Being Gentle with Trauma in Poetry
by Matthew Campanella
Writing can be one of the most powerful and effective ways that we can process and grow from our traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, writing about trauma can also be incredibly taxing on our emotions and mental health, sometimes to the point of feeling like we are living through the trauma all over again. It's important to process trauma and difficult things in ways that are healthy and meaningful.
Poetry can be an excellent vehicle for moving through trauma. Pain can be masked by flowery language and rosy prose, providing an indirect and gentle way to take on difficult things. In poetry, it's easier to get away with being vague and indirect than in other forms of writing, not all loose ends need to be tied and the message of the piece does not have to be explicitly clear for the reader. We can leave things open to interpretation and give the subject matter space to breathe and find itself.
We've all heard that "writing should come from the heart" a thousand times, but if all writing comes from the heart, poetry should be written for the heart. A restorative force that helps our most poetic organ heal. Be gentle with the heart and allow poetry to exist sometimes solely for the sake of the heart. But how can we go gently into this heartwork without hurting ourselves? There are many techniques in poetry that can be used to help us write about the most difficult things in our lives. Here, I'll be focusing on the two that have been the most effective for me: Metaphor, and Persona.
Metaphor is an implicit comparison of two things that are unrelated but share some underlying characteristics. Metaphor can be a gentler figure of speech than simile, as simile tends to be a more straightforward and explicit comparison. Masking trauma with metaphor can be a safe and effective way to turn something painful into beautiful poetry. For example: in Dylan Thomas's Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night, we are given a metaphor for death. Thomas uses the imagery of dying light and the passage of time into the night as a vehicle to process and understand death, instead of just straightforwardly saying "My father is dying" or "death is like the night", we instead get this beautifully bleak image of a son praying for his father to not surrender to death so easily. To not accept death with sorrow, but with vim and vigor.
Persona can be another exceptionally effective way to tackle trauma in a way that keeps the health of our hearts in mind. A persona is essentially a character or object created by the poet to embody feelings or emotions or events without straightforwardly claiming them, or telling the reader exactly what they are. Persona often goes hand in hand with metaphor, for example, depression could be personified as a toxic partner. A toxic partner could be personified as a ghost or monster that haunts us. By shifting the focus away from the literal reality of the situation the poet is facing or has faced, we are able to talk about difficult things without explicitly telling the story exactly as it happened. Truth can still be found within persona, our stories and our traumas belong to us, they are valid and real, and while we do not get to decide how and when they happen, we do get to decide how to talk about them, and where the truth of them lies.
Be gentle with your trauma, don't be afraid to mask things in metaphor or personify difficult things. It doesn't make us weak, it gives our hearts room to beat.