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4 minutes reading time (821 words)

Using poetry to promote talking and healing by Pooky Knightsmith - Book Review

Knightsmith, Pooky (2016). Using poetry to promote talking and healing. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London and Philadelphia.

Despite the relative seriousness indicated by this book’s title, its cover hints at a sense of experimentation – even fun. This is all the more surprising, and some might say refreshing, once you read in Dr Knightsmith’s acknowledgements that this book was written at a time of “complete mental breakdown”, when she was in “the deepest depths of anorexia and suicidality”; for me, such an open disclosure in a published work by an author of esteem is hugely powerful in helping dispel some myths about mental ill health.

Thankfully, Dr Knightsmith goes on to say that she found the writing of the title “hugely therapeutic”, as I did the reading of it, which took place in one sitting – a rare thing for me.

A foreword by Catherine Roche and Dr Fiona Pienaar of the children’s mental health charity Place2Be describes it as “a multi-faceted book” that offers a means of connection and articulation. This speaks to its usefulness as a facilitation tool for therapeutic practitioners in supporting clients to verbalise their process, but its structure means it’s just as valuable for self-help, and from a writer’s perspective, I feel it also offers a jumping off point to begin combining the creative and therapeutic worlds that Lapidus members inhabit.

In part one, Dr Knightsmith aims to offer poetry as a safe way in to the exploration of feelings, by using the third person for example, and provides ideas, strategies and techniques for doing so. Although this section for me started a little like a GCSE English literature exercise, what was clear from the small number of suggestions provided in terms of ‘how’ a practitioner might go about this, was the sheer number of possibilities there are.

I have to say that despite the practicality and accessibility of this book, my inner sceptic, fuelled in part by the resistance to poetry I’ve encountered at many a writing group over the years, remains dubious about the ability or willingness of some therapeutic clients to engage in the ways suggested, but as these can also be adapted to each practitioner’s needs, where better is there to start? Dr Knightsmith also goes on to address such resistance in part three.

Part two of the book is an anthology of poems by Dr Knightsmith for discussion, grouped into topics around various presenting issues, such as abuse and bullying, loss and bereavement, and self-harm.

A brief introduction advises “careful handling” however, urging therapists to spend time digesting a poem and planning from the perspective of a client’s frame of reference before attempting to use it in a session.

Reminiscent of material for a book group, each poem is followed by a series of questions or prompts that take into account both moral and legal elements.

The poems themselves are highly accessible and some very thought-provoking, making the book particularly appropriate for work with young people. I can imagine some of a more literary background may find them simplistic, even verging into the odd cliché, but upon reading a few I found myself thinking about how I might put them to work in a session, while simultaneously being transported back to a playground aged 10, or treading eggshells in the aftermath of a past relationship.

Some were incredibly vivid for me, demonstrating that using such simple language can easily serve to highlight the complexities, challenges, and efforts involved in living with poor mental health, or caring for people who are suffering.

As already mentioned, part three is arguably a myth-busting section, exploring how to deal with challenges and perceived barriers to starting, such as, “I’ve never written a poem before”, “I’d rather write prose”, and “I don’t know what to write”.

All about encouraging and enabling the therapeutic writing of poetry, but without being overly prescriptive, Dr Knightsmith also uses this section to address how as practitioners, we can use poetry to exorcise our own emotional load, as well as the additional potential load that comes from supporting others to do so, whether or not we can relate to their experiences.

While profound darkness is alluded to throughout the book, it offers anyone using it a wealth of tools that are as empowering as they are pragmatic, forming a beginner’s toolbox to using poetry as a therapeutic tool, including prompts and information on well and lesser-known poetic forms, from sonnets and haikus to Terza Rima and Rubáiyát.

Its contents come together, wherever you might be on your journey with writing for wellbeing, to help you, as articulated in Dr Knightssmith’s, “Final thoughts from Pooky” on page 236, to “Trust your instincts, be bold and adventurous in your use of poetry, and feel free to think completely outside the boxes I have painted here.”

I have no doubt this book is set to become a well-thumbed reference text in my future therapeutic practice.


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Wednesday, 24 July 2024

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