Books: Poetry as a Source of Catharsis


“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” — Audre Lorde

In recent years, poetry has been my solace. It has been healing through dark times, enlightened me when I’ve felt disorientated, comforted me when I’ve felt alone. Connecting with a line of poetry, seeing yourself echoed amongst its words, even if you decipher a meaning that the poet did not intend, is consoling. It can be transformative, altering your way of perceiving the world, allowing yourself to become more astute to your emotions. In these times of anxiety, alienation and complicity, we are all desperately in need of more comfort and relief, even if it comes in the form of a few words printed on a page. Sometimes, that is enough. 

The work of Adrienne Rich is an example of someone whose poetry has empowered and enlightened me through difficult times. As an ardent second wave feminist, her poems are congruent to women’s consciousness and power, with her writing having brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse. Her poetry critiques society’s rigid expectations of femininity and sexuality, encapsulating what it means to be a woman living in a misogynistic world. In her poem, ‘From an Old House in America’, Rich writes:

The irreducible, incomplete connection

between the dead and the living

or between man and woman in this

savagely fathered and unmothered world

This line reflects upon society’s disempowerment of women and the dissonance created between men and women as a result of an unequal share of power. It resonated with me immediately, dipping into my experience of living in a world governed by men, with the voices of women insolently disregarded and silenced. 

Rich claims that “poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see” and that “when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved”. She is a writer who is able to alter one’s understanding of the world, reminding us that poetry is both personal and political. Not only can it act as a therapeutic expression of ideas, but, like other forms of art, it can bring to light deeply troubling aspects of society, which otherwise may be left alone. Rich reminds us that poetry is not just cathartic, but it should be a learning experience, as well as about experience. 

It is not just reading poetry that has been cathartic, but writing it too. In fact, writing poetry has often been an immensely healing process for me, enabling me to dispense my emotions onto something tangible — words on a page — allowing them to appear clearer and less disorientated. It encourages a process of mindfulness, whereby my body is solely focused on writing down emotions that otherwise would remain suppressed inside. Often the only way I am able to express my innermost thoughts is through writing them into some poetic configuration, whether that be scribbled down on a notebook, or the notes section of my phone. Even if I do nothing more than throw that small, crumpled piece of paper away, it has not been a practise in futility. There is a dual benefit in writing and reading poetry. Disciplining your thoughts and emotions into a poetic form allows them to feel less overwhelming, and by exploring the deep crevices of our minds, we can liberate reserves of creativity and power we may not have been aware of. 

Aristotle defined ‘catharsis’ as an emotional cleansing, a relief from strong or repressed emotions. Indeed, I believe that by investing my time into poetry, I am able to find this relief. When a poet perfectly captures your way of thinking, an emotion that once felt isolating, an experience that once felt alienating, you no longer feel as though your pain is solitary to you: it is a shared pain. 

For me, this makes it a lot easier to digest. Poetry is able to divulge your most intimate thoughts, about yourself and society, allowing an honest exploration of your feelings. You are able to find companionship in a poem which speaks to you, even if that companion is merely a disembodied voice on a piece of paper.

As Audre Lorde writes, “poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”

Words by Sylvia O’Hara

This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which is still on sale and is raising money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.


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