Poetry Could Save Your Life

I write poetry. On a good day, I’m prepared to accept this makes me a poet. Does being a poet confer any benefits for the poet? I want to ask, can writing poetry help you handle better the difficulties all of us experience? Can it begin to shape your own understanding of emotional or physical suffering or pain?

W H Auden wrote ‘poetry makes nothing happen.

In one very obvious sense this is of course true. You can’t roll back the tanks by reading poetry.

Or can you?

I’ll return to that question in a moment. For now, let’s discuss why anyone would want to write poetry. For a start it is an infuriatingly difficult thing to do well, unless you’re massively talented. Even for the gods of poetry, I would still argue that writing good poetry, even for them, is hard. Good poetry should be hard to write.

A good poem says something about experience. It does so in a way which deploys techniques to render into words something beyond the words themselves. Good poetry begins where the map runs out as Eavan Boland once suggested.[efn_note]Boland, E. (2000) ‘That the Science of Cartography Is Limited’, The Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing, 44(1), p. 27.[/efn_note] The satisfaction you can obtain from getting close to the essence of your experience is wonderful. Of course your available talent and willingness to practice will have a bearing on how successful you are.  But at some level, this experience is always available to those willing to try.

Writing About What Matters to You

The ability to find expression for something that matters to you, to compose a poem that conjures something hard to name into words, is one of the principle reasons I write poetry.

I think this is because without poetry, life just flows on by. You are caught in the stream and unless you step outside for a moment and become present, you will never experience what it means to fully engage with life.

This is the source of joy in writing poetry for me. To be able in some limited way, to say why something matters, or is beautiful or sad or inspiring.

There is however another purpose to writing poetry which I am discovering as I develop my practice.

Writing About Suffering

The ability to explore one’s suffering through poetry is something I am finding is more and more important to me.

Suffering takes many forms of course. Illness, bereavement, relationship problems and the like are all areas where suffering can be present. Using poetry as a tool to explore what’s there, to unpick the ‘why’ in the suffering you are experiencing can be a very useful thing to be able to do.

To be able to do this when needed moves us on from the two ‘why’s of poetry I’ve briefly mentioned to a consideration of technique.

Developing one’s practice so as to increase the armamentarium at one’s disposal matters.

There are lots of techniques for the poet to learn and to practice. These include:

  • Using white space
  • The line
  • Metre
  • Rhyme
  • Metaphor and imagery

Whilst not an exhaustive list, the last of these, the use of imagery is one of the techniques I have found which allows me to approach my own suffering more easily.

Perhaps ‘easily’ isn’t the right word. What I mean is the ability metaphor or imagery  have to allow you to approach your suffering and investigate it through a metaphor or image. They allow a small gap to emerge between what’s there and what you are trying to say. Without the ‘distancing’ of the image, the experience may just be overwhelming.

I have also found the constraint of form can help.  If for example, I choose the sonnet as my form it provides structure, rules if you like within which I must construct the poem. Fourteen lines, possible rhyming. The poem, by observing these rules, becomes a kind of containment vessel, a receptacle for the suffering.

Observing the sonnet’s ‘rules’ however you choose to interpret them means another part of your brain becomes engaged. This is the more coldly rational and ‘thinking’ mind. Consequently, You may be able to view your suffering through this type of lens and so find things less emotionally upsetting.

I am not arguing the poem become emotionless. I am saying that the combination of imagery (to provide some distance) and technique (to provide a more thoughtful perspective) does allow the suffering to be more fully explored. I have found it allows me to hold suffering in a different way. It also means I have something I can come back to which helps explain to me why I was suffering.

I find the act of writing a poem about suffering also allows me to step out of the pain for a while and look at it as ‘the poet’ who is passionately and compassionately interested and invested in helping me hold the suffering in the containment of the poem.

I find the act of writing a poem about suffering also allows me to step out of the pain for a while and look at it as ‘the poet’ who is passionately and compassionately interested and invested in helping me hold the suffering in the containment of the poem.

An Example: Touching the Bones by Tom French

In Tom French’s great poem ‘Touching the Poems’ from his collection of the same name, shows what a skilful poet can do. Tom uses a TV documentary about elephants to explore a death. The first part of the poem describes the elephants in detail as they come across a corpse of an elephant and its calf. He shows us their tenderness and care as they appear to ponder the death of these lost lives.

In the middle of this moving description, Tom writes:

‘The others made a circle there and grieved

the great majestic grief of elephants,

throwing their heads back and bloarting

through their trunks, like my mother and father

in the hallway when the news came through,

touching the indentations of the loved one’s

skulls with the soft ends of their trunks,

snuffling at the holes, inhaling the last traces

of the lost lives. …’

You see how he adds ‘like my mother and father’? Here he is summoning his parent’s grief but allowing this to take place within the context of a TV documentary about elephants.

If you haven’t read this poem please do so. It shows how even an emotion as powerful as grief can be contained and engaged with through poetry.

Poetry as Containment

We are all different and will approach our most powerful emotions is different ways. Nothing I’ve talked about here may work for you. Indeed there is a whole cannon devoted to confessional poetry which seems to be almost the opposite of containment.


Using the conventions of form however, thinking about technique, these are ways I find poetry can hold something painful at a slight distance.

I want to argue poetry may provide a safe place for strong feelings. In doing so it can both help distance and confine painful emotions. Whether this works for you, only you can say.

I have found in the practice of poetry that despite the pains and suffering I experience, poetry does help. It allows me to regulate and understand suffering in ways I would otherwise be unable to do.

Auden knew what he was talking about. He understood poetry will not turn back the tanks on its own for instance. But by giving shape to experience, by finding the right words in the right order, people can be moved.

Then who knows what might happen?

If poetry does anything directly it is to name something like our experience. In doing so it can reduce suffering by allowing you to wrestle with it and ultimately understand it better. You place suffering in a safe container and find another way to look at it.

I think in this way, poetry could even save a life.

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