic–often instructional, and imaginative–usually fictional, literature to act as levels of intervention:  First, intellectually, books help a client choose, and analyze, problems in behavior and attitudes, leading to solutions and personal insight, augmenting their interests.  Socially, the client could identify with others’ experience and become more culturally rooted so that they may feel they belong.  This followed by being more expressive and ambitious, vanquishing impulsive and emotional salvos.  Behaviorally, the client might then try out various kinds of performing, thereby maturing, and being more principled and adroit.  Emotionally, the client could resolve conflicts and have the temerity to open up about their own issues.  They then empathize and comprehend the motivation of others more effectively. 

Poetry Therapy

Mazza (n.d.) explains that “Poetry Therapy” is utilized for individual growth and healing and is a derivative of bibliotherapy.  The former employing imagery, metaphor and rhythm.  He contends that poetry therapy originated with ancient tribal religious rites performed by witch doctors and shamans, whose poetic chants were utilized to stimulate salubriousness in groups or persons.  It is documented that, in the 4th millennium, B.C., Egyptians inscribed words on papyrus, dissolving such into a fluid so that they could be deglutinated by patients, taking instantaneous affect.  However, Mazza states that the premier poetry therapist was Roman physician Soranus, in the 1st century, C.E., who entreated his depressive and manic patients to poetically act out tragic or comic written material.  Leedy and Reiter (1980, p. 490) tell us that when the 20th century arrived poetry was no longer appreciated mainly for its aesthetic features.  The initial Poetry Therapy program was begun in the psychiatric division of a Brooklyn hospital, by Leedy and poetess Eli Greifer in 1959.  In fact, they proclaim, “Ideally, Poetry Therapy is used as an ancillary group therapy in conjunction with individual sessions” (p. 491).  It can be employed when other approaches prove unsuccessful.  They say that previously repressed emotions come to light when a client, unharried, hears and identifies with the words of a poet.  The isoprinciple, selection of a poem whose mood is congruent with a client’s, is pursued.  They state that a poem can lower anxiety.  The permanency of a poem is ensconced in ink, attesting to its thorough reliability.    

Further, Mazza (n.d.) reminds us it was realized that poetry could evoke what patients held inside and same could respond in written form to the work of others’ in group, or original material from elsewhere.  This all stemming from their own feelings and experiences.  Mazza says that theoreticians were confirming that poets mapped the road which science soon travelled, and consequently Moreno3 proposed the terms “psychopoetry,” and “psychodrama” (in 1921).  Around the country numerous authors and clinicians introduced poetry into practice, with associations and groups sprouting up, maintaining specific standards. 

The Process of Poetry Therapy for Group Work

GoodTherapy (2016), adumbrates the three components for conducting group work with poetry therapy, as follows:

Receptive/prescriptive component: in group, the client(s) reads aloud a piece (in unison or separately)–that is related to the theme of the session–in whole or in part, with the appropriate rhythm and tone.  The therapist makes a notation of all the nonverbal and verbal reactions of a client, asking how they feel at that moment and what line(s) of the work affected them particularly.

Expressive/creative component: collectively or individually, clients(s) pen their own poem begun from a topic, word or stem4 of a sentence, making it a “stem sentence,” and respond instantaneously to it.  Everything composed by the group members is distilled into one larger poem, galvanizing discussion by the group on pertinent issues.

Symbolic/ceremonial component: metaphors, which symbolize intricate emotions and experiences in a succinct, but deep, manner are presented.  Rituals, like burning a letter to somebody who impacted them, assists them in confronting feelings germane to a specific occurrence.  These all instigate positive change in the client.

Into the Human Lab of Poetry Therapy in Group

Social Worker and poetess, Faith Breisblatt (2016 ), begat her own therapy group, the core of which was based on bibliotherapy and poetry therapy, in a cognitive behavioral type framework.  Writing projects were ratified, with guides or “prompts,” wherein the more sensitive stories and experiences of each patient was drawn out.  Every week they would arrive with a poem based on the “homework” prompt from the previous week.  If they were emotionally up to it they would talk about their poems with the group and then pen something to look at the topic at hand.  Typical topics were emotions, family, grief/loss, love, mental health, and relationships.  Apropos devices and forms, such as haiku, metaphor and similes, were learned along the way.

Exercises could be structured, with guidance for prompting a client’s skill in writing, however, an open and unstructured approach was always permissible.  Breisblatt said that an example of a prompt based on a week called “Then I was, Now I Am,” was Robert Pinsky’s5 poem, entitled “Samurai Song.”  Therein, he battles personal adversity and fear to obtain placidity with his invented persona(s).  The group was directed to do same by making his work into an “erasure poem,” by changing the lines to make it simpler to comprehend and reflect their own perception of themselves, from past to present.  Therefore, they took, for example, the first couple of lines which were: “When I made [sic] no roof I made/Audacity my roof” and also changed all of it, to a group poem:

When I had no religion

I felt lost

When I had no clean clothes

I did a load of laundry

When I had no courage to talk about my problems

I refused to talk about them

When I had no sky

I made my own sky

When I had no hope

I always had resilience

Compare the above to the original and complete poem, from Pinsky (2001, p.3):

“Samurai Song”

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

The struggle against being deprived of anything is conquered through creatively working through those issues, in both poems, but the earlier erasure poem sounds more victorious, because of client fortitude, especially in the end as “resilience,” comparatively, would triumph over the resignment of “sleep,” in the Pinsky piece.

Breisblatt declared that she was flabbergasted, after experiencing the aforementioned newly crafted poem.  Although her clients were all acquainted with one another, she attested that this was the first time she espied the capacity of social inclusion and group dynamics in group therapy—all through the use of poetry.

During the conclusion of the group Breisblatt asked the clients what they most enjoyed and disrelished about group, and they said it was having the place to discuss essential matters, with their own voice.  What they poo-poohed was the need for homework assignments.  She noted that virtually everyone acquiesced to share what they wrote and thereby felt.


Poetry therapy, like psychology, has a long past and a short history.  It was largely developed by clinicians and/or poets themselves from bibliotherapy–the reading of written matter that benefits therapy, fostering insight, identification, the acting out of roles, and conflict resolution.  Poetry therapy, it was found, could strategically and successfully meld with group therapy by utilizing what defined it: manipulating the mechanisms of descriptive words in a systematic, clinical context.  This would entail, for instance, the mechanism called the isoprinciple—selecting specific poems to recite that are mood congruent with a client’s, thereby expediting therapy in groups; “stem sentences”—the filling in of blanks in poems to discover a client’s problems; and “erasure poems”—the altering of lines of a poem penned by someone outside the group, for a client’s personal discovery. 

Furthermore, poetry and psychoanalysis were later found to have a synergy, because of Goethe’s poetic influence on Freud.  It is not surprising then that there exists a link between free association and poetry.  With the appropriate poems and words, the unconscious recall and expression–by combining members’ poetry into, say, one group poem–proved enlightening and cathartic.  Through symbolizing with tone, rhythm and metaphor, it was discovered that one can capture and understand buried emotions behind traumas, unresolved conflicts and wishful fantasies.  This demolishes resistances, making any group analysis more amenable. 

Finally, what a patient previously found excruciating to verbalize could now be poetically expatiated on openly in group therapy, alleviating anxiety. 


1This is because the poet frequently delves human behavior and the motivation behind it (Chirko, 2004, p. 24).

2See Leedy’s and Moreno’s statements at In memoriam(2004).

3Moreno had met Freud in 1912 (Riva, Grassi, & Belingheri, 2020, p. 369).

4A stem sentence is like a cliffhanger requiring completion, e.g., “I like to…” (similar to a sentence frame, which is a fill in the blank, e.g., “I like to…on the weekends”).  It simplifies the process of expressing oneself, because it acts as a prompt to facilitate writing when one can see the structure.  The missing segments are what the client fills in, forming a new poem (Gonzalez, 2019).  

5Pinsky, as a coincidence, married a clinical psychologist (Internet Archive, 2013).


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