Poetry therapy: why reading and writing poems is good for you

Reading and writing poetry can inspire you to reflect, dream, develop your voice and grow, writes Leah Larwood

Poetry therapy

Creative writing and, indeed, poetry therapy have 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.

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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 a new awareness and fresh insights from my psyche onto the page. I’ve also experienced a real sense of achievement 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 fulfilment – 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; 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, Kae Tempest, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Rupi Kaur, who are skilled at expressing contemporary concerns or truths through poetry. In fact, truth-telling is another reason why poetry continues to be universally loved.

“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,” explains Briony Bax, editor of poetry magazine, Ambit.

The therapeutic powers of poetry are not limited to helping us through periods of low mood either. A poem is 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.

Sometimes, a poem is simply a way to work things out. “I’ve always written poetry. I guess at first it was confusion, or anger, or on a lighter level, humour,” says poet and Ted Hughes Award winner, Hollie McNish. “I liked working things out through poetry but having a laugh too. It has certainly helped me pick apart my thoughts on things and take my time 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 is absolutely crucial. Being unedited allows you to explore what matters to you. Sculpting your emotions or concerns into poetry 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 is “a zoo in which you keep your demons and angels”.

There are many other poets, myself included, who use personal themes to explore past experiences. “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,” says Helen Ivory – a poet, artist, tutor and Eric Gregory Award winner. “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 – and her poems have enabled others to write and sometimes share their own experiences of domestic abuse too. So what is it that makes poetry so therapeutic? “Poetry’s therapeutic value is linked to its limitlessness,” says Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan, clinical psychologist and published poet. “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 identity. 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’ for me 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.

Recently, I’ve discovered the power of exploring specific types of poems depending on how I am feeling. Scherezade agrees. “Poems come in many different shapes and sizes. I have used haibun [a Japanese poetry form which combines prose and haiku and often includes autobiography] as a format for clients who have debilitating anxieties or OCD as part of their journalling practice. Elegies [a deep reflection or lament] can be read and written to comfort us 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.” That said, I’m a big believer that you don’t have to fully understand technique or form (the shape and structure of the poem) 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, but with poetry therapy, what’s important is the process of writing, not the outcome.

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.

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Poetry therapy
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How to write your own poetry

Want to write but not sure how to begin? Try Leah’s top tips…

1

Capture your gold

Whether you deeply believe it or not, you are creative and it’s something that can be nurtured. Keeping a pocket-sized journal to note interesting thoughts, observations and intriguing phrases will help you to connect with your creative side.

2

Keep a juxtaposition bank

Try keeping a ‘word bank’ at the end of each journal, with words and phrases that sound striking in some way. I love: lollygag, day raw, monochrome, jabbering, juju, poppycock. In some cases, pairing an interesting-sounding word with an ordinary object can feel pleasing: disemboweled motorbike. You can call upon these for inspiration when you need them.

3

Find a topic

Find a theme or starting point by asking yourself a few questions: What frightens you? What delights you? What intrigues you? What do you appreciate about who you are, and others? What do you feel most passionate about? What makes you cry?

4

Drop perfectionism

Forget about writing a poem. Forget that it has to look or sound a certain way. Write like nobody’s watching. Write the same way that you speak. Don’t use expensive words you wouldn’t usually use. If you’re being you, your inner gold will shine through.

5

Oil your subconscious

Try some ‘free writing’. Write for five minutes without stopping. Write anything and everything that comes into your head. First thing in the morning just after you’ve woken is ideal. Next, read it back and look for the rubies within the rubble. You might even find a poem, after some editing.

6

Listen to your dreams

Our dreams, and nightmares, are designed to tell us things. Start listening to yours. Keep a dream diary by your bed and note any interesting insights. The more you can do this, the more you will start regularly remembering your dreams, and the inspiring or interesting content that comes with them.

7

Tackle tricky subjects

Use your challenges to find good ideas. However, if you’re writing about difficult stuff that begins to feel overwhelming, try focusing on the feelings surrounding the incident or create a safe distance between your feelings and your writing. Instead of directly writing about a traumatic event or feeling, use a different pronoun, or project your feelings onto something else.

8

Find your form

Don’t worry about form to begin with, but if and when you get into writing poetry, it’s a good thing to explore. Ask yourself, what appeals to me? A sonnet, free verse, haiku, list poem, sestina, villanelle? Find excellent guides on form (£3) at mslexia.co.uk.

9

Be inspired by…

Good poems are the best teachers. Try emulating the same shape and structure of a poem you love. My first published poem was inspired by Charles Bukowski’s Bluebird – I chose a jackdaw, and instead of writing about the beauty of the hidden self, I wrote about a slightly darker and mischievous inner force trying to escape. If you take a famous poem and borrow its form or ideas, always give credit: my poem is called Jackdaw – after Charles Bukowski’s Bluebird.

Looking for more creative writing inspiration? Check out our best creative writing courses to help you get started, find out how to take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November and discover why creative writing is a form of escapism. If you’ve got writer’s block, take a look at our creative writing prompts for some fun ideas.

Don’t have much time? Learn how to write flash fiction with our handy introduction.

If you’d like to learn more about the mental health benefits of poetry, listen to our podcast with National Poetry Day founder William Sieghart.

If you enjoy writing, you could also consider starting a bullet journal. Get into journalling with our What is bullet journalling? guide and stock up on stationery with our best bullet journal picks. Our sister website Gathered also has a great collection of the 20 best notebooks for 2021 to inspire you.

About Leah Larwood

Leah is a freelance writer, poet and trainee hypnotherapist. She’s currently writing her debut poetry collection, and in 2020 she will be launching a series of workshops linked to dreams and poetry therapy. Read her award-winning lifestyle blog at themoonlab.net.

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This article was first published in In The Moment issue 31. Featured image by Unsplash/Nicole Honeywill.