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Health Fusion: Superheroes, silver bullets and the healing power of poetry

What superhero has the power to swoop into your life and help make challenges seem a little easier? The answer is poetry. In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams explores the healing powers of verse.

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Rochester Poet Laureate Susan McMillan reads a poem during 4th Fest on Sunday, July 4, 2021, at Soldiers Memorial Field in Rochester, Minnesota.
Joe Ahlquist / Rochester Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — What do superheroes and silver bullets have to do with poetry? After doing a little research on the healing power of poetry, I've concluded that they are all one in the same. Let me explain.

Superheroes, equipped with amazing super powers, swoop in and save people. Silver bullets sort of do the same thing. They offer fast and easy solutions to tough problems.

When I typed "the healing power of poetry" into my laptop search bar, a slew of research papers popped up. One article, "More Than Words: Why Poetry is Good for Our Health," from the International Arts and Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University, notes that the written word has the power to help reduce stress during times of difficulty. How? By giving people the opportunity to express themselves and make a little sense of whatever it is that's disrupting their world.

For example, a 2021 study published in the journal Hospital Pediatrics shows that poetry helps calm fears, worry and sadness of kids in the hospital. And in another paper , the authors conclude that poetry helped reduce anxiety and boost resilience in cancer patients. Hospitals and cancer can be scary and stress-inducing to patients and their loved ones. And if poetry offers a way to help mitigate those fears, I categorize it as a superhero.

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"Poetry is the voice of the human spirit," says Susan McMillan, Rochester Poet Laureate. "The Southeastern Minnesota Poets group meets regularly to share poetry. There have been many times when people tear up during a reading because they've been there — they can relate to the situation portrayed in the poem. Maybe it's a relative with Alzheimer's disease or someone suffering from cancer. The gathering can become sort of a support group."

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McMillan says some people are afraid of poetry because of a bad introduction to it in high school or elsewhere. But she says poetry does not have to be scary (after all, both nursery rhymes and naughty limericks are poems, too). McMillan encourages everyone to try reading and writing some poems.

"Poetry is a beautiful, open form of human expression," McMillan says. "You don't have to know anything to write it. Your poems may not be clever or ever published, but they will be meaningful."

Healing power of poetry
An evening of poetry makes that pile of wrinkled laundry less daunting
Viv Williams

In March, I had the opportunity to emcee the Southeastern Minnesota Poets virtual event, "Bright Light Stories in the Night." Works penned by area poets were read. The poems were compiled into a chapbook, each illustrated by area artists. This year's event included readings dedicated to people suffering as a result of the war in Ukraine.

It was a beautiful evening. When I signed off, I felt as if I had just been zapped by an anti-stress superhero. I was no longer fretting as much about the chores I had left unattended or goals I didn't reach earlier in the day. I was calm and filled with appreciation for experiencing such an amazing outpouring of creativity and meaning.

As McMillan told me, sharing poetry brings people together and allows us to articulate things that are troublesome or difficult.

"Yes," McMillan says. "From my perspective, poetry can heal."

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Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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