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Poetry and Hypnosis Poetry for Healing

Author: Felice Austin, Certified Hypnotherapist

Felice Austin

Date Published:
Publisher: Hypnosis Motivation Institute

Only poetry can mend a rupture in our civilization.
John Carey, P.Hd.

As hypnotherapists we deal in the language of the unconscious mind—in metaphors, symbols, imagery, and sensory detail. Our profession and our tools are not new; for thousands of years humans have done this: shamans, monks, prophets, poets. In some languages, the ancient word for poet is the same as the word for prophet.

By definition, a prophet or prophetess is someone who speaks by inspiration, edifies, uplifts, heals, and sometimes predicts things to come. Poets also do this. The very nature of poetry, with its rhythms, images, inferences, and maternal patter, is designed to reach the mind on a different level than everyday prose. Delivered to the mind in this way, poetry can inspire, heal, and even predict, as suggestions and images that bond with the unconscious begin to unfold into reality.

Contemporary poetry is life-affirming and directly relevant to all of our lives. The wonderful thing about contemporary poetry is that a poem can be about anything. There are poems about cars, girls, homework, lawn mowers, blue nudes, bicycles, suicide, love, death, the moon, and much more. The power of a good poem can move and change a person profoundly and unforgettably. Most people have at least one poem that they remember that affected them—the poem read at a wedding or funeral or during an inauguration speech.

While not all of your clients may be interested in poetry, a few solid collections in your library can enhance your hypnotherapy practice in several ways. First, poetry can be a window into your client’s subconscious mind, or to parts of him/herself. Second, poetry can be used as a secondary induction to induce hypnotic trance. It is also wonderful for embedding commands. Third, a study of poetry can greatly sharpen your sensory acuity as well as your repertoire of imagery, metaphors, and suggestions. Lastly, poetry can work where other things haven’t. Kafka said that a book “must be the axe which smashes the frozen sea within us.” A poem can be just that for a resistant or frozen client—especially the clients who seem the least likely to be interested in poetry.

Poetry as a Window to the Unconscious

If you have a client that likes poetry or even writes poetry, this can be a great way to learn things you wouldn’t in a typical session. If my clients like poetry, I might ask them to bring in some of their favorite poems and ask them to tell me why they love them. This can be very revealing.

Here is a fun example:

Tuesday 9 a.m.
By Denver Butson

A man standing at the bus stop
reading the newspaper is on fire
Flames are peeking out
from beneath his collar and cuffs
His shoes have begun to melt

The woman next to him
wants to mention it to him
that he is burning
but she is drowning
Water is everywhere
in her mouth and ears
in her eyes
A stream of water runs
steadily from her blouse

Another woman stands at the bus stop
freezing to death
She tries to stand near the man
who is on fire
to try to melt the icicles
that have formed on her eyelashes
and on her nostrils
to stop her teeth long enough
from chattering to say something
to the woman who is drowning
but the woman who is freezing to death
has trouble moving
with blocks of ice on her feet

It takes the three some time
to board the bus
what with the flames
and water and ice
But when they finally climb the stairs
and take their seats
the driver doesn’t even notice
that none of them has paid
because he is tortured
by visions and is wondering
if the man who got off at the last stop
was really being mauled to death
by wild dogs.

This poem not only shows the inside of Denver Butson’s mind, but also tells something about my mind, as a person who likes this poem. I think this poem is a great example of how beneath the surface of everyday interactions, everyone has their own distortions, deletions, hallucinations, and negative hallucinations. Perhaps my liking this poem, which I discovered years ago, was an early indicator of my future career as a hypnotherapist.

When it comes to poetry each person is allowed to have their own unique experience in it. Someone else might say that “Tuesday 9 a.m.” is symbolic of a crossroads in his/her life, or that it reminded him/her of family. Another may call it a cautionary tale about public transportation. The kind of poetry your clients gravitate to and their experiences in it can give you a lot of information for the hypnotic part of the session. For example, if my client said she was the woman at the bus stop who was drowning, I might put her on the well used imaginary staircase, but going up—out of the water, to higher and higher ground.

Poetry as a Secondary Induction

Poetry, like music, is to be heard.Basil Bunting

Gone are the days when you may have had to sit in a classroom and torture the meaning out of a poem—do they still do that in schools? I hope not. Poetry does not exist simply to convey meaning. The paraphrasable meaning of a poem is less than the poem itself. The sounds are where the meaning is just as much as the words. And if you have ever been to a good poetry reading, you know that poetry can induce hypnotic trance. The maternal lulling patter that I call “poet voice” is similar to hypnotherapist patter. And while many things can induce trance (driving, anxiety, television, etc.), none of these accidental inductions have the power to heal the way poetry does.

As I get to know my clients and what metaphors and images they resonate with, I may read poetry to them as an induction. From this framework I can then weave the metaphors from the poem through the hypnosis as a way of delivering the hypnotic suggestions. It is a bit Eriksonian, and works equally well for literal and inferential learners.

Poetry as Suggestion

Even before I became a hypnotherapist, people would come to me in search of help or wisdom. While I often didn’t know what to say, I knew I could always turn to poets—who have been making sense of the world for a lot longer than I have. I would open a well-read book of poetry or poetic prose and find just the right quote to read to them. So, on becoming a hypnotherapist, it was natural for me to look for hypnotic suggestions in poetry. Once you open yourself to the world of poetry, you will find that poems reflect the majority of issues we deal with in therapy – fears, relationships, communication, connection, hobbies, habits. Not only will you find suggestions in poetry, but powerful imagery and metaphors. For example, a lovely poem called “Ballplayer” by Evie Shockley can make an outdoor basketball game seem vividly alive and interesting to anyone that has ever watched a pick-up game. To an athlete who may be struggling with performance, it can add just the right magic into the hypnotic part of the session.

Some poems are so powerful they become personal mantras, especially during difficult or unreal times. For example, “Wait,” by Galway Kinnell, might be the mantra for someone who feels they have nothing to live for—who fears they might take their own life. Below are the first few lines from that lovely poem.

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.

Another poem, by Dylan Thomas, whose famous ending couplet has become the personal mantra for thousands, is:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Long before there were hypnotherapists, there were poets. Poets were some of the first hypnotherapists, and are still some of the finest. Here are just a few examples:

Jesus Christ is well-known as having taught in parables (stories), but what is not as well known is that he was also a poet. Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount, in its original language was written in a formal kind of poetry: a chiasmus. In English, a chiasmus is a very interesting and challenging form to write, with its repetitive, inverted parallelism, but it works naturally in the Aramaic and in Hebrew. [1] Unfortunately, most of the poetry has been lost in translation.

Lao-Tzu, an ancient Chinese mystic and philosopher, best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching and regarded by some as a the founder of Taoism, was also a poet. “As with most other ancient Chinese philosophers, Lao-Tzu often explains his ideas by way of paradox, analogy, appropriation of ancient sayings, repetition, symmetry, rhyme, and rhythm.” [2]

Among modern poets, there is Khalil Gibran, whose 1923 book of poetic prose titled The Prophet, gained huge popularity in the 1960s. Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. [3]

Then there is my Rilke, my personal favorite when looking for suggestions. Maria Rainer Rilke was an accomplished German poet, but he is probably most widely know and loved for a collection of poetic letters he wrote to an aspiring poet who sought his advice. A good translation [4] of this small volume can bring endless amounts of insight and suggestions for all kinds of presenting issues.

Here are just a few short excerpts from Letters to a Young Poet:

  • ...many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. [5]
  • We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it... Some people only come to know one corner of their room. [6]
  • ...we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. [7]
  • Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence something helpless that wants our love. [8]
  • Don’t search for the answers, which would not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. [9]
  • Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born...

I have used all of the above as direct suggestions or as inspiration for imagery in therapy.

When Nothing Else Works – Throw Poetry at Them

The act of writing poetry is an attempt to put into words that which the poet finds inexpressible. When it is successful, the act of reading or hearing it can create a similar, unsayable experience—an experience that is beyond logic, that bypasses the critical mind and, as Kafka so poetically suggests, can “smash the frozen sea within us.”

While it is easy to assume that poetry is only for a certain type of client, this belief could create missed opportunities. Poetry can have the most profound effect on the clients you wouldn’t expect. Of course, not everyone loves poetry. Some people will tell you they hate it. These people usually had a bad experience in school where they had to read medieval poetry and then analyze it. Most people are pleasantly surprised when exposed to contemporary poetry on a subject that interests them.

To the skeptical but willing client, I sometimes give the therapeutic directive to pick up a friendly anthology of poetry, like Poetry 180 [10] and tell me about their experience. The response from my logic-ruled clients is subtle but deep. It is usually for these clients that poetry is the most necessary. On this necessity, I can not add to what William Carlos Williams has already written so beautifully: My heart rouses thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men. Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there but in despised poems. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. [11]

I invite hypnotherapists and healers everywhere to explore how poetry can enhance your practice.

  4. I recommend Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Stephen Mitchell is a poet himself. He has also, incidentally translated the Tao Te Ching.
  5. Rilke, Maria Rainer. Letters to a Young Poet. Pages 83-85
  6. Rilke, Maria Rainer. Letters to a Young Poet. Pages 88-90
  7. Rilke, Maria Rainer. Letters to a Young Poet. Page 92
  8. Rilke, Maria Rainer. Letters to a Young Poet. Page 92
  9. Rilke, Maria Rainer. Letters to a Young Poet. Page 34
  10. Poetry 180 is a collection of accessible poems edited by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States
  11. William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, The Greeny Flower”