Verse over the counter: Poetry as the cure for depression

Feeling weary, worthless, stressed? A dose of easy-to-swallow poetry pills might perk you up

December 14, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated December 15, 2019 09:04 am IST

When things fall apart: Henri Matisse’s 1921 oil, ‘Reading woman with parasol’.

When things fall apart: Henri Matisse’s 1921 oil, ‘Reading woman with parasol’.

It is a particularly depressing evening. On the surface, everything seems to be going well. Perhaps most people will tell me to be grateful for what I have. And yet, there is a certain emptiness — call it ennui — that fills the soul. And it is on one such evening that I read ‘My Brilliant Image’ by Hafez.

I wish I could show you,

when you are lonely or in darkness,

the astonishing light

of your own being!

(translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

Healing words

Now if this poem were a pill, I would pop it every day to make my lows go away. It reminds us we have immeasurable power within us, power we often don’t see. It is also the ‘prescribed’ poem for loneliness and other conditions such as general malaise, loss of self-esteem, or low motivation in the book called The Poetry Pharmacy.

That literature is therapeutic is something we can relate to. But perhaps it also draws most of its healing powers from poetry, that poignant well of words that gives us wings when the darkest clouds are over us.

This book of poems brought together by William Sieghart as “tried-and-true prescriptions for the heart, mind and soul” caught my attention when Sieghart was holding a poetry pharmacy session at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year.

It was in Cornwall, at another lit fest several years ago, that the idea of such a pharmacy came to life. Sieghart was set up in a tent, with two armchairs and a prescription pad, and the session was a hit.

Everybody hurts

Even before I owned a copy of the book, I could see why it had become such a success. What makes the pharmacy relevant is the manner in which it binds us to the rest of humanity. We are all bound by our suffering. We all feel pain, or as that popular song goes, “...everybody hurts.” And at such moments, a poem makes us feel just a little better.

I remember how Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ had cut through my veins the first time I read it. I was shocked and terrorised by the images, but I took solace from the connection she and I shared.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

I was 17, but those lines gave me courage and a power to come to terms with the anger knotted up inside me. So for a long time, that was a self-prescribed poem I read and drew strength from.

I think of you...

Perhaps Sieghart — also the man who set up the Forward Prizes for Poetry and established National Poetry Day in the U.K. — realised there were many people who needed a poem’s shoulder to lean on. He explains in the book that he used to put up posters of ‘The Price’ by Stuart Henson, in and around London, hoping it would help people in some way. In the book, the poem is prescribed for dissatisfaction with life and angst.

And though such poems don’t make the pain go away or present any solutions, we accept them gratefully and ask for more, because they are silent and willing listeners that put their arms around us or make us smile in some way.

I was convinced of this recently when, on a rushed day, I was telling a colleague about this book and she asked me, “Do you have anything for stress?”

She was amidst a million chores and needed a break. I turned to page 13 and presented her with Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Celia Celia’:

When I am sad and weary

When I think all hope has gone

When I walk along High Holborn

I think of you with nothing on

She burst out laughing and laughed each time the lines came back to her. For a few moments, the poem had given her a much-needed break.

Monsters in the head

Proof of The Poetry Pharmacy ’s resounding success can be seen in its sequel, The Poetry Pharmacy Returns (published this September). The latest in the series is The Poetry Remedy, published this October.

And now there is even a physical poetry pharmacy in Shropshire, England. Deborah Alma (known as the ‘Emergency Poet’) who has provided “poetic first aid service” at festivals and schools, is the person behind this mission. Feeling weary and worthless? You could get a dose of easy-to-swallow ‘Poemcetamol’ here.

If I don’t manage to make a trip there, I can always visit the ‘Poetry Rx’ column in The Paris Review, in which poets prescribe poems to readers who write in with problems. Death, unrequited love, loss of self-respect, disillusion — all those monsters that confront us in the middle of the night — find a mention here.

In one such column, a reader who has lost her friend receives ‘Separation’ by W.S. Merwin, who died earlier this year.

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

More readers and publications seem to be recognising the therapeutic power of poetry, making it a more tangible part of the fabric of our daily lives. I find it reassuring and comforting in a world which otherwise seems to be crumbling. And when conflicts abound, poet Alvin Pang recommends ‘A Great Wagon’ by Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing

and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

There is possibly such a field waiting for us in some poem or the other.

The writer’s book of poems , Nine, was published in 2015 .

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