How poetry can light up our darker moments | Life and style

How poetry can light up our darker moments | Life and style


How can learning poetry by heart help us to be more grounded, happy, calm people? “Let me count the ways,” says Rachel Kelly, who has suffered from anxiety. Whenever she’s feeling wobbly, she finds reciting lines of poetry is grounding, validating and connects her to others who have felt as she is feeling in this moment. And it’s something we can all do: poetry we’ve learned to recite means we have another voice inside us that’s always there, a kind of on-board first responder in times of psychological need.

There’s also a certainty and stability about being able to conjure those words: they’re a crutch, we can lean on them, they can even do the thinking for us. Kelly describes how two lines from Invictus by WE Henley can make all the difference to what happens to her next: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.” When all she can hear in her head are negative voices, she can drown them out by repeating, over and over, positive lines from poetry: they’re substitutions, life-giving mantras rather than life-sapping ones.

Kelly was very unwell – at one point she was in a psychiatric hospital – when she had an inkling that poetry could offer enormous comfort. “I’d had a lot of drugs and I was in a terribly anxious state. I was clinging on to my husband, who was on one side of me, and my mother, who was on the other. And suddenly my mother started murmuring some lines from Corinthians: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee, for my power is perfected in weakness’. And those words felt like the first stirring of hope. This seemed like a shard of something positive, something I could cling on to.”

When her mother realised the power of repeating words, mantra-like, she sought out more. “She would drip-feed me little lines of poetry – it was like chicken soup for the soul,” remembers Kelly. “One of her favourite poets was George Herbert from the 18th century, and there are some incredible lines: ‘Grief melts away/like snow in May/as if there were no such cold thing’, from a poem called The Flower. I kept repeating those lines, and they spelled out hope to me: they’re about renewal and rebirth, and I started to know that, as Herbert goes on to say, my shrivelled heart would recover its greenness.” What was so powerful, says Kelly, was that Herbert described desolation – but also recovery. “He held my hands across the century and said to me, ‘You are going to be OK,’” she says.

Today, Kelly is OK: and she’s keen to share the power of poetry. She’s written the foreword to a new book that features 52 poems – one a week, for a year – to learn by heart. They’ve been chosen by Georgina Rodgers, who says the first hurdle to overcome is that for too many people, poetry is scary.

“Perhaps it’s because it takes them back to their schooldays, or perhaps it’s because they think it’s impenetrable,” she explains. “But there are so many accessible poems, and those are the ones I’ve tried to choose for the book.”

Poetry, she points out, is experiencing “a bit of a renaissance” – and it does seem to have a particular appeal in our connected, short-form world. If you want to be pithy, if you want to be quick, if you want to say a lot in as few characters as possible, then it’s to poetry that you should turn. As the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy once said: “The poem is a form of texting… it’s a perfecting of a feeling in language… a way of saying more with less.” But conversely it’s also a means to getting off the frenetic, fast-moving rollercoaster of the digitised 21st century. “It’s a way of being mindful, of being in the moment,” says Rodgers. “We’re so used to looking for shortcuts, to skimming through things the whole time, but poetry makes us sit down and engage, it forces us to take something to a deeper level.”

My own deadline is looming, and I know I should tear myself away from Rodgers’ book but suddenly, now I’ve chanced upon EE Cummings I know that the most vital thing in my life right now is to recite these lines: “I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)”; and I can’t leave Nikita Gill without pondering on what she has to say (“Most people in your life/were only meant/for dreams/and summer laughter.”)

There are much-loved favourites within Rodgers’ book (No Man is an Island by John Donne; Leisure by WH Davies), as well as less popular pieces such as Thinking by Walter D Wintle (“If you think you are beaten, you are/If you think you dare not, you don’t); but Rodgers says she’s also looked for less well-known work by the big name poets (such as The Eagle by Tennyson; In the Forest by Oscar Wilde).

If there’s one poem that seems to sum up what the book is all about, it’s The Guest House by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Not only does it speak to us across the centuries (Beyoncé and Jay-Z named their daughter after him, while Chris Martin says his poetry changed his life), but also it does that so-difficult task of turning disaster to blessing, guilt to goodness, and grief to joy: “The dark thought, the shame, the malice/Meet them at the door laughing/and invite them in.” All emotions, says Rumi, are valuable – and the uncertainty of life is its treasure, not its pain.

Rodgers and Kelly do not claim to be first with their wisdom on the links between verse and mental health. Bibliotherapy has a long and distinguished past, and the ancient pharaoh Rameses II had the inscription “Healing-place of the Soul” above the entrance to his library. Many centuries later, in 1671, John Milton wrote that “apt words have pow’r to swage/The tumours of a troubled mind’; and later still, in the 19th century, John Stuart Mill attributed his recovery from depression to reading William Wordsworth.

In a world in which we tend to look to what’s new, to cutting-edge science and to medical breakthroughs for hope in better health, there’s something marvellous in the realisation that one of the most beautiful and resonant and possibly longest-lasting cures has been here all along – on the internet, on our bookshelves, under our noses. Words – down the centuries, over the ether, across the miles – have the power to steady us, and to make us feel better.

A life in rhyme: other ways poetry can help

relit.org.uk is a website looking at ways in which poems, novels and other literature can help us to 0cope with emotional strain.

Writing your own poetry can be a way to access emotions and feelings that have not emerged via other means. Many organisations run therapeutic poetry-writing workshops. Google them in your area.

Grief and loss have long been assuaged by well-chosen poetry. Gerry McCann, father of then four-year-old Madeleine who disappeared during a family holiday on the Algarve in 2007, recently spoke movingly about how he connected with the Middle English poem Pearl, in which a father laments his daughter’s loss.

thereader.org.uk brings people together to read poems or a book aloud. Many of its members are going through a time of transition in their personal lives.

Encouraging the recitation of poetry learned in earlier decades can help elderly people, including those with dementia, to remain connected with their lives and loved ones. For more information, see alzheimers.org.uk

A Year of Reading Aloud: 52 Poems to Learn and Love, edited by Georgina Rodgers, is published by Yellow Kite at £14.99. Order a copy for £12.89, guardianbookshop.com



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