Poetry as a tool for working with environmental emotions
Creative writing can be a powerful tool for exploring and processing environmental emotions. When we experience intense feelings like anxiety or grief about climate change or biodiversity loss, it can feel overwhelming to keep it all “bottled up”. Poetry can be useful in handling environmental emotions.
freelance writer, teacher and communication consultant
Sharing difficult feelings by talking about them can provide relief from that sense of overwhelm, and, at the same time, connect us with other people who are going through related experiences. However, externalizing our feelings — projecting them outside our own heads for others to briefly encounter — can feel daunting if we’re not sure how to put things into words. This is where writing comes in. Writing is a way of slowing down and developing greater control over this process. Writing intervenes in the act of externalization, introducing an intermediate communicative stage, and giving us time to reformulate our feelings into words that we’re comfortable with.
But the very act of writing often comes with emotional baggage of its own — something that creative writing teachers are acutely aware of, and which they work to address from the get-go by establishing an inclusive and supportive classroom atmosphere. Entire books, such as The Artist’s Way, are devoted to the problem of offloading the unhelpful baggage that makes creative work less enjoyable than it should be. Reconnecting with the craft of writing and finding a way to enjoy it again restores to service a powerful tool for creative self-expression, as well as for personal and professional communication and knowledge work.
All forms of creative writing aim to be something more than “mere” communication. Creative writing is not mainly concerned with conveying facts from author to audience, though it may often do that as well. The thing that makes creative writing “creative” is that it also encodes something personal and original in the text. The personal aspect is the distinctive individuality of the writer and their particular cultural references and repertoires. The original aspect can mean a new sequence of ideas: telling a story that has not been told before, such as an episode from someone’s life experience, or a new piece of research that has never been explained before. Or it can mean choosing vocabulary and formats in an artful way: looking for words and structures that somehow heighten the beauty or power of the underlying message. It can even mean rejecting the imperative to “make sense” in conventional ways, and instead aiming to represent the unsayable.
Poetry can do all these things. Poems are structured differently from prose; the lines normally stop short of the right-hand margin, and they may have regular or formulaic patterns of syllables and rhymes. Poems may use uncommon or flowery language, or they may be plain and blunt, but the style will be deliberately chosen to achieve some effect beyond that of the dictionary meaning of the words. Poems can be linear and story-like, setting out an idea or episode from beginning to end. And poems can also confuse and mystify; they can refuse to yield to interpretation even while instilling intense feelings in the reader.
Let’s take a closer look at how poetry can be useful in handling environmental emotions.
Environmental emotions are big. It’s difficult to know where to begin with them. And this is why poems can be very useful for beginning to write about big things; one or two details are enough to make a poem. Why not start with details that feel significant or intriguing? The details can be peripheral to the thing you really want to write about; they are a way of approaching something intense without being fully immersed in it. I sometimes think of it like draping a cloth over the world and only looking at it through a small hole, one detail at a time. It feels more manageable. And it makes for better poetry!
Lamb’s-ear, frosted down.
Ornamental kale florets.
Drizzle, spray, sky-breath.
This poem describes the strange grey-green plants I saw in the front gardens of bungalows on the Norfolk coast one winter. But it’s really about the feeling of estrangement I felt when I visited my parents there a few years ago, after having emigrated to Finland. When I went for a short walk with my mum, everything around me seemed alien. The decorative garden plants looked washed-out and insipid under the winter sky: nothing like the forests of Finland. It was as if we were ghosts.
Obviously, I was carrying a lot of feelings (and I still am). Guilt and sadness and happiness about emigrating, conflicting feelings of family and national connection, a sense of mortality and rootlessness — but the vivid detail that triggered the impulse to write a poem about it all was the eeriness of those low, grey plants in stony yards in a creepy suburban neighbourhood by the sea.
I think the poem captures a moment of loneliness and alienation by focusing on the unfamiliarity of the location. I had to look up the name of the “lamb’s-ear” plant: another form of estrangement. Because this was just a moment in my mind, glimpsed through a hole in a sheet, I put it in the form of a haiku. This made me edit it down to exactly 17 syllables, shrinking the viewing hole, and pushing me to make some kaleidoscopic juxtapositions and unusual word choices (e.g., referring to the wind over the sea as “sky-breath”). I think this ended up feeding and exposing the sense of estrangement that was my original starting point; it allowed me to externalize an aspect of what I was feeling by submitting a handful of details to the stringent formal requirements of a haiku poem.
By allowing the poetic format to restrain my expression, it became easier to get a grip on a huge and complex feeling. The poem doesn’t directly talk about the totality of the feeling. Instead, it represents fragments of it in abstract or metaphorical ways, offering a way of apprehending and sharing a complex moment through glimpses of its details. Once on the page, a poem becomes a thing in its own right, existing outside of the writer. For me, this poem was a way of beginning to get a handle on the whole situation, and now, a couple of years later, when I have even more distance from the intensity that produced the poem, I can explain its original purpose through prose. The poem’s real value for me was as a tool and as a process, not as a finished artefact or product in its own right.
But the poem also lives on within this larger text — the very one you’re reading right now. It serves as an illustration of the value of writing poetry for processing complex and overwhelming feelings. By explaining my poem here, I hope to motivate others to write their own poems.
Poems can also inspire action all by themselves, even without the support of an explanatory text. Here’s a poem that lets you know directly what it’s about:
What was that?
But the light was wrong.
they toppled a mighty birch,
gouged out its roots,
let the wind do the rest.
It shaved two sentry pines
on its way to our roof.
In another hour,
it would have crushed
Fortunately, it was
just these eighty years
of white and grey,
this fragrant bark
and cleansing breath
and cooling shade,
these cylinders of time
and sackfuls of larvae
and bird families sent baffling,
just thousands of suns
and slow-dancing fronds
of mosses and lichen—
just one more alveolus
bored from the world’s lungs.
I’ve tried writing about this incident several times, and this is the most recent attempt. I’m still not happy with it as a poem, but, again, that’s not the point. The point is that writing it allowed me to approach the anger and shock of the events it describes by focusing on small details through short lines, short phrases, and careful vocabulary choice. That writerly focus on the form of the poem gave me a bit of space from its content, while still allowing me to spit the thing out and show it to you.
Writing this poem now has brought back the same old feelings quite intensely. I feel like I want to do something! I want to save a tree! I want to know why Espoo City keeps allowing building companies to chop down trees to build apartments and houses. Why is the urban plan like that? Should we demand a different plan?
In this way, poems can be very persuasive: often more so than a calm, rational argument. We need rational argument too, but to really keep the energy and conviction boiling into action, we need intense, focused emotion — and that’s something that poems can do really well.
Creative writing in everyday life
Poetry, and creative writing in general, can serve to motivate action via an emotional channel that is typically repressed in other forms of communication — particularly in professional contexts. Creative expression is a useful complement to rational argument; it adds intensity and emotional colour, making a text more memorable. It’s hard to go a day without writing, even if it’s only a banal email. What would happen to our daily experience of work and life if we made our communication a bit more expressive and emotionally rich, at least some of the time?
Developing creative writing has benefits for wellbeing, not just as a means of catharsis or emotional release, but also as a tool for self-expression and self-actualization. Writing helps people tell new stories about themselves, their communities, their organizations and the wider world. It offers people new vocabularies and new structures with which to imagine new possibilities.
Creative writing is a key form of literacy in all areas of life, but it should especially be recognized as vital at work. This is because training employees in creative writing has organizational benefits. Perhaps the most important of these is the direct benefit for employee wellbeing, which means better engaged and more effective staff, more cohesive teams, and an enhanced employer brand. But training employees in creative writing also makes them better at creative writing! Upskilling in the fundamental daily activity of writing is good for both internal and external communication. And, in the age of employee-generated content, this skill area will be critical for helping employees to reflect on and tell others about how their personal values align with those of the organization. This makes for more authentic and compelling marketing content, and it also does the work of building community cohesion while making sense of corporate strategy at the same time. Writing gets people talking, but creative writing gets them imagining, questioning, and dreaming.
Values-led organizations know the importance of sustainability, governance, and inclusion — for the planet, for their employees, and for corporate compliance and branding. Creative writing is the tool that bridges these areas, especially in knowledge-intensive work, but also elsewhere. It can bring nebulous strategic goals to life, enhance wellbeing, and generate richer and more authentic stories about work, the world, and how we think of and relate to those things. Above all, creative writing is at once a form of personal catharsis and a way of bringing other people into our world — and persuading them to take action.
Bolton, Gillie (1999) The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing: Writing Myself. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Cameron, Julia (1994) The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. London: Souvenir Press.
Kaufman, Scott Barry, and James Kaufman (2009) The Psychology of Creative Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.