Book Review: The Backwards Book: Poetry Therapy from Practice to Theory

Originally published in Éisteach: The Irish Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy 15 (4) Winter 2015.


Title: The Backwards Book. Poetry Therapy from Practice to Theory.
Author: Niall Hickey
Published: 2014
ISBN: 978-1-907855-07-8

A “backwards book”, as the name implies, means what is usually at the end of a book comes first and vice-versa. In this instance, the reader is immersed in Poetry Therapy from the get-go, albeit in a gentle manner. The first section of The Backwards Book, Strategies, explores themes and concepts within literature and therapy. These are approached in a personable way, with Hickey sharing anecdotes from his life. Childhood imagery mixes with adult literature as fairytales and literary giants, such as Yeats and Wordsworth, stand side by side. The brief chapters of this section each take an image or theme, such as fairies, puppets, and flowers (to name a few) and delve momentarily into their latent and overt meanings, as related to literature and therapy. What is garnered is a sense that the expression of creativity within a therapeutic context can have a profound effect on the individual. Hickey posits that “failure to activate innate creatively may indeed cause us to be disempowered” (p.26). Each chapter is ended with a theoretical standpoint, which serves to bring a sense of completeness to the chapter; otherwise it would simply be a section of nice but indifferent stories from Hickey’s life, laced with literary references.

Section two of the book is titled Complexities and each chapter therein is based tentatively on the four elements, as well as less tangible areas such as Darkness & Light and Pandora’s Box. These chapters mostly end with a theoretical underpinning however some summate with a commentary instead. In Complexities the reader is also introduced to several characters through segments entitled Imagine. This is Poetry Therapy in practice however it can be jarring at times and continues throughout the book. Overall, section two provides further insight into the role that Poetry Therapy can play in the therapeutic relationship and how society (through literature/arts) impacts the psyche, either consciously or unconsciously. Awareness of this enriches the work of therapy, as does the use of imagination.

The subjectiveness of Poetry Therapy allows much scope for movement, creativity, and manipulation of existing work. Hickey points out, and rightly so, that narratives have been written and re-written many times through the ages. The penultimate section, Towards a Theory of Practice, introduces the reader to the concept of the Altered Book, which is used to represent a narrative from the person’s own life. Broadly, it combines something that already exists with a person’s individual experience in the hope of making sense of it. In a nutshell, this is the process of Poetry Therapy. Use of cinquains (five line poem) as an introduction to Poetry Therapy is given a chapter of its own, as is the Altered Poem. Hickey elegantly states that poetry can become a portal which when passed through can bring about positive change.

The final section of The Backwards Book is quite brief and explores Alternative Modes used in Poetry Therapy, namely opera and film. These highlight that different expressive forms can be used in Poetry Therapy.

This book explores a wide variety of symbols, metaphors, and text that can be used in Poetry Therapy, running in tandem with sample narratives and anecdotes. Samples of experimental and experiential work are also provided, although it should be mentioned that this is not a book heavy on theory. Rather is serves as a primer, whetting the appetite. For anyone interested in Poetry Therapy and therapeutic arts it will make a good read but its light-hearted approach make it an easy read for anyone. The book itself, not merely its content, serves as a lesson in Poetry Therapy.

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