Poetry therapy

Poetry therapy as well as paremiological therapy, fairy tale therapy, etc. we consider it an organic part of bibliotherapy (Majzlanová 2014, p. 4). It works with mostly versed poetic literary text and although we also recognize lyrical prose, in poetotherapy we mainly work with lyrical poetry with certain characteristics. By their nature, these are much closer to music and music therapy (Svoboda 2007, p. 19) than other types of bibliotherapy, which are based on the time sequence of events and plot (epic), or dialogues (drama). For further details of the therapeutic-educational work within poetotherapy, we warmly recommend the reader to the works Poetoterapia (2007) and Poetoterapeutika (2014) writen by the mentioned two authors, because we present only basic information on the topic here.

Poetry is presented in verse, which is primarily intended to convey an emotional experience. Verse is the central principle of poetic creation. Regardless of the fact that there are also poems in prose, a verse work requires taking into account the sound form of the language (Kulka 1990, p. 325). Even if we read the poem in our mind, we are aware of its verbal rhythm and it affects us with the color of its words, which makes it easier to penetrate into the heart of the percipient.

Poetry is often characterized by subconscious, largely intuitive work with rhyme, rhythm, sound painting and other poetic attributes tied to musical characteristics. Poems and music have much in common, and it is inherently very difficult to separate poetry from music. Music is often a suitable background for poetry. It enhances its effect. The common sound and semantic structures, frequency, intensity, dynamics, color and harmony of the human voice, which not only transmit information, but also heal with their specific aesthetics and harmony when the literary work is chosen appropriately, because they primarily affect emotions, quickly transition from plot to content, from narration to statement and from imagination to sensual experience. Vocalized music is actually poetry set to music, and if poetotherapy is a game, its effects are multiplied (Svoboda 2007, p. 15-16, p. 20, p. 39, p. 165).

In this context, it is certainly interesting to know that the original word therapeia collectively referred to therapy with dancing, singing, poetry, drama and other forms of art, when in the metaphorical narrative expression Asclepius – the god of health – was the son of the god Apollo, who was the patron of poetry. Medicine and art have always been historically linked, and the original meaning of the word therapeia also included a pedagogical dimension (Svoboda, pp. 13-14).

Author Waltraud Guglielmi in her article Agyptischen Literatur (1996) provides references that indicate that many ancient Egyptian religious texts were meant to be chanted or sung rather than read, and according to Michael H. Thaut (2015) the Egyptian priests of the time- doctors called music “physics for the soul”.

Similarly, Stiebitz (1957) mentions an interesting historical fact related to ancient Greece in connection with poetotherapy, according to which “Greek lyric poetry, which has its roots in ancient folkloric Greek poetry, was predominantly associated with music, i.e. singing accompanied by a musical instrument, until the Hellenistic period and often also with rhythmic movement (dance), where the poet was simultaneously a music composer, often himself also a performing artist and, if necessary, a choreographer.” (p. 9)

According to this author, it was not until the Hellenistic period that simple lecturing and reading became dominant, even though, in addition to the read lyric, the sung lyric was still maintained, especially for cultic and ceremonial needs (p. 9). For example, the Romans didn’t even have a name for a poet, they borrowed it from the Greeks (poet from Greek poiétés = “creator”) and didn’t even have a word for the concept of “poem” (p. 8). Poetry began to be created only when interest in public affairs declined in society and apoliticalness and the attempt to escape into privacy became characteristic (p. 9).

Caroll (2005) further connects this private space designated in ancient times for poetry with a transcendental dimension when he states that in China, for example, the word poetry is written with two characters. One is the sign for the word “word” and the other is the sign for the word “sanctuary”. It is as if the author wanted to emphasize the generally valid dimension – connecting human beings to each other through internalized contents – the transcendental dimension of poetic contemplation.

Sensual utterance, feelings, emotions and moods expressed in aesthetically arranged sound/language forms evoking a feeling of inner harmony are in the foreground. The sound form of language, sound-painting words, rhythm and rhyme, melody, harmony in poems and the naturally present acoustic characteristics of human speech, even during non-verbalized reading, evoke specific images and experiences in the individual = painting pictures (imagination) with words that reflect one of the most intimate ways of man’s dialogue with himself.

According to Hall (1960), rhythm “is seen as the beating of words, the repetition of certain sounds – and this repetition has a hypnotic quality helping to create mysterious spaces and bridges leading to the subconscious from where the poem springs” (in Svoboda p. 40). This enables not only the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and personal growth and the therapeutic, but also preventive and rehabilitative effects of poetry therapy.

It is very difficult to compare and separate the effects of the individual components on the individuality of a person on the semantic informational and musical sound level of a poetic statement. Svoboda, in his already mentioned publication from 2007 (p. 16) devoted to poetry therapy, cites the author Lukasová (1999), according to which, thanks to the mentioned attributes, the spiritual dimension of man is at the center of poetry therapy efforts and with it all our struggle, questioning, search and desire for sense of being, which at the same time enables a deeper understanding of one’s own being and values.

As it was stated by Číková (in Majzlanová, p. 16) – when it comes to reading interests – it is quite common that most people are not interested in poetry, but when, thanks to the right guidance, they open up and allow themselves to start dealing with poetry, its source opens up about which they then say that it gave them a lot and they had no idea that they could look at the poems differently than they did until now.

According to Svoboda, poetry therapy should mainly be a relaxing activity, a game with sounds, words, sound and rhythm, which should be non-committal, fun, creative joy and awareness of being different from everyday life, and thus it is healing.

Svoboda presents many techniques, inspiring procedures and instructions on how to work with poetotherapy at the end of his already mentioned publication from 2007. Likewise, the lists of poems on individual topics that Majzlanová presents at the end of her publication Poetoterapeutika from 2014 are also useful. It is equally possible to work with song texts (= poems set to music) as part of poetry therapy. In addition to the sung songs, some sung-recited ones are also very well known in Slovakia, such as Ľúbim ťa [I love you] interpreted by Michal Dočolomanský and Eva Kostolanyiová (available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55iTI-L_HFM) or Klíč pro štestí [Key for luck] in the great interpretation of Maria Rottrová and Jiří Bartoška We present our own experiences from the exercise with song tests, which had the ambition to overcome the prejudices of lack of interest in poetry, and it succeeded.

As the above-mentioned authors state, our own experience also confirms that few people, when directly invited to write poems as a tool for sharing and expressing their own thoughts or emotional state through poems, undertake it.

It is common that most of the time it is difficult to remember his favorite poem and the person often claims that he doesn’t even have one. However, when we offer the information that the songs are actually poems set to music, it helps to easily remember, for example, “Lyrics to a song that makes me happy” and work with its content.

Information about this exercise, which we used at the very beginning of our work at the Department of Curative Education of the Faculty of Pedagogy of the Comenius University in Bratislava in the academic year 2018/2019 on the subject of bibliotherapy with students of the 1st year of the full-time master’s study of the Curative Education study program, and since then we have applied it repeatedly also in other years, and which brought to the students enriching insights regarding their inner self-knowledge and work with their own emotional contents, as well as a wonderful sound synergistic experience of “the unity of the group in the individual differences of its members” when asked to sing together all the individual lyrics of the songs at the same time, which they make them happy.

Example of an exercisemethodology and description of results

As stated by Majzlanová (1987 in Müller), when sharing an experience individually or in a group, one can tell about oneself and one’s contact with the world through the poet’s thoughts or through one’s own work, which is not primarily intended for publication. Caroll (2005), for example, in his article describes the observed clear deepening of the therapeutic effect of writing poetry by patients with oncological disease in the case of verbal expression of their own written text.

However, no one can be forced into such a verbal expression, and therefore Svoboda points out that in order for such joint sharing to occur at all, it is necessary to devote a sufficient amount of time to various introductory fun warm-up techniques (p. 83 et seq.), which he presents in his publication several and which are liked by both children and adults.

If you are interested in writing high-quality verse texts in Slovak intended for publication, we recommend the reader to the work of Jozef Urban Utrpenie mladého poeta [Suffering of the young poet] from 1999 (by the way, the author of the text of the very famous song in Slovakia Voda, čo ma drží nad vodou [Water, what keeps me afloat]), which formulates the rules for writing poems intended for publication. They also apply to the writing of free verse because, as the author states, “the essence has always been the idea, what is important to express through a poem or rhyming prose text (purpose) and which the poetic form is supposed to support.” (p. 60)

For example, author Caroll (2005) states that people often turn to writing poetry in extreme situations, for example, the New York Times of October 2001 documented that after the attacks on the World Trade Center, people consoled themselves—and each other—with poetry in an almost unprecedented manner. Improvised memorials were created, often conceived around poems, poems appeared in shop windows, in buses, parks and everywhere else… Some experiences turn out to be so great that it seems necessary to go beyond ordinary language and that is precisely the occasion for poetry. In her publication dedicated to poetry therapy, Svoboda cites, for example, Ruth Lisa Schechter, who successfully applied poetry therapy as a supportive treatment method for patients suffering from the consequences of rape, incest and domestic violence (2007, p. 51).

In Slovakia, poetry therapy is taught as part of the subject bibliotherapy within the study program of curative education at the Faculty of Education of the Comenius University in Bratislava, in the Czech Republic as part of the university programs of special pedagogy at the universities of Olomouc and Prague. In the US, there is the National Society for Poetry Therapy and the International Federation of Biblio/Poetry therapy, which have formulated recommended guidelines for the practice of poetry therapy available at https://poetrytherapy.org/  and related training at https://ifbpt.org/.


In this way, I would like to thank the acoustic physicist John Stuart Reid from Great Britain, who has been dealing with the therapeutic effects of sound for a long time (for more detailed information in Slovak, see, for example, https://ortopedickymagazin.sk/terapia-zvukom-rozhovor-s-vedcom-v-odbore-akustickej -fyzyky-john-stuart-reid/, in English at https://cymascope.com/) and we had the opportunity to get to know each other and cooperate with each other in the years 2020-2022 within the international project Erasmus+ “A complex multiprofessional approach to the treatment of patients using less of frequent methods” within the key activity Strategic Partnerships for Innovations (more information at www.acuclinic.eu) for finding and providing information for this article on the original synthesis of verbal, musical, dance and medical art from valuable foreign information sources. Thank you for meeting and I look forward to our precious friendship. I also thank doc. PhDr. Miloš Šlepecký, CSc. for interesting information about their joint poetry therapy work together with the author O. Číková, colleague J. Lehotský and other colleagues in a psychiatric care facility in Slovakia in the 1970s, which we were able to quote here thanks to our joint communication.


Carroll, Robert. 2005. Finding the Words to Say it. Healing Power of Poetry. In Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative medicine, vol. 2 (2), pp. 161-172. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1142208/

Guglielmi, Waltraud. 1996. Aegyptishen literature. (Ed. Loprieno). ISBN 0-069-80067-1

Kotrbová, Kvetoslava. 2023. Cvičenia pre prácu s básňami [Exercises for working with poems.] In Biblioterapia 3. Lectures and exercises for students of the medical pedagogy study program. Comenius University in Bratislava, Faculty of Pedagogy, Department of Curative Educaton, academic year 2018/2019, summer semester, updated in connection with the Erasmus+ project “Prototype teaching aid for bibliotherapy” on June 11, 2023.

Bullet, Jiří. 1990. Psychology of art (general basics). Prague: State pedagogical publishing house. 435 p. ISBN 8004236944

Stiebitz, Ferdinand et al. 1957. Roman poetry. Prague: State publishing house of beautiful literature, music and art. (no ISBN)

Majzlanová, Katarína. 2014. Poetoterapeutika. [Poetotherapeutics.] Bratislava: Published at own expense. 106 p. ISBN 978-80-8153-035-7

Freedom, Pavel. 2007. Poetry therapy. Olomouc: Palacký University in Olomouc, Faculty of Education, 2007. 190 p. ISBN 978-80-244-1682-3

Thaut, H. Michael. 2015. Music as therapy in early history. Progress in Brain Research, Vol. 217, DOI: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2014.11.025

Urban, Jozef. 1999. Utrpenie mladého poeta. [Suffering of a young poet.] Bratislava: Slovak writer. 156 p. ISBN 80-220-0951-2

It didn’t pass language editing!


PhDr. Kvetoslava Kotrbová, PhD., MPH, Department of Curative Education, Faculty of Pedagogy of the Comenius University in Bratislava, June 12, 2023.

Recommended citation method:

Kotrbová Kvetoslava. 2023. Poetry therapy. In Biblioterapia.sk. In Kotrbová, K. et al: Biblioterapia.sk. Bratislava: PRO SKIZP – Association to support the development of the Slovak Chamber of Clinical Physics, Laboratory Diagnosticians, Language Speech Therapists and Therapeutic Pedagogues, 2023.  ISBN 978-80-974667-0-1 Available on: https://www.biblioterapia.sk/en/poetotherapy/

The contribution was created thanks to support from the European Union Erasmus+ program, Key action 2 – Cooperation between organizations and institutions, KA210 – Small partnerships for cooperation in the field of education and training. Project name “Prototype of online study tool for bibliotherapy”, project number 2022-1-SK01-KA210-VET-000082483. It represents the opinion of the author and neither the European Commission nor the author is responsible for any use of the information contained therein.