Rescued Speech Poems: Co-authoring Poetry in Narrative Therapy

Christopher Behan



In my work with the people who consult me I am always pursuing poetic language. I will write down on the notepad at my knee the words and phrases that bring forward brilliant images from the person’s life and imagination, or depict colorful longings and dreams, or speak to extraordinary movement in some way. Johnella Bird (2000) calls this “talk that sings.” Lynn Hoffman (2002) calls it “painted language.” ¹I call it poetic speech.

On the page these notes, shards of our conversations, almost look like poems: pieces of continuous thought, impressions, mixed with contradiction– with lots of space between. Recently it occurred to me to attempt to share edited versions of our notes in poetry form with some of my clients, in the same way that I offer letters to extend the story between sessions. This idea appealed to me because poetry is more able to contain some of the complexities of the spoken word and the richness of the stories of those who consult me.

I am constantly frustrated attempting to express in prose the tangled profundity of my clients’ lives. A Buddhist friend recently offered me an aphorism, which aptly describes the difficulty: “The tongues of the Buddha are too clumsy to describe enlightenment.” Poems evoke association, reverie and contradiction. Poetry has “space between” to describe multiplicity, tentativeness and ambiguity and is perhaps better suited to render visible these subtle stories from therapy conversations.

Co-authoring poetry with clients fits with narrative therapy’s aspirations to be a “therapy of literary merit” (Epston & White, 1990). Michael White points out the important and practical reasons for documenting our conversations in written form: “these practices of the written word document the more sparking events of people’s lives and in so doing contribute to ‘rescuing the said from the saying of it,’ the ‘told from the telling of it'” (2000, p.6). Conversation, as a healing medium, can be made more impactful when it is recorded in poetic form and brought forward into the future.

I do have a concern that by calling this a poetry writing practice there may be some danger to judge these documents on high academic or aesthetic standards. Perhaps an “inner-English teacher” will cause clients or therapists to censor their own words or to view these efforts as less-than poems. The intention is not necessarily to write the best poem but to rescue poetic speech. That is why I prefer to call them “rescued speech poems,” an alternative genre that is prose-like in many ways but which offers the spaciousness and freedom of open form poetry.

This short paper reflects the beginnings of my poetic identity explorations with a few of the people who consult me. I offer examples of some of the work and initial guidelines for co-authoring poems with clients.

Staying Out There

I had been seeing Jeff, who is a narrative therapist, for a few months for consultation and because he lived far away from where I work, we met only once a month or so. After our third session Jeff said, “I feel like this is going well and I wish there was a way to have you write some letters that would help me to hold onto these stories.” For a few months I had been wanting to try other forms of writing as follow-up documents for people, and I found myself saying to him, “I’d like to try writing a poem using some of the things you said today. Would that be okay?” Here is that poem:


Staying Out There

I am stuck here, Sister Mary Aloysius

Since childhood, I have seen things

And I was not welcomed to see what I could see

Noticing and bewilderment at injustice and cruelty

Bewilderment is an act of refusal

I was my father’s child

I think the draft was the first time I had to really say how I was in relation to the world

And the beginning of the radicalization of me

Thinking outside the dominant discourse

Am I crazy?

Carl Rogers, my hero, how could things get any better?

Or are they crazy?

I have this sense that people around me have more respect for me and faith in me than I do

Besides being not visible, feeling exposed somehow

When I forget the position, I can fulfill the position

I am stepping away from being resigned to life in the valley

You know, Getting By Valley

I am going toward, going toward

Being visible

Owning power

Believing it could happen

Confirming the belief it could happen

My life has been led by finding things I can believe in

And throwing myself into them

I’m going to create my own version of courage


Co-writing therapy poems has altered the quality of my listening in consultations with people. I find I am more keenly attuned to the particular expressions of my clients, developing even more of what Bird calls a “feeling for words” (2000, p.17). Words and phrases seem to leap from their mouths onto the page. Stories are rendered more pliant, more open. In poetry time is circular. As Irish poet Eavan Boland (2000) has noted:

 And so even as the words of the poem happen, they are already arranging, in the most subtle and powerful way, experiences that have already happened. They are cutting across time and completed experience to show that, after all, it was incomplete. (p. xxvi)

The poems become reflections that string together spoken expression without imposing meanings. They often express strong-felt views of the past and present and speak to powerful longings for a different future. The poems allow linguistic space and metaphorical distance for clients to explore connections with others, engagement in the world or an alternate view of self.

As I take notes about my clients’ expressions, I check in with them about what I am recording: Is this how they wish to say it? Is this important to them? This constant process helps to assure that the voice of the person who’s consulting me is privileged. At the same time, I am actively co-authoring by shaping the beginnings of the poem, retaining the client’s preferences, searching out colorful language, juxtaposing problem saturated and preferred accounts, editing byroads, looking for contradictions and openings.

Living the Questions

I have found Rilke’s (1934) advice to a young poet inspiring. During tough times in my life, when I have felt unsettled, betwixt and between, I have recited his words almost as an incantation so I could sit with unanswered questions. These are the very questions that seem to come up in therapy conversations: How am I going to get through this? Why is this happening? Who will help me? This quotation fits how I see therapy poems– a way to keep questions open.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try and love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (p. 35)

I often feel quite humbled by the enormity and complexity of the situations my clients bring. I wonder to myself, “How will we ever be able to figure this all out?” Somehow the process of co-writing therapy poems, the saying of it and the rescuing of the saying of it, which keeps questions open, reassures me. The rescued speech poem is a text to be performed, becoming the story through which the person can live.

As Bachelard (1964) points out in his phenomenological study of poetry, the poetic image actually comes to be in reverberation. Poetry exists in sound, in its resonances and reverberations. Poems are meant to be spoken aloud. Once the words are given voice in sound, they come to life. Thus the poem makes its reader up as much as the reader makes up the poem.

Very often a person will not be able to answer a question asked in the session and I will say, “You don’t have to answer that now; let’s just leave it as an open question.” Sometimes there is a noteworthy phrase that captures the spirit of the session or maintains a hope. A short poem that repeats the open question and reiterates these few key expressions extends the conversation beyond the therapy room.

Here is an example of a short poem that I co-wrote with Julia, a young woman who had recently left a torturously abusive relationship with her boyfriend. Julia had been describing the fears that had come in the wake of the abuse and her departure: Did she deserve the new contentment she had found? Would her new partner think she was “too much”? Could she really trust that her friends and family could see her renewed vivaciousness or would they see her as a victim?


I know in my heart

I can believe what they see about me

I’m just starting to see it again

Starting to be the person that they see

But I’m even more compassionate

My heart is so huge now

Because I have seen pain.

Guidelines for Co-authoring Poems

This is a fairly new practice for me and I have a sense that there are limitless possible directions to go in. Here a few ideas that might help those who are interested in these sorts of co-writing projects with the people who consult them:

  • I think it is best to use verbatim from the session, especially the words of the person consulting me.
  • However, I may include some of my words, especially questions I may have asked or wished to have asked.
  • To write the poems, I choose words and phrases from my notes that stand out as representations of the person’s preferences, that connect the person with other people, that evoke memorable places and things, that link with hopes and dreams, that demonstrate action, that talk about emotions.
  • I seek to chronicle colorful language and evocative images. This brings immediacy and momentousness to the poems.
  • Descriptions of problems are important to record as well. They may provide a necessary counterpoint to the preferred account of the person’s life.
  • The poems take an open form, that is, they don’t have to conform to any rules about rhyme, meter or format. Rhyming poems may appeal to some people, though.
  • I understand that poetry might not be for everyone. Some of my clients seem more receptive to the poetic. I am more likely to suggest co-authoring poems with them.

When the client returns to see me after receiving one of the co-written poems I have sent, I am always sure to check-in about any of his or her reflections about the poem&emdash;what fit, what didn’t and any implications for his or her life. These reverberations further extend the life of the poem. I also encourage clients to circulate their poems as a way to bring their primary audience– family, friends, partners– in on the current state of their journeys. My clients have told me with each retelling of the poem the experience becomes richer.

Rescued speech poems have given birth to a more poetic practice with the people who consult me. These days my work is about finding the words and sharing them. I have been touched to hear back from one of my clients about a poem’s being read aloud to a loved one or posted on the family refrigerator. One of my clients brought in an Edna St.Vincent Millay sonnet that resonated with a poem he had written with me. A world of possibility is opening up around sharing poems back and forth, connecting poets across time.

Poetic practices are being explored simultaneously in all sorts of therapy and community organization settings theses days and present many possibilities. I know that the people from Dulwich Centre (Denborough, 2000) have been collecting lyrics for songs from the images and themes of the people assembled at community gatherings. In their teaching Jill Freedman and Gene Combs (2001) have been conducting poetic explorations with therapists. Cheryl MacNeil (2000) has written an intriguing paper about the promising practice of writing poems based on quotations gathered from subjects in qualitative research, which she calls “poetic transcription.” Jane Speedy (2003) is currently writing poems back and forth with some of the people who consult her for therapy. I hope these poetic practices continue to expand.


I am grateful to the people who consult me for their patience with my flights of fancy. Thanks to Jeff Scannell and Julia who have given me permission to us their rescued speech poems as illustrations in this paper. The beauty and intensity of the poems reflects the beauty and intensity of life lived.


1. For those who are interested in the importance of language in therapy, practices of the written word and the poetics of everyday living, Lynn Hoffman’s Family Therapy: An Intimate History and Johnella Bird’s A Heart’s Narrative may be inspiring. They certainly have been for me.


Bachelard, G. (1964). The poetics of space. (M. Jolas, Trans.). New York: Orion Press.

Bird, J. (2000). The heart’s narrative. Auckland, New Zealand: Edge Press.

Denborough, D. (2000). Living positive lives: A gathering of people living with HIV and workers in the HIV sector. Dulwich Centre Journal, 4, 3-37.

Freedman, J., & Combs, G. (2001, February). Bringing forth the poetry in “little sacraments of daily existence”. Paper presented at the International Narrative Therapy and Community Work Conference, Adelaide, Australia.

Hoffman, L. (2002). Family therapy: An intimate history. New York: W. W. Norton.

MacNeil, C. (2000). The prose and cons of poetic representation in evaluation reporting. American Journal of Evaluation, 21 (3), 359-367.

Rilke, R. M. (1934). Letters to young poet. (M. D. H. Norton, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton .

Speedy, J. (2003, July). Using “poetic” documents in narrative therapy. Paper presented at the International Narrative Therapy and Community Work Conference, Liverpool, England.

Strand, M., & Boland, E. (2000). The making of a poem: A Norton anthology of poetic forms. New York: Norton.

White, M. (2000). Reflections on narrative therapy. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.