Poetry and ‘psychological safety’.

I was introduced at work recently to the concept of ‘psychological safety’ by behavioural psychologist Prof. Rebecca Lawton. Put simply, in the context of the workplace, psychological safety means that employees can trust that  suggestions and ideas will be listened to and treated with respect, that no-one will be made to feel inferior or belittled by admitting they don’t know or understand something, and generally feel that it’s OK to speak up or challenge things that are done or said, especially by those in authority, or who – allegedly – may possess superior knowledge or presence. This generally makes for a safe, high-performing and innovative organisation; I was mightily impressed.

What, you may think, has this to do with poetry? Well, consider this: how many of you – and be honest here – ever read or hear poetry that, for whatever reason, you just don’t understand or can’t connect with, no matter how many times you hear or re-read it? How do you react when this happens? Do you admit it or not? Would you feel able, for example, to walk up to a poet at a reading and (gently) ask them what on earth their poem or performance was all about? Or would you applaud politely, stay quiet and leave the event at the end of the evening feeling ever so slightly less intelligent than others in the audience who were nodding sagely, perhaps emitting the odd, self-satisfied “ahh…” now and again? Would you admit to friends that [insert name of your eminent, published poet of choice] leaves you cold? Maybe you would, but maybe not. Because of course by saying nothing, everyone stays safe.

The thing is, some poetry can seem so dense and impenetrable as to be almost like it’s written in code for a highly-favoured few, clearly not for the masses. Listen to a few episodes of BBC Radio Three’s The Verb and you’ll soon get my drift (however please note that there’s also lots of excellent stuff that’s easy to engage with too – and I do love the programme!). I’ve also experienced this heavy, complex style from people in workshops or on writing courses, so it’s not the exclusive preserve of the highly-regarded, published poet. What I’ve noticed in workshops is that people tend to stay quiet rather than say anything negative, and thus the writers of such poetry receive perhaps less feedback on their work than they otherwise might, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Before anyone thinks this is just another diatribe against what I refer to as ‘difficult’ poetry, it’s not; I’ve had my say on that already, see this post of mine from 2012. Poems can be delicate things, as are often the poets who write them. We know what our poetry’s about; we created the subtle imagery, metaphor and hidden meaning that’s been woven into the fabric of our work, and like to think that the reader will (eventually) be able to understand and engage with our poetry in the way we designed.

But the question I want to put to you is this: How would you react if someone else read or heard your work, admitted they didn’t ‘get’ it and asked you (nicely) to explain what it was about? Would you feel slighted by the approach – insulted even? Or rather, would you take the time to sit down with the person, explain what was in your mind when you wrote it, why you wrote and structured your poem that particular way, being generally helpful and maybe even taking on board the reaction to make revisions to the work? I doubt many poets would be so arrogant as to send the questioner away with a flea in the ear, telling them that if they’re not bright enough to figure it out for themselves, then you’re not going to tell them.

Which brings me back to the whole issue of Psychological Safety as it applies to the world of poetry.

I’m not convinced that our world feels as psychologically safe as it could be, or possibly is, because it’s not tested often enough. I still detect a reverential hush in some circles when the names of certain highly-regarded poets are spoken; the unspoken acceptance that a minimum level of intelligence is needed to truly understand some poetry, and that the bar is often set deliberately quite high. The effect, though, can be to create a kind of elitism that discourages open expression of opinion and deters new readers or audiences – and surely that can’t be healthy?

There is (possibly now was) a wonderful TV programme on Channel 4 spawned by the 2012 Paralympics called The Last Leg, hosted by Australian comedian and broadcaster Adam Hills. Amongst other things, the programme sought to debunk as many preconceptions and prejudices about disablement as it could through a segment called Is it OK…? in which viewers were invited to ask what hitherto might have been perceived as awkward or insensitive questions (example: ‘Is it OK to ask if Adam Hills removes his prosthetic leg before making love?’). The Last Leg was a perfect example of psychological safety in practice, and Is It OK…? was inundated with questions, all of which were handled with respect, openness and appropriate humour.

So the next time you encounter poetry that you struggle to connect with, try speaking up; ask questions, give feedback, gently and constructively to the poet. Tell them that you don’t ‘get’ it and, if you can, why. And if you happen to be that poet, make it safe and OK for others to do so – in fact encourage it. Sit down, explain, enlighten – but above all, listen. Because if the people who read my poetry weren’t getting anything from it, then I think I’d want to know.

Wouldn’t you?


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