Poetry, All Art, & Their Roles in Our Everyday Lives
By Jennifer Hetrick, President of Berks Bards
Poetry—as a literary, vocal, and often physical form of art—is a part of everyday life often more than people realize, and this means there is room for it to be noticed even in our jobs and work-worlds.
If you slow down enough to recognize it, poetry can and does play a role in many of our life-minutes across waking, meals, working, conversations with those who grow to matter to us, time spent outdoors, grocery shopping, when we’re walking or driving in parking lots, doing laundry, and in our moments of silence. And the more we open up to gleaning its place in our lives, the more we potentially begin to sense and speak it in our day-to-day living.
Photo Credit: Valentin Salja
Each May, Mental Health Month is a fitting segue in leaving behind April as National Poetry Month. This theme-honoring month focused on awareness and breaking stigmas to help people feel less judged and instead more comfortable accepting themselves, welcoming the benefits of working on ourselves within and on the outside, began in 1949, according to youth.gov.
Marika Horacek-Kunkle, MA, LPC, ATR-BC, a Breakthrough Therapist at the Caron Treatment Centers location in South Heidelberg Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania, a little over an hour northwest of Philadelphia, shares her insights on the value of Mental Health Month in addition to poetry’s value in an everyday sense as well as that of all art.
“I’ve volunteered extensively at the Helen Keller National Center, Free Arts NYC, Wernersville State Hospital, and the Greater Reading Mental Health Alliance in art advocacy, most recently joining the Muhlenberg Township Arts Board locally.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she co-facilitated weeklong experiential personal growth workshops in the Breakthrough program at her campus; she also facilitates art therapy groups and is inspired daily by her belief in the healing powers of creativity and art-making.
“Historically, Westerners have had the tendency to focus on physical health, and by ‘health,’ most frequently, that has been defined as lack of illness—not necessarily that someone is engaged in self-care or actively engaging in practices promoting their wellness," Horacek-Kunkle reflects. “Having a month devoted to increasing awareness of mental health is essential in helping to increase awareness that individuals are multifaceted, made of many different elements.”
She points out that, “When someone’s mental health is compromised, all other aspects of their wellness are impacted. Mental Health Month provides a platform to discuss how mental health can be impacted and the amazing benefits to engaging in creative activities like art and poetry.”
Some folks say art is necessary at a soul-level, and for the good of our hearts and mental states, for us as creatures of this earth.
“Art has been an essential part of humanity since its inception when individuals first had the ability to make marks,” Horacek-Kunkle adds. “Whether creative exploration has had utilitarian purpose, commemorated events, or conveyed information about a culture, art has been imbued in all aspects of our lives. Creativity is necessary for the soul, and I utilize art therapy book author Cathy Malchiodi’s definition of the word—‘Creativity is a means of personal-growth, self-understanding, change, and rehabilitation. Art-making not only helps uncover one’s creative potential but also enhances health and wellbeing.’ I have found that individuals may have difficulty accepting their artistic side and feeling that their work can be referred to as art. When we look at it through the lens of creativity, we have an opportunity to widen the types of things individuals can take part in and make when they feel they are being creative. When I am facilitating groups, we discuss creating in a variety of settings with various materials, such as cooking, gardening, auto mechanics, theater, etc. My perspective is that it is imperative that individuals feel they are being creative, as creativity itself is a life-sustaining force, and the way in which an individual engages in creative acts gets to be defined by each person.”
Photo Credit: Laura Chouette
It seems as though there is nothing quite like creating and that the very act of it offers a distinctly different energetic feeling compared to moments of not creating. It often feels uniquely powerful, enlivening, confidence-instilling, beneficial for people and their communities, and like a way to connect and unify people by whatever is created. This is even more possible sensation-wise if they slow down to be in similar energy-oriented space together with something tied to art-making, including writing poetry alone or collectively as well as reading it out loud, performing it, and hearing it.
“Research and literature often refer to the creative flow possible when someone is creating,” Horacek-Kunkle says. “I have experienced being in these flow states, where time cannot be measured, and my world is focused solely on my relationship with my art-making. It is a powerful state, one which I think artists strive for within, once they’ve had a personal experience with feeling in the zone, in flow. I also feel that art is about relationships, the relationship between the artist and their materials and then between the piece of art and the viewer, if it comes to that level of creation. Art is a connecting force in life, if people are open to experience it in that way. It is also important to note that the flow and exhilaration of creating is separate from any finished piece. In art therapy, the focus is on the process of making, not on the creation of a product.”
In certain cases, some people assume poetry and other forms of art are not something they can relate to, perceiving them as abstract, obscure, or hard to relate to and understand. Poetry from past centuries and decades, not contemporary, or written very cryptically, can often reinforce this, but thankfully, there are plenty of accessible poems out in the world, and the best of writers communicate in language which people at different levels can grasp and appreciate so that it’s more universal in feel and reach.
Horacek-Kunkle explains how pushing poetry and different approaches to art away can happen.
“Our first experiences with art-making and writing have a lasting impact on our self-assessment of our own abilities,” she notes. “Often, we want to discount means of art we have attempted when we have not had successful responses from others, when shared. People can easily get caught up in the concept of right and wrong in creating and writing instead of allowing themselves to feel whether something speaks to them from a deeper place.”
A societally relevant and relatable poem to mention here is one by Nayyirah Waheed who is sometimes referenced as one of a good handful of Instapoets, young writers sharing often very brief poems on Instagram. Less active since last year on the social media platform, she still has a wide-reaching range of fans as more than 600,000 followers on Instagram, but her brevity-rich poems are easily discovered by looking up her name on Google under the Images tab.
the hard season
split you through.
do not worry.
you will bleed water.
do not worry.
this is grief.
your face will fall out and
down your skin
there will be scorching.
but do not worry.
keep speaking the years from
their hiding places.
keep coughing up smoke
from all the deaths you have
keep the rage tender.
because the soft season will
it will come.
both hands in your chest.
up all night.
up all of the nights.
to drink all damage into love.
“Poetry is valuable because it helps individuals to find and use their own voice,” Horacek-Kunkle adds. “It provides a way for one to make sense of the world as well as let go of ideas that may not serve an individual. One of the most important discussions we can have with others is about the power of language. We are constantly creating with our words and actions—our inability to recognize that creation in each moment does not limit the process. Neuroscience research supports that the choices we make consistently reinforce the neural pathways in our brains, therefore, using disempowering vocabulary limits our self-concept.”
It is so easy to not catch our self-berating sentences and how we can trap ourselves and hold ourselves down by the words we use. Yet they have the flexibility to reinforce our power, deservingness, and growth, if we can build our awareness to realize this.
“One of the things I discuss in group art therapy workshops is the use of diminishing words, such as ‘just’ and ‘but,’” she explains. “I attempt to slow people down to provide them with the opportunity to witness what they are creating with their speaking and writing. Language can be used to imprison us or to free us. Oftentimes, patients need to be introduced to their power and efficacy in utilizing language to free themselves of burdens.”
Photo Credit: Trust "Tru" Katsande
And she shares more in how she’s used poetry in her work in teaching others to give themselves permission to create.
“I’ve used poetry to spark art-making with art therapy directives, and I’ve had individuals connect with poems to gain insight that they are not alone, that there are people who can relate to their struggles,” she says. “I’ve also seen people who had long given up on considering themselves artists—newly finding and enjoying the act of creating again, especially when there is a focus on process, not product. Introducing poetry to groups is beneficial for patients to see how much is open to interpretation and how much the reader’s perspective alters the potential meanings in a piece of work, and of course, this can be relevant to all people. Poetry is also an important way to illustrate the power of language, particularly in considering specific word choices and imagery. Poetry and other types of art provide a person with opportunities to make choices, creating something of their own, whether independently or in highly structured environments, like the campus where I work.”
And speaking of our job-worlds for the rest of us as a part of our larger everyday worlds, here is an excerpt from Gary Soto's poem called, “Self-Inquiry before the Job Interview."
I shook hands that dripped like a dirty sea.
I found a chair and desk. My name tag said my name.
Through the glass ceiling, I saw the heavy rumps of CEOs.
Outside my window, the sun was a burning stove,
All of us pushing papers
To keep it going.
She also offers an eye into how poetry can be expansive for a person in welcoming growth of thought across concepts and cultures, in addition to helping to better develop everyday skills tied to interacting with those around us.
“It can be a helpful way to present a topic as well as provide structures that can then be emulated as a starting place for work,” she adds. “Poetry is also an amazing exercise in listening. I learned from a poetry therapist that it is important to read each poem out loud in the group three times (and across voices of different people versus only one person reading a poem verbally, too), as each is an opportunity to hear something new. This is an incredible lesson in slowing down, being in the present moment, and practicing mindfulness.”
When Horacek-Kunkle initially heard of Berks Bards as a local poetry-promoting nonprofit in Berks County, first founded in 1998, she says she felt excited to hear about a group like this existing in her own community.
“I always appreciate when artists have venues to be together, share their art, and support one another,” she admits. “Plus, art-making can be an isolating process, so having opportunities to be with other artists, even via Zoom, now, is vital. It is also important to have safe places to share what you have been working on, whether to receive accolades or encouragement, or to just feel heard. And talking through struggles and hearing or seeing others’ work can help to spark our own creativity.”
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Berks Bards receives state arts grant funding from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts through the Berks Arts Council based inside GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in the City of Reading.
“Roy Fox Lichtenstein (who lived from 1923 until 1997), a peer of Andy Warhol in the 1960s in the new art movement, said that, ‘Art doesn’t just transform. It just plain forms,’” Horacek-Kunkle says. “Art is one of the building blocks of culture, and by providing communities access to the arts through grants like the ones awarded by these Pennsylvania-based arts-advocacy organizations, allows for engagement with the self and with society. The arts engage many areas of the brain, promote understanding, sharing of cultures, and social skills, to name just a few of the positive aspects made possible when a person engages with art. Other positive attributes promoted when one is creating include increasing observation skills, focus, self-expression, perseverance, collaboration, and risk-taking. These organizations contribute vitally to communities by providing access to the arts, and by doing so, allow individuals to become self-actualized. Access to the arts contributes to an individual’s self-esteem, mental health, and allows for a different approach for self-expression. Art, and specifically poetry, allows for a place to release all the things which are not always able to be said in other ways.”
Poet Mary Oliver, born in 1935, passing away last year, wrote these lines in her poem titled, "Invitation," and its resonance now seems even more in tune with what we're enduring globally and locally than when she created it. We share this excerpt with you, reader, as a final word of comfort and inspiration in what's possible to be glimpsed and known through the fortunate resource of poetry.
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world.
Marika Horacek-Kunkle is in the process of providing outpatient art therapy services independently in Southeastern Pennsylvania, which may lead to other nonprofit work in the future. She can be reached at PennCreativeArts@gmail.com.