Poetry as Treatment

Richard Gold founded and runs the Pongo Teen Writing Project, a writing therapy nonprofit that works with teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. An award-winning, published poet himself, Richard has taught remedial English and run a writing therapy program he developed at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. The Odd Puppet Odyssey, a collection of Richard’s own poetry, with illustrations by his wife Celeste Ericsson, was published by Black Heron Press in 2003.


Poetry can heal traumatized youth. It also creates a community of openness, connectedness, and strength, which helps treatment providers. In the Pongo model, poetry particularly serves teens who have a hard time expressing themselves. Here is a poem by Payton (pseudonym), a first-time writer in juvenile detention:

I am 15 and I am lost don’t know
what to do.  lost because I get no love.
lost because I messed up my life.
lost because my dad left for some
women.  lost because I got caught
up in gangs.  lost because I lost
real friends my family.  lost
because I screwed my life
up.  lost because I lost
respect and trust.  lost
because I am a kleptomaniac.
lost because I don’t show enough
love or respect to peers or elders.
lost because I am always in detention.
lost because I got nowhere to hide.
lost because I got no guardians.

This young man not only wrote with insight and feeling about his life, he was also excited and proud to write. He shared his writing with others, youth and adults in juvenile detention. He discovered a new skill and a new way to address life’s difficulties.

In this blog, I’d like to give the quick context of the Pongo Teen Writing Project, suggest benefits I’ve observed in 20 years of doing this work, and finally give some insight into the Pongo methodology and resources.

Pongo is in its 15th year and has served 5,000 teens. We send teams of trained volunteers into agencies for weekly writing projects, with primary sites at a juvenile detention center and a state psychiatric hospital for children in Washington State.

In addition to the benefits for Payton cited above (insight, feeling, pride, skill development), we see that, through poetry, teens are able to view their own experience more objectively, with less sense of personal responsibility and shame. Writing speaks to people’s strengths and goals, their desire to make a difference, their developmental needs.

How does Pongo achieve these results with teens who have suffered childhood trauma and who may have low self-esteem, an understandable lack of trust, and perhaps poor language skills?

Here is a partial list of techniques we use:

  1. We listen. We stay present and value the teens’ own words.
  2. We are poets (as well as teachers and counselors). We focus on the neutral object of the poem that the teens want to create.
  3. We personalize our poetry exercises. We address issues that are central in the lives of our authors, including loss.
  4. We provide a poetic structure. We do NOT give the teens a blank piece of paper. Instead we ask the teens to tell us a story which we transcribe. Or we provide a fill-in-the-blank poetic construct.

The Pongo web site has resources you can use, especially writing activities that are personalized and structured.

Contact Pongo for further consultation:  info@pongoteenwriting.org

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8 thoughts on “Poetry as Treatment

  1. Good work! I wonder how the teens write their poems–that is, do they use pencils, pens, computers? I have read that the hand-brain acitivity when using a pencil, for example, in such situations, creates different results than when using a keyboard on a computer, What do you think?

  2. Bob: Thanks for your comment. I think of our work as originating at an even earlier stage in the mental formulation of a poem. We take dictation a lot, encouraging the first halting formulation of a person’s thoughts. Our mentor might ask, “What’s on your mind?” If the student says, “You don’t want to know what’s on my mind,” then we write down those words and ask, “Why?” If the student then says, “Because I’m too angry to talk,” then we write that down next and ask, “What are you angry about?” This is the level at which we begin many of our poems. The role of the mentor is to be the medium. In this supported process (which includes fill-in-the-blank poems and other structures), people who have never written before will take about abuse, neglect, and other trauma.

  3. I really think that this is a great thing! not just because it is helping people learn how to express themselves but I’ve heard multiple times that if people in prison aren’t taught how to do something different with expressing their anger than its almost 100% likely that they will end up back in prison. I think that poetry is such a relaxing and great way to get your true feelings across, and i do agree their is a feeling of empowerment when you finish a poem that means so much to you.
    I love how you guys that are working as the motivators don’t just sit there and watch them write poetry, I like that it is more interactive than that because you are helping them to write. This gives them the realization that they are in contact with human beings outside of the jail cell.
    Poetry is a great way to make these prisoners feel like they are really turning their lives around. I really hope that Pongo can continue and have another great 15 more years helping teens

  4. I think that poetry is a great way to help teens express their feelings. Often times I feel like people laugh at ‘teen’ poetry and do not take it seriously because teens are considered to be irrational at that stage in their lives. Yet I feel like poetry at this stage of life may be more important than ever because it helps teens to cope with specific occurrences and feelings in their life. Couple this fact into poetry that is helping teens who have gotten into trouble and the impact becomes even greater. If more children had the means to express themselves via poetry or other artisic means, there might not be a growing problem with teens behavior in the country.

  5. I feel as though this program is an excellent method to help teens, as well as adults express their thoughts and feelings. Often times, a person has difficulty expressing their views on subjects in fear of being shut down; however, through poetry one can proudly express anything. I agree that by allowing teens to express themselves early in life, problematic issues are less likely to arise. Through writing, they are able to tell the world about themselves and seek out for help.

  6. Poetry is such an amazing mechanism. I believe no other form of expression to be as cathartic, especially to those who need to express something they can’t quite wrap their minds around. The idea of dictation is brilliant– many students that I tutor at UMD in the writing center can not gather their thoughts when it comes to brain storming, and letting them talk while I write is an almost infallible method of drafting ideas onto paper.

    As Katelyn mentioned, the relationship between recidivism and anger management in a real one. Risking redundancy, I believe that poetry is an incredible way to learn to manage anger, as it is such a complex emotion with so many contributors, internal and external. Things that cannot be written in a journal or discussed in a therapy session can be expressed beautifully through poetry. Payton’s poem is an example of this!

  7. This sounds like a great project! Poetry is a great tool to express and learn about oneself. I believe a great deal relief can be achieved through poetry, as I find myself writing during times of a very intense emotions. This type of writing can be found everywhere and is extremely present in song writing. Poetry can be found at the heart of every lyrical song and with this, an individual is able to find their own salvation by putting their words into an art form. Support needs to be given to teens to do so, a project like this seems to do just that. As seen through Payton’s writing, he is able to write down his most inner thoughts and see them for himself. I feel that seeing your thoughts in front of you as opposed to keeping them in your head is an important process that allows for a great amount of personal growth.

  8. The idea of poetry as treatment is one that I mind very interesting. I, myself, write poetry and use it as a way to deal with painful emotions and feelings. I have found that it does have an healing quality to it. Personally, poetry has helped me come to term with and heal from life events that I otherwise don’t know how I would have handled. I could certainly see this to be true for the teens in the Pongo project. Additionally, poetry provides the teens to improve their writing skills while dealing with own lives. This project can definitely helps teens both academically and personally, I hope the project continues to run.

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