Can Poetry Heal Collective Trauma?

Three ways poetry can transform our wounds into compassionate action

Indian sprinter Milkha Singh was destined to win gold in the 400 meters race at the 1960 Rome Olympics. After all, he had clocked the world record of 45.8 seconds at preliminaries in France. At the final in Rome, he was leading the race till 250 m when he unexpectedly slowed down to look back and ended up fourth. While the legendary sprinter regretted this moment for the rest of his life, we wondered, “why did he look back?”

Many years later, his biopic revealed that what made him look back in that decisive microsecond was the memory of his painful past. When his family was massacred during the India Pakistan partition violence, his grandfather commanded him to “Run Milkha run. Don’t look back”. He ran from his traumatic past and became one of the fastest runners on the planet. But when he expected it the least, his past caught up. 

Little did he know that the collective trauma lives in the subconscious of our body. And it keeps surfacing again and again till it finds its resolution. 

After the Rome Olympics, Milkha Singh got an opportunity to travel back to his village in Pakistan, where his parents were murdered. He cried his heart out and met his childhood friends. That one visit healed his wound. In the following race in Lahore, Milkha Singh ran like nothing could hold him back. The President of Pakistan gave him the title of “The Flying Sikh.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Milkha Singh to physically visit their past and heal their wounds. We need poets like Gulzar, whose poems create portals for us to travel back to the source and heal our souls.

I am back at the Zero Line
My shadow whispers from behind me,
'When you give up this body
Come back to your home
Your birthplace, your motherland'.

― Gulzar, Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition

Poetry has played a crucial role in healing our collective trauma. Whether it was the world war, holocaust, slavery, partition or a profound personal loss, poets have worked like earthworms— composting the unresolved trauma and making the soil fertile for the future to be reborn.

Poets are sensitive beings who notice the societal divides, let them sink in their bodies, and germinate into verse. Poetry transforms personal pain into archetypal messages. Whether it’s Gulzar writing on Indo-Pak partition trauma, Elie Wiesel reminding us of horrors of the holocaust or Maya Angelou capturing the essence of racism in the USA, they speak to people across generations and geographic locations. In their poems, we are seen, comforted, awakened and released. 

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

― Maya Angelou, Caged Bird

Writing poems has been my healing practice since the age of nine. But I did not know how to help others in a similar journey till I met my teacher Arawana Hayashi at the Presencing Institute.

Arawana introduced me to the awareness-based social arts called Social Presencing Theater (SPT). I soon learnt how awareness practices could help embody and express the deeply felt experiences at a personal or societal level. I started integrating SPT and poetry in working with gender trauma in my work and personal life. The poems and insights generated over seven years of inner work were published in my first book, “Trading Armour for a Flower“, as a poetic pathway. 

I thought it was my personal journey until a woman from Israel asked my permission to translate the poems into Hebrew and change the pronoun from “he” to “she”. Zohar Zoharah Noy-Meir started reading them to the victims of gender trauma in the Red Tent circles. She told me that the poems gave voice to the unexpressed emotions and healed their divides. 

For the first time in my life, I realised that poetry could create space for collective healing. Zohar inspired my wife, Sonali Gera and me to host SPT based Embodied Poetry dialogue circles in cafes, public grounds and living rooms across India. 

Soon, I had a humbling realisation. No one came to these gatherings to read my poems. They came to meet themselves. Poems were a doorway through which they stepped in to meet their wounded parts. And as we did this collectively, we mirrored each other and created a new narrative. In short, we transformed our wounds into collective poetry.

***

After ten in-person and ten online circles, I saw a three-step process through which poetry facilitates collective healing. Very similar to Milkha Singh’s healing journey.

1. Collectively witnessing our wounds 

Spiritual teacher and author of the book “Healing Collective Trauma“, Thomas Hubl says that the way to heal our trauma is to witness it collectively. Poetry creates such a space. 

Like Milkha Singh, Amrita Pritam also took the long train ride from Pakistan to India amid the partition riots. She became a “refugee” overnight, travelling alone to an unknown land with two kids and one blanket. That night she wrote a poem that called us to reckon with the collective suffering on both sides of the divide.

Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere

- Amrita Pritam, A call to Waris Shah (translated by Khushwant Singh)

Amrita’s verse takes us beyond shame or blame to embrace our shared brokenness. My wife and I experienced a similar phenomenon when we were invited by MAVA (Men Against Violence and Abuse) to host a poetry dialogue circle in Shivaji grounds of Mumbai. Men and women from diverse walks of life attended. The gathering opened up with the poem “Million Small Irritation” as the genesis of gender violence. We invited participants to form small groups and create social body sculptures (like tableaus we see at the Republic Day parade) to show how they experienced gender trauma in their lives. As we embodied each other’s struggles, new wisdom started emerging as phrases and sentences. We weaved it all together to co-create a new poem– “Purity hidden in our blindspots“. 

A woman shared that “I could voice the cry that my grandmothers had muted for generations. It found resonance in our shared space”. Another participant, a retired Army Officer, said that “poetry gave legitimacy to the emotions that I had buried inside”. The irritation that had the potential to become unacknowledged violence had found its place in his living room.

2. Integrating our past  

As Milkha Singh revisited his old village and embraced his painful memories, he started feeling whole again. Thomas Hubl calls this process “integration”. It is how we metabolise our painful past to create fertile soil for the emerging future. Poet Amanda Gorman did it when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony. In her lines she integrated all our divides and created a new field for hope and humanity.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew. 
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.

- Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb 

In another poetry dialogue circle, we were hosted by a women network. Around twenty women and six men gathered. We opened the dialogue with the poem “He Longs to be Understood” that touched the unexpressed power needs of men and women. It led to an animated conversation on patriarchy. Many women were angry with men for exploiting the power and controlling women’s expression.  

Neel, who was quiet so far, finally spoke. He shared how he might be the patriarch in the women’s narrative. However, he did not choose to be one. His mother and wife expect him to be the tough guy, manage finances, take unpopular decisions and be a bad cop to his kids. He sits alone on many nights, longing to be home, cook food and play with his kids. Neel’s vulnerable reflection opened many hearts. Shobha, an entrepreneur, shared that while her father was alive, she could not relate to him as a patriarch. But after his death, Shobha took over the family business and the provider role. Within no time, she found herself behaving exactly like her father. A patriarch she never wanted to be. 

This heartfelt poetic dialogue helped us reconnect with our base relationships and embrace the parts we could not relate to so far. It gave birth to a new narrative with a sense of wholeness.  

3. Transforming our wounds into compassionate action

For Milkha Singh, his wound transformed into freedom almost immediately. He became the “Flying Sikh” he was born to be. Later he established a charitable trust to help other struggling sportsmen. 

Poetry, too, has similar power to heal what’s broken and inspire compassionate action. When a defaulting tea-seller was presented before the Railway Magistrate, Bharat Chugh, he was torn by the tea-seller’s poverty. Instead of following the legal mandate, Chug acquitted him and wrote a poem. In a recent article, Justice Muralidhar shared that Bharat Chug’s “poignant poem” is shaping the High Court judgements and inspiring others to serve the poorest of the poor.

The law required me to punish him, 
it’s dry, blindfold diktat and arbitrary whim; 
I chose to exonerate him, but didn’t say anything; 
how could I ask him not to earn his bread — when the state couldn’t bring…
Could I think of a more honorable way, 
this boy could have earned a living — 
selling honest tea — with fair billing.

For legal authority was there, but moral authority I had none, 
my nation’s law had somewhat failed, and poverty had won!”

- Bharat Chug, Tea Seller and the Judge 

Sometimes poems are the keys to unlock a movement. A poet has very little say in what may unfold. I had one such humble keymaker experience when India announced a lockdown on the 24th of March 2020. Within a week, 23 million migrant workers had no option but to walk on foot, thousands of kilometres back to their villages. When the images of millions of men, women and children walking and dying on roads came through social media, my heart broke. Their collective trauma was unbearable for my little ego world. I cried for many nights letting my helplessness and angst transform into a poem, “A Long Road of Inhumanity“.

The poem triggered conversations that resulted in a citizen movement called Dignity of Labour. My colleagues at the Presencing Institute invited me to create a social art performance based on the poem. Our performance video was featured at the Global  Forum, followed by a dialogue among more than a thousand global changemakers. We did similar forums in India, leading to rapid funding and the launch of new initiatives to support migrant labourers. 

However, the most transformative part of this journey was the shift we experienced within ourselves. Poetry and embodiment helped us to see the world from the eyes of the migrant labourer. It dissolved our rescuer-victim duality. We could feel the strength of their spine. We decided to call them “nation builders” and support them in creating local, rural enterprises. 

***

The pandemic proved to be much bigger than all our relief work. It brought humanity to its knees. The collective trauma and resulting systems crisis have pushed us into deep fear and fragmentation. It’s a call for poets and social artists worldwide to create spaces where we could reckon with our collective suffering, reconcile with our loss and regenerate wellbeing for all. 

As poet David Whyte shared in an interview with Thomas Hubl at the Collective Trauma Summit 2020

“Healing is in being found and giving words to parts of our body that had no voice yet”.

_____________________________

Gratitude: I am grateful to:  

  • Sonali Gera for co-hosting many embodied poetry dialogue circles
  • All the wonderful people who organised, hosted and participated in 20 online and offline gatherings over last two years.
  • The Himalayan Writing Retreat team and the participants of the Blog Writing Workshop for co-editing and shaping this article 

———————————-

Manish Srivastava  is a senior faculty and co-director of Social Presencing Theatre at Presencing Institute. His first book, Trading Armour for a Flower, has become part of gender trauma healing circles across many countries. His upcoming book “Midnight Journey of a Seed” offers a poetic pathway to develop resilience in the face of the pandemic. Follow him on www.sacredwell.in for the upcoming poetry healing circles. 

4 thoughts on “Can Poetry Heal Collective Trauma?

  1. Thank you for this thorough and motivating essay on poetry and trauma healing. Here is another poetry gathering giving space to Loss and Healing that I’ve participated in, please see ‘Loss, Losing, & Loosening*: Exploring Grief and Healing Through Poem-Making’ and ‘Poetic Medicine for the “Wounded Healer” on the page:
    https://meri.ucsf.edu/eventsworkshop

    And finally may I share a poem on this topic:

    *Digestion*

    Chopping up hard experience into phrases in a poem.
    Bitter episodes reduced in size,
    their bile pierced open by punctuation.

    We who witness the poet’s lament
    aid the digestion process.

    Wisdom’s nutrients slowly absorbed.
    Anger and pain left for the heart to burn up in its flames.

    Liked by 1 person

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