Poetry and inner work – a look beneath the surface    
Fri, 21 May 2021

During Mental Health Awareness Month, we offer expert advice to writers who are growing their poetry skills while working at improving their mental health. Cape Town Clinical Psychologist, Musawenkosi Khanyile is an award-winning poet, who is particularly well qualified to talk about the interface of inner work and poetry, and the creativity that enriches and heals.
“Zamo, my brother, where in the universe does hard work ever go unrewarded?”
This timely question appears on the dedication page of Khanyile’s SALA award-winning poetry debut, All the Places (uHlanga, 2019), and invites serious reflection. 
Under lockdown, threats of joblessness, loss of income and the stress of work-from-home-at-work situations exacted a toll on the serenity and sobriety of individuals and families. Many people sought mental health help in response to the isolation and economic upheaval.
“Writing is a common way to make sense of trauma,” says Khanyile. “If a client is already writing, I might invite them to share their writing with me, so that the therapeutic process extends to reflections occurring outside the therapeutic space.”
Khanyile helps clients to explore the depths of their experience as they undertake the journey of recovery from trauma, depression, anxiety and other related issues. “Poetry is a literal and metaphoric tool for self-reflection and self-healing. It can be a passageway to the parts of ourselves that have been long buried deep within us, most often by trauma and shame.” 
He believes that poetry alone doesn’t move us beyond the hardships of our childhood. “Some healing requires the empathic presence of the other, especially someone with the professional expertise to help us process our traumas.”

Dreams and poems contain similar elements and comparable dynamics. Shifty moods, shimmering images and apparent incompatibilities merge to create new metaphors for the human experience. 

However, Khanyile never actively encourages people to use metaphors in therapy. “It happens so spontaneously,” he says. “When a client attempts to describe their depressed state, the metaphors just spill out. The abstract nature of mental illness is such that everyday language is insufficient to describe the experience.” 

He draws attention to the interesting coincidence that emotional trauma is housed in the same right brain that is dominant when we use metaphors.

Perhaps that is why he is cautious about assuming that writing can be a short cut in dealing with trauma. Writing can be medicine for those who wish to heal their wounds and shift towards personal integration. It requires a delicate handling of the topic to prevent the writer from being re-traumatised, and to avoid traumatising the reader. 

Khanyile’s own poetry draws on his harrowing experience of poverty and violence, and in his later poems of othering and discrimination. Writing poetry can be therapeutic, but on its own, it is no substitute for therapy itself.

“Writing has, over the years, helped me sit with uncomfortable negative emotions. It still helps me process emotionally traumatic experiences. But it has its limits, which is understandable, because in poetry I am alone with my trauma and with my blind spots.”

Poetry has many functions, serving as inspiration, an opportunity for learning, for re-envisioning the world, for comfort, and for sheer pleasure. It can promote growth and healing through language, symbol and story. The title of the book, All the Places, speaks to the places which the psyche passes through, from disintegration and fragmentation, to coherence and containment, where healing happens.

Reading, writing, performing and studying poetry aligns with the work of therapy. These activities can offer a structured and contained experience of creativity that help to perceive oneself as a coherent whole. For his own literary pleasure, he tries to read as widely as possible, but always returns to his favourites: Mangaliso Buzani, Sindiswa Busuku, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Ocean Vuong, and Kobus Moolman.

In conclusion, Khanyile acknowledges that exploring one’s internal realm in the context of therapy is, undoubtedly, hard work. It is potentially immensely rewarding too. For himself, “… poetry helps me look beneath the surface. I am more aware of what goes on inside me and outside in the world. It has enriched my life by teaching me to keep searching. We miss a lot when we do not stop to look.”

The AVBOB Poetry Competition invites poets to submit poetry in all 11 official languages. This year’s competition opens on 1 August. For more informative articles on how to write poetry,