Therapeutic Powers of Writing Poetry

In case you missed it, here is an article I wrote for the November 2019 issue of In the Moment magazine about poetry therapy. Don’t forget, I’m running some writing therapy workshops in Norwich this spring. More here.

By Leah Larwood

In recent years creative writing, and indeed, poetry therapy has become an increasingly popular route for those looking for ways to improve their wellbeing. Yet putting pen to paper in order to process thoughts and feelings is actually an instinctive tool we learn very early on.

Over the years I’ve experimented with writing short stories, half a novel, a chapter of a memoir, a third of a screenplay and many journal entries. Yet for me, the most transformative and enriching writing form has been poetry. It’s offered a different ‘way in’, and on many occasions has channelled new awareness and insights from my psyche onto the page.

I’ve also experienced a real sense of accomplishment when writing a simple poem. Every word counts. A poem is succinct, packed with meaning. Unlike attempting a short story or a novel, it offers a faster dose of fulfillment – often it takes just a few hours to write a draft poem.

Poetry isn’t just a vehicle to express your feelings and opinions, it’s also a way to develop your voice, identity and character. In short, poetry hands you your power back, should it have ever left you.

Reading poetry is equally important too; the best poems will inspire you to reflect, dream, observe and grow. Poetry has of course experienced a revival in recent years. It’s partly thanks to modern poets such as Hollie McNish, Kate Tempest, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Rupi Kaur, who are masters (or rather, mistresses) at expressing contemporary concerns or truths.

In fact, truth telling is another reason why poetry continues to be universally loved. Briony Bax, Editor of leading poetry magazine, Ambit said: “Hollie McNish tells the truth in a way that makes us uncomfortable, she talks about the realities of living and uses her experiences to write about the caverns in our class system.”

You see, the therapeutic powers of poetry are not limited to just helping those through periods of low mood. It’s also an evocative way to be heard. Writing just a few lines of poetry can allow you to process experiences, often leading to new realisations about yourself and others. For others, it’s simply a way to work things out. Poet and Ted Hughes Award winner, Hollie McNish said:

“I’ve always written poetry. I guess at first it was confusion, or anger, or on a lighter level, humour. I liked working things out through poetry but also having a laugh too. It has certainly really helped me pick apart my thoughts on things and take my time more. As in, thinking things through, working things out more. It has also been an outlet of my honest thoughts on things, a place where I can just write for myself about whatever I want. What I then choose to share with other people comes second to that”.

Indeed writing for yourself, and no one else, is absolutely crucial. Being unedited allows you to authentically explore what maters to you. Also, by sculpting your emotions or concerns into a poem, it can give your conscious mind a holiday. It’s a great way to tap into the fountain of activity ‘beneath the iceberg’, within the subconscious mind. That’s where the ‘gold’ lies. Or as the Australian poet Les Murray describes poetry, “a zoo in which you keep your demons and angels”.

There are many other poets, myself included, who often use personal themes to explore past traumas, experiences or relationships. Poet, artist, tutor and Eric Gregory Award winner, Helen Ivory said:

“I found that using the character of Bluebeard, that famous wife-murderer (!) in my fourth collection Waiting for Bluebeard, enabled me to write about an abusive relationship I was in for eleven years. I found myself one day writing about a character called Bluebeard, which was around seven years after I had left him.  Until that point I just had an amorphous dark shadow over that time. How could I be the woman living in Bluebeard’s house? 

“I wrote the poems to understand how, and the poems began with my childhood and the shadowy figure of my father. In this way the writing process was extremely therapeutic for me, though I didn’t actually think that at the time. I didn’t force myself to write anything to help me organise things inside my head, but that’s what happened – I claimed my life.”

As a result, many people have connected with Helen’s poetry – her poems have enabled others to write or share their own experiences of domestic abuse too.

So what is it that makes poetry so therapeutic? Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan, psychologist and published poet said:

“Poetry’s therapeutic value is linked to its limitlessness. You can imagine yourself in newer, different places and thereby you can be transported away from the current clutch of worries or anxieties. You can create a collage for a world you wish to inhabit without being impeded by the notions of practicalities and borders.” 

That was particularly true for me. I started dabbling in poetry just before I fell pregnant and then again when I started suffering from postnatal depression. As a busy and shattered new mother, I found it to be a manageable form. Writing poetry uplifted me in such a way that I was able to break through the feelings of isolation and grief by rediscovering my identify. I began to recognise myself again by communicating my reality onto the page. Sometimes this was executed with some ambiguity to the reader, which provided a ‘safe space’ where needed.

During those hazy mornings and difficult nights, what I was scribbling onto scraps of paper, in between feeds, wasn’t poetry. Much of my therapeutic writing did later transform into poems, but in those early days, words were fragments from my mind looking to escape. I captured all the dark thoughts, the things I couldn’t share with anyone. In fact, it was these most challenging times that brought a wellspring of inspiration. The page was a place I could go to make sense of things. Often, I’d end up finding missing pieces of the jigsaw – writing things I had no idea I was feeling or thinking.

Interestingly, I’ve recently discovered that there are specific types of poems you can explore, depending on how you are feeling. Psychologist, Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan added:

“Poems come in many different shapes and sizes. I have used haibun as a format for clients who have debilitating anxieties or OCD as part of their journaling practice. Elegies can be read and written to comfort one in times of grief or loss. There is a sense of companionship I derive from having read a poem that mirrors my current state of being. This can be true for others as well.”

However, I’m a big believer that you don’t have to fully understand technique or form to be able to write a poem or benefit from poetry therapy. Poets and teachers may argue that there is a great deal that can, and must be learned about form. With poetry therapy, what’s important is the process of writing, not the outcome.

Luckily, these days there are many opportunities to explore poetry seriously, for fun or as a form of creative therapy. There are also countless magazines, workshops, online courses, poetry schools, masters programmes, retreats, mentors, grants, competitions and regional 1:1 poetry clinics to choose from.

The most important thing to remember is to just write, from wherever is calling. Remain close to what matters to you, write free but stay true, and let the process unfold without overthinking it.

Must Read: Poetry Therapy Top Pick

William Sieghart has just launched a new book on the heels of his best-selling anthology, The Poetry Pharmacy. Poetry saved William’s sanity as an unhappy child and it became the thing he shared when he founded the National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes for Poetry.His second self-help book, The Poetry Pharmacy Returns, is designed around modern anxieties, with poems prescribed to ease the mind. Themes include overthinking, pushy parenting, anxieties and insecurities, romantic exhaustion, misogyny and political apathy. From William Wordsworth and Robert Frost to Wendy Cope and Kate Tempest, The Poetry Pharmacy Returns is a collection from which to draw solace and strength.

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