By Rhian Taylor, social work lecturer, University of Kent
A few weeks back on Community Care, Matt Bee wrote persuasively of how books and novels helped his social work practice as much as textbooks.
I feel similarly, but it also made me think about the role of poetry, as this too has been a great help to me in my social work career.
In the Halcyon days before hot desking, I would always have a poem pinned up on my desk and I can think of many phases in my social work career where I felt supported, and sometimes rescued, by poetry.
Poetry is said to express emotions and experience that prose cannot always describe. I am often struck by how the language of social work, even of reflective practice, can fail us when we try to put words to some of the deeper life experiences we encounter in social work.
We struggle when talking about mortality, loss, suffering, passion, desperation and the deep intimacies that social workers encounter in the course of their day to day work.
I also think we struggle to talk about love, yet this is often what we are tiptoeing round when we are care managing people’s move to care homes, and trying to assess in which home a child might thrive.
The trouble with poetry is most of us were put off it when we were in school. We were given long inaccessible poems which we were told to decipher, in a similar way to how we would approach a code or a foreign language.
It is very easy to see poetry as inaccessible and pretentious. In fact my own love of poetry only really developed after I hit 40 and finally developed the confidence to not feel discouraged by the complicated and confusing stuff that I couldn’t understand, but to just enjoy and relish poems that I understood, that spoke to me.
So how can poetry help us give voice to some of the deeper issues we work with?
Firstly they can provoke political thinking. Poets like Benjamin Zephaniah manage to express political and sociological truths with such impact. His poem ‘What Stephen Lawrence has Taught Us’ for me captures discrimination, more than any textbook discussion.
There are also poems that helped us empathise with experiences of our service users. In his recent Desert Island Discs, poet and care leaver Lemn Sisnay said: “If you want to understand the experience of care leavers don’t give them an evaluation form or put them on a committee listen to their poetry.”
After a career of trying to give people evaluation forms I felt much challenged by this, and when I recently delivered some training on working with care leavers, I used a number of poems by young people to stimulate discussion and thought.
In Wendy Cope’s poem about aging, ‘Names’, she describes how a woman has inhabited a number of names and identities throughout her life – child, mother, friend, worker and ‘nana’. Yet when placed in a geriatric ward, they start calling her Eliza. The name she was given at birth but has never used, but was on the front page of her file.
In just seventeen lines Cope conveys so much about identity, aging and the lack of person-centred care which older people in our society have to face.
Finally, poems can give us hope. Social work is a difficult job; we need hope and inspiration.
Poems like Maya Angelou’s ‘And Still I Rise’ conveys female empowerment in a way which does more than inform, it invites transformation. Simon Armitage’s poem ‘It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does to You’ also describes something very special about the intimacy of working with people.
I think poetry can be a useful tool in our work as social workers. Perhaps more than ever, we need to be politically challenged, we need hope, and we need to feel a fresh empathy for the experiences of those we work with.
Poetry gives expression to some of these truths, and enables us to become more in tune with our own emotions and the challenges of our work.