Isabel Otter: Poetry for Exploring Feelings

Exploring emotions can be a complicated business. There are many ways to feel happy or sad, worried or excited, and yet we try to confine these experiences within a single word. As adults, we are aware that every emotion has its own complicated, personal spectrum and these words can be useful shorthand. (It’s not practical to hope that someday we might start answering, “Hi, how are you?” with, “Actually, I feel as lonely as a cloud”, though how I wish we did!). But it’s a very different matter for children, who are discovering and experiencing new feelings and emotions all the time and may need help to explore them. And there are no people better placed to help us map out our inner worlds than poets!

This was the impetus behind the anthology My Heart Is a Poem: Poetry About Feelings, co-edited by me and Harriet Evans. We put together a collection of 20 poems by contemporary poets examining different feelings. Some were commissioned for the anthology and some were poems that we already knew and loved. In each one, the poets escape the limits of everyday expressions to help readers navigate the mazes inside themselves.

In Laura Mucha’s poem, ‘The Land of Blue’, she takes us to a place that is “dark – not light, not bright or clean” – using metaphor to evoke how sadness might feel. Kate Wakeling describes the physical sensation of a feeling – the “hot, rotten throb” of embarrassment in her poem, ‘The Unspeakable Feeling’. In Valerie Bloom’s ‘Touched By Joy’, she personifies certain feelings to explore the way we encounter emotions: “For Anger was there by my side,/And I knew he could not abide/Joy’s happy voice and face.”  In ‘If You Could See Laughter’, Mandy Coe writes that we could “rise off the ground with laughter,/tie strings on it and sail around the world.” And in Joseph Coelho’s ‘Argument’, he imagines the argument itself as a “monster/With a roar made up of shouts.”

Poems such as these are brilliant springboards for exploring emotions with children. Feelings are slippery and elusive, and it can be tough to help kids articulate what’s going on internally. Poems offer children new ways to see the world and their own emotions. They might perfectly describe what children are feeling in their own hearts and minds or allow them to see how others feel and encourage empathetic understanding. Poetry can offer children concrete language for abstract concepts while kickstarting the engines of their own imaginations. If their feelings were people or places, how would they describe them?

In today’s world, with so many competing anxieties, it is vital that we give children the space and support needed to express and understand their feelings. Joseph Coelho says it best: “Using poetry to explore emotions is not something that is simply ‘good to do’ or an activity for a rainy day… I fear in this current climate it’s something we can’t afford not to do.”

Isabel Otter

Isabel Otter works as a senior editor at Caterpillar Books on a list of books including board, picture books and non-fiction. She has always had a passion for poetry and is delighted to be working on a series of four illustrated anthologies. Courage In a Poem and My Heart Is a Poem are out now. The next in series, Our Earth Is a Poem, will be coming out later this year.