March 5, 2019

Understanding Trauma: the Healing Process of Poetry

I’ve often considered poetry as a core piece of therapy for myself. Ever since I was a child, it’s been my biggest way of understanding the world and my own experiences. I see my life through the lens of a poem, and it helps me process and heal whatever I may be going through. I’ve been writing poetry since I was six, and I have always credited it for getting me through traumatic experiences and helping me celebrate the beautiful ones.

The more I grew as a poet, I found that so many others felt the same way. It seemed like such a vast amount of people found solace in poetry, used it as a form of therapy, as well. I’ve quoted Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” more times than I can count. I wondered what work or research had been done about this, seeing as it’s touched so many. Nicole Bouchard wrote on the healing powers of poetry, saying, “Poetry can take the most extreme emotions and bottle them like tinctures that can be used to heal the reader; it is expression- giving a voice to that which we need as human beings to express, that gives poetry its strong influence.” She describes the Pongo Teen Writing Project, which focuses on “Reaching out to children and young adults in juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, and other organizations…  founder Richard Gold and his team of Pongo volunteers use a carefully constructed model to encourage written expression that will target those areas which are most affecting the youths’ circumstances (early childhood trauma, such as abuse, rape, addiction, death and violence).”

Richard Gold describes a post on the Pongo site blog, called “Poetry Saved My Life”, (which is a line excerpted from a fourteen year-old’s poem). Gold says, “I’ve seen that life’s worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don’t know and don’t want to know. Yet these worst experiences remain our passionate life companions.  I’ve seen that our emotions after life’s worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly, some that exist only in the public realm, some that exist only in private, some that exist in one part of ourselves and not in others. But I’ve also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.” This resonated deeply with me. Visiting this blog, and reading other poems as well as this one, reminded me of just how important poetry is, especially for teenagers living through trauma. The concept of opening containers, letting loose things so tightly held down, puts into words perfectly the release I feel when writing out my own experiences. So often, we bury things that have hurt and changed us as far down as we can while we struggle to survive them. While this may be necessary in the moment as we emerge on the other side of pain, blinking in the sunlight and struggling to see, eventually a part of processing, for me, is digging down and understanding what I’ve hidden and why.

Poetry holds, for many, the power of processing and healing from trauma. I know it has for me. Writing on poetry, permeability, and healing, Jane Hirshfield says, “Another element of poetry’s capacity to act as a force of healing is its grounding in connection and interconnection. There is solace in recogniz­ing that whatever happens to a person, someone before us has known it as well. Poetry’s evidence tells us that we are not singled out by our suf­fering; we are brought into the shared life of all who have lived and died before and with us.” Along with the healing internally one can feel when writing out their experiences, one of the most beautiful things that come with it is the solidarity. I’m currently working on my first poetry book, which follows the first year after my brother Tyler passed away. It’s an arc of healing, a book that follows me on my journey of learning how to live without him; and while the idea of publishing it is sometimes daunting, the thought of it reaching even one person who finds relief and understanding in my poetry, even one person thinking “finally, someone has said it,” leaves me speechless with wonder.

Therapist Louis Hoffman writes about his patients using poetry in their therapy sessions together for his piece “Can a Poem Be Healing? Writing Poetry Through the Pain.” He lists three reasons he finds that it helps: Release, Processing Emotions, and Awareness and Insight. He describes them as, “Poetry is often written during times when people are feeling intense emotions. In fact, the emotions often drive the poetry. Much like a good conversation or therapy session, poetry can provide a release… Poems often emerge in the midst of strong emotions. While part of what the poem does is describe the painful experience vividly and creatively, there is often a component of trying to make sense of the experience through understanding it more fully or through finding meaning in the suffering. When this second component is part of the writing process or the reflections on the poem, it closely parallels therapy… Processing emotions often leads to greater self-awareness and new insights. There are many ways poetry can bring new insights. For example, when I write a poem from a strong emotional experience, I generally try to lay it aside for at least a day or two and then return to it. Often, when I return to it, I discover new elements of the poem that I had not originally considered.” This echoes what my own therapist has said, recognizing the potential there is in a creative outlet like poetry for people. I’ve found it works in therapy sessions almost like a translator, helping me to communicate what I’ve experienced and what I’m feeling when my ability to speak fails in the face of what I’ve been through. While he reminds everyone that therapy is not a replacement for therapy, he highlights that they go well hand in hand.

As a tool for therapy, one that’s accessible and creative and heartbreakingly personal, poetry for many is a lifeline. A thread that can reconnect us back to ourselves, our experiences, our bodies, and make them our own again. Where our own hearts can sometimes fail, poetry can step in and begin to build that bridge between our words and our souls. I’m no therapist, just a girl who’s seen a lot and lost a lot, and poetry has helped me heal time and time again.

As Jane Hirshfield writes, “To be seated in full reality is to be seated also in permeability, interconnection, and compassion: the qualities of good poems. My experience, then, is that every truly good poem has in it, somewhere, an anchor dropped down into wholeness—findable even in poems in which that may be hard, at first, to see.”

Annamae Sax