Speaking the Unspeakable through Poetry

July 25, 2019


In this blog, writer and poet, Seni Seneviratne, reflects on how poetry can be used to express emotion and traumas, that may otherwise be difficult to communicate.

Seni’s latest poetry collection, Unknown Soldier, features as part of our 2019 recommended poetry reading lists.


In 2009 I was funded by a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to spend 4 months in Cape Town. At the time I was a practising psychotherapist as well as a poet and the purpose of my visit combined my passion for poetry and the creative arts with my desire to explore creative responses to trauma. South Africa, with its history of individual and collective trauma was an appropriate destination. It gave me the opportunity to explore some

answers to a long held question of mine. Why, in the face of the unspeakability of traumatic events, do so many reach out to poetry?

During my Fellowship, I met Pumla Goboda Madisikela, a South African psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She invited me to submit an abstract for a presentation at the Beyond Reconciliation conference, which she was organising later that year at the University of Cape Town.

The resulting paper “Speaking the Unspeakable through Poetry”, has now been presented at various conferences and symposiums internationally. In the presentation, I argue that while trauma robs us of our humanity, poetry can be a vehicle to bring us back to it by finding words to bear witness and create a space for healing. I describe how poetry has the potential to restore integrity & sense of self, narrate the chaos of trauma, provide a sense of safety, break silences and bear witness.

Trauma creates an unspeakable void. It leads to feelings of being overwhelmed, disintegrated, fragmented, disempowered and disconnected. It affects the sense of self and control of memory, meaning-making, language and narrative.

Poetry can step into this void and let the trauma speak rather than imposing a language on it. It doesn’t rely on a linear narrative. It can express fragmentation. It honours the spaces, the breaths between the words. Poetry can look into the abyss of trauma and say, “Yes – I see you. I can write you without accepting or justifying you or the damage you inflict. I can write you because you exist, because you are a phenomenon. And through writing you I can reveal a route beyond you, beyond your terrible power.”

Trauma causes a split between the emotional and cognitive centres of the brain, disrupting the ability for meaning making or linear narrative. It leaves the brain at the mercy of powerful, distressing images and emotions. It’s like a short circuit – normal connection between the two parts is damaged in some way. Poetry engages with emotions, the felt-sense of the body, images, metaphors and searches for a language thereby making a connection to the meaning making centres of the brain. It acts as a channel or bridge between them. Writing on Lyric and Loss, the poet Gregory Orr has this to say:

“…the discovery of lyric poetry (when I was about 17) was the discovery of meaning-making at its most intimate, primal level: a blank page like the emptiness of existence when there is no meaning and then you put the words on the page: create meaning. Create it in the smallest, most passionate cultural space we know: the space of the personal lyric, a handful of words on a page.”

Trauma is memory frozen in time and unresolved. It’s something so unbearable it cannot be thought about and is often stored away as an implicit memory in the body. Poetry, like trauma, has a deep connection with the body and the senses but it also connects with the conscious mind as it grapples with language. So we could see poetry as providing the bridge between implicit and explicit memory in order to provide the vital connection necessary for recovery.

Trauma robs its victims of a secure sense of self. It creates a loss of purpose or sense of agency in the world. It undermines belief systems that give meaning to human experience, resulting in a loss of faith in humanity: an existential crisis, a loss of a sense of trust and safety. The act of making poetry can be a way of creating a safe place: a means of stepping into the chaos and from that experience re-creating a sense of self, a restoration of the spirit/soul, a sense of place in the world. The suffering, the trauma is not denied or eliminated but transformed through poetry and put out into the world, no longer silenced.

It contains in a way that protects but also frees me …. gives me the mirror to hold up to myself…  I survive because I create a witness for myself….poetry says you exist… (Mbali)

…to express my rage to be able to tell it to someone without having to repeat it again and again. (Malika)

“There are faultlines – traumas that haven’t been addressed.  Poets can open closed doors, write about the damage, contribute to the cleansing of the nation, so we can live free from hate.” (Sindiwe)

If you would like to read a detailed account of my fellowship follow these links:

Speaking the Unspeakable: Creative Responses to Trauma
Speaking the Unspeakable through Poetry