In 2016, I completed my PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. As part of that PhD, I carried out research into therapeutic poetry writing. As a poet and social researcher, I had become interested in the value of using poetry as a form of therapeutic writing, having always found writing poetry personally therapeutic. Writing poetry had enabled me to explore emotions, communicate thoughts and make sense of my experiences. I therefore decided I wanted to find out more as part of the research element of my PhD.
I particularly wanted to explore the benefits of using therapeutic poetry writing with those who have suffered emotional distress or trauma. I decided to facilitate a therapeutic poetry writing group, for women who had suffered trauma. My research showed that therapeutic poetry writing is effective. It enabled the participants to process their emotions and reflect on the past, which led to the release and relabelling of difficult memories. Writing also helped them to slow down, reflect, and engage with their imaginations; this suggested the possibility of envisioning living in a different way, facilitating change.
I discovered that poetry is particularly beneficial because it uses language that can bypass the rational, connecting directly with the emotions and the imagination. Poetry allows the use of symbols and metaphors, whereas diaries and letters were seen as too personal and quotidian. Writing a diary meant writing about things as they were; writing poetry meant writing about things as they could be.
I believe poetry is the best form of therapeutic writing. My research demonstrates that poetry invites communication with both the self and others, communicating emotions and difficult experiences in a way that other types of writing do not. I also came to the conclusion that poetry is particularly useful for dealing with trauma and emotional distress as traumatic memories are experienced as sensory and emotional impressions which are hard to communicate. Poetry is a way in which these impressions can be communicated. Metaphor is particularly useful when it comes to communicating trauma. Poetry writing accesses more spontaneous, less rational parts of the brain; areas where emotion is stored, in images and senses. The use of poetic language and metaphor can be vital therapeutically, circumnavigating blocks in the mind.
There are many other advantages to therapeutic poetry writing. Poetic form helps to organise chaotic thoughts and emotions while rhythm and rhyme allow the writer access to a deeper part of themselves. The ability to shape writing is also vital, providing power and autonomy over experiences. There are also practical benefits, particularly when writing in a group. New skills can be learned and previously unknown ones identified. Meeting in a group and sharing difficult experiences through the medium of personal poetry can be very helpful.
In summary, my (admittedly small-scale) study demonstrated that poetry writing as therapy is clearly effective, especially when exploring, expressing and processing emotions, which is often much harder to do through speaking. The use of metaphor provides a way into talking about difficult experiences, and poetry provides an ideal vehicle for therapeutic work because of the easy combination in a poem of both experiences and emotions. And although not everybody will find writing poetry therapeutic, I would argue that if more people were given the opportunity to write poetry, and particularly were given the chance to learn how to write therapeutic poetry in a supportive environment, many of them would be likely to find it helpful.
This article has been informed by my 2016 PhD thesis ‘Poetry as Therapy and Poetry beyond Therapy’ which can be read online here.
I run therapeutic writing workshops in Newcastle and the surrounding areas. Please contact me for more information, if you are interested.