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Often in my therapeutic writing sessions, we will use a poem as a springboard. This poem is chosen for its relationship to group concerns. For example, Rumi’s Guesthouse helps people who are feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings they cannot understand. Or Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings resonates with people who feel trapped (for example, caregivers).

The people I work with may have had scant experience of reading poetry. They are sometimes surprised at how relevant poetry can be – even if the poetry they have met previously was written in language not remotely relating to their everyday lives and seemingly placing the poet’s concerns somewhere different from their own.

So, when we have read the poem (several times), we then consider some of the following questions:

  • What does this poem do for you?
  • What feelings does this poem call up in you?
  • What similarities are there in your life?
  • How do you relate to the speaker’s situation?

These questions are quite different to the questions asked in usual literature classes and may generate surprising discussions. But if the group is willing to go further, I may ask also the more usual questions such as:

  • What is the important idea in this poem?
  • How does the language help to express this idea? The images? The sound? The rhythm?
  • Which vivid detail speaks most to you?

And if group members are interested in ‘having a go’ themselves, I ask them to make notes on the following:

  • If you wanted to write about your own situation, what image would you choose?
  • Have you any ideas about a poetic form you’d choose? Eg couplets (two line verses, lists, alpha poems? Free verse?
  • Would you write it from your own point of view – or choose another person? For example, we might read Hawk roosting by Ted Hughes.

And then, we do ‘have a go’!

Sharing is an important part of this kind of work. Some people are willing to share there and then. Others like to polish their work as ‘homework’. Others consider publication or public performance.

But, for some, what they have written is entirely private. And, whatever they choose to do is good. In fact, for some, having a choice is empowering. Choice for some is a rare experience.

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