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Can Writing Poetry Heal Trauma?

Poets conduct public readings exploring issues of abuse, identity, and race. Rupi Kaur's intimate collection Milk and Honey has sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide. The idea of raw, unfiltered reflection - the type of information one might explore in therapy or maybe just a really dark cave - seems to draw in readers like flies. Personal poetry has become as commonplace as brushing our teeth, but is it productive?

The idea of writing prose about deeply personal topics opens a can of worms. Does writing about our trauma help heal it, or is it simply what Hemingway referred to as 'public whining?' Is it appropriate for the author to send their deep thoughts into the stratosphere, and potentially profit from them? And what if - heaven forbid - the subject matter discovers the poem?

Today let's discuss why we are drawn to write about these issues in the first place. From there, let's discuss what types of personal poetry are effective for both the writer and the reader and whether or not it should be published. By the end, you'll have a new perspective on airing your dirty laundry.


The Three Reasons Why We Write About Our Trauma

We are hardwired to begin writing sessions by writing about our personal experiences. For some, that's fictionalizing a personal experience (think personal essay). For others, that's writing a poem about an encounter from that day. We draw on our own emotions and experiences both as a jumping-off point to wake up our minds and as an attempt to connect with readers. It's logical . . . after all, don't we do the same in everyday conversation?


1. Exacerbating a Wound

Sometimes, we write about painful experiences to feel that pain again. We step back into the shoes of who we were while receiving the wound, whether that is self is years or hours younger. Writing can be self-indulgent, allowing the masochist part of ourselves to relive and revisit. It validates our current emotions, allowing ourselves to be sad or angry or disappointed, even if that moment is long gone.

Other times, nursing the wound as we write allows us to practice mercy for the other people involved. The author's perspective is fluid; writing about an event gives the poet the freedom to put themselves in others' places and gain empathy. That action allows us to separate from our emotions and begin to heal, leading to the next reason we write.


2. Reaching Catharsis / Searching For a Lighthouse

It's a common experience to begin writing without knowing why. Why does the human mind fixate on certain experiences, objects, people? Attempting a poem is a strategy to work through that confusion. By stepping back and reverting to who we were, we can pause in the moment and observe new things. Maybe we discover some reasoning behind why somebody acted the way they did. Maybe we find healing in watching the tape of the past. As Sheila Bender details in her book Writing Personal Poetry, jotting a poem is often similar to the action of sailing towards a lighthouse: you know it's there, even if you cannot see it. And once you arrive, the light sheds clarity.


3. "Is Anybody Like Me?"

There's a reason we crave community; we desire to be accepted, trauma and all. Writing about painful memories or simply perplexing thoughts tosses a message in a bottle to the sea. It says, "here I am. Are you the same? Can you at least sympathize?"

The vulnerability is a virus; the author immediately feels its effects; it spreads through readers who connect to the potent honesty. We are all searching for acceptance, and accepting yourself or your situation enough to share it is one way to build confidence and community.


Are You Connecting with Your Audience? Or Are You Navel Gazing?

The power of poetry lies in the lyricist's ability to affect the audience. If writing is so introspective that the reader can't understand it, the piece is nothing but self-absorption made public.


What personal poetry SHOULD be:

  • honest

  • sparing (the reader doesn't need every detail)

  • brief (the reader doesn't need the whole backstory either)

  • cathartic


What personal poetry should NOT be:

  • a trauma dump

  • full of too many specific names or places (the information unnecessary for the reader)

  • vengeance

  • a threat (the pen might be a sword, but keep explicit violence out)

Look through those factors again. If most of what you've checked off is on the second list, it's not meant for public consumption. It might be cathartic, but it doesn't need to hit the World Wide Web just yet.


How to Make Personal Writings Meaningful


1. Begin by focusing on a detail

A tactic for beginning a poem is to choose a small detail from the moment you want to unpack. For example, let's zoom in on the recollection of a breakup. Instead of jumping into the conflict, begin writing about the mint in your mouth as it unfolded: how you started sucking on mints on your first date and haven't broken the habit, how the sharp edges of the mint cut your tongue as he lists his reasons, and how you let the final small circle of the mint dissolve in your mouth rather than chew it quickly as he walks out the door. Focusing on that detail will allow you to view the situation through the lens of their five senses, exposing your exigency more subtly and drawing the audience in. It also gives the reader a memorable motif associated with the emotion of the experience.


2. Or keep it abstract

In certain situations, whether to protect others' privacy or for a poem to be less confusing, it's better to not use specifics. Your poem doesn't have to be a narrative orbited by emotion; rather, it can be a fictional world in which that emotion is a reality. Use figurative language, imaginary creations . . . anything you would use in another poem to represent the situation conceptually.


3. Find what the moment means to you

Similarly to the idea of searching for a lighthouse, the purpose is to find a deeper meaning. You don't need to strive to be deep. Rather, delve into your thoughts. Why do you keep returning to that particular memory? What is valuable - or hurtful - to you about that person, event, or place? When you bring honest emotion, the audience can't help but be affected.


In Conclusion

Personal poetry has become too popular to fully disappear from bookshelves. When done poorly, they are bitter diatribes as bad for the reader as the writer. But when done well, it can be powerful in its vulnerability and cathartic for the poet.


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