Words to inspire: Social work and poetry

Poems can offer social workers hope and refreshed empathy, says Rhian Taylor

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.

Foreign language

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.”

Giving hope

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.

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4 Responses to Words to inspire: Social work and poetry

  1. Jane Still April 8, 2016 at 10:05 am #

    Brilliant and inspired. I’m not a reader of poetry BUT there was a time in my life when I was in despair and almost suicidal when the words of certain poems gave me strength because I knew their author had ‘been there’ and come out the other end. If they could then it gave me hope that I would be able to too. That was 30 years ago.

  2. Ian Merry April 8, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

    This is my favourite poem about the current state of social work…developed after 37 years as a social worker. This poem will probably be deleted as it does not reflect the position as portrayed by CC. This is dealt with by suppression of the truth about social work by CC and others….but the truth of it cannot be denied. I will debate the truth of this poem with anyone within the social work community…and I welcome all comers.

    “The Mistake

    With the mistake your life goes in reverse.
    Now you can see exactly what you did
    Wrong yesterday and wrong the day before
    And each mistake leads back to something worse

    And every nuance of your hypocrisy
    Towards yourself, and every excuse
    Stands solidly on the perspective lines
    And there is perfect visibility.

    What an enlightenment. The colonnade
    Rolls past on either side. You needn’t move.
    The statues of your errors brush your sleeve.
    You watch the tale turn back — and you’re dismayed.

    And this dismay at this, this big mistake
    Is made worse by the sight of all those who
    Knew all along where these mistakes would lead —
    Those frozen friends who watched the crisis break.

    Why didn’t they say? Oh, but they did indeed —
    Said with a murmur when the time was wrong
    Or by a mild refusal to assent
    Or told you plainly but you would not heed.

    Yes, you can hear them now. It hurts. It’s worse
    Than any sneer from any enemy.
    Take this dismay. Lay claim to this mistake.
    Look straight along the lines of this reverse.”

    ― James Fenton, Out of Danger

  3. Riff Poynton April 13, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    Hi, thanks for this article,
    a beautiful poem about loss and grief by Tony Harrison, (one of the greats)

    Long Distance 2

    Though my mother was already two years dead
    Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
    put hot water bottles her side of the bed
    and still went to renew her transport pass.

    You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
    He’d put you off an hour to give him time
    to clear away her things and look alone
    as though his still raw love were such a crime.

    He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
    though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
    scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
    He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

    I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
    You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
    in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
    and the disconnected number I still call.

  4. Graham Duff April 14, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

    I also think poetry is a way social workers, or anyone in the caring professions/world, can try to express and capture some of the profound experiences that they have. It doesn’t have to be ‘publishable’ poetry, just a medium for gathering thoughts and emotions.

    And, sometimes, I read a poem in team meetings if I come across something that I think captures an aspect of our work and is worth sharing. I generally find this is well received and a word, or phrase, will linger with some people for the rest of the day.