In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Week, writer Carolyn Gillum has put together five poetic ‘cures’: poetry as a prescription for anxiety and stress, for feeling less alone, for insight into yourself and the world, for hope and for friendship.
Poetry. Twenty-five years out of high school and the word still conjures the clink of the radiator in an overheated classroom, the itch of a kilt on winter skin, and the boom of the in-aptly named, Miss Jolly, directing us to the bleak words of Seamus Heaney, whose Irish bogs spoke to nothing in our teenage lives, save a love of writing about death.
Although I scored well in the dark arts of poetry dissection – a simile here, an iambic pentameter there – the truth is, Heaney’s words didn’t resonate with me at all. Me, a kid who loved reading so much she scavenged for text on the back of the Weetbix packet at breakfast. The magical worlds conjured by books remained stubbornly unconjured by poetry, viewed as it was under the harsh light of analysis – the silent poem laid out on the page, a patient awaiting the knife.
But I knew some people loved poetry. Not just teachers and old people. Some of my friends did. They delighted in reciting it, even goddess-forbid, quoting it at me in an attempt at comfort – because they themselves found solace in verse. But hearing this expressed was akin to hearing them declare Marmite was delicious. Incomprehensible. Maybe for you, I’d inwardly shrug.
But it nibbled away at me. I loved words. Why didn’t poetry do it for me?
Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Even the comically unsettling genius, Hera Lindsay Bird, has said schools’ emphasis on analysis makes poetry seem elitist and difficult. Cambridge University researchers speculate this is due to teaching poetry as a written form, “stripped of its auditory pleasures, and often approached as a problem to be solved rather than a sensory and imaginative experience to be enjoyed.”
I do remember enjoying poetry once at school – when Miss Jolly tasked us with designing a game inspired by one of Heaney’s bog poems. My team made a board game, Railway Lines and Intestines, which was conceptually based on Snakes and Ladders. We fashioned guts from clumps of brown-painted polystyrene and dead bodies from Lego men glued head first into the lumpy polymer bog. Out of the minds of babes… came a wholly original, if highly inappropriate, artwork.
But even while I was eschewing the words of a future Nobel Prize winner, I remained obsessed with music. Lyrics had recently begun being printed on the sleeves of cassette tapes, so no longer did we have to hit pause on our ghettoblasters to try and capture the obscure slurring of Robert Smith’s words. Instead, we sprawled ecstatic on our bedroom floors, singing along to ‘Lullaby’ with lyrical precision.
About this time, my beloved grandmother died unexpectedly at our home. I remember splaying the concertinaed cover of The Cure’s Disintegration across my bedspread and experiencing a strange sort of comfort from Smith’s bleak hopelessness. At last, someone understood.
But while we can all smile in hindsight, and while I might now be able to pull a few raggedy habits for coping from my hat of life experience, I haven’t forgotten how confusing and painful it is to be a teenager. How confusing and painful it is to be human at all.
How does one comprehend loss, or abuse? Cope with hurt, rejection or loneliness? With mental illness?
And why did it bring me so much comfort and joy to read the dispirited words of a group of goths from Crawley, when poetry seemed to evoke… nothing?
I’m going to risk literary ire here and suggest that, really, I was already enjoying poetry, because lyrics are poems.
British rapper and award-winning poet Kate Tempest says, “People don’t respect how complex it is to write a rap. It has as many rules, if not more, than a sonnet.”
Recent studies have even suggested the rhyming skills of modern day rap and hip-hop artists are more sophisticated than Shakespeare, while their ability to play with language is on par. In 2003, our hero Heaney himself even hailed Eminem’s words, saying he “sent a voltage around his generation.”
Young people, in particular, have been drawn to poetry’s spoken word for the same reasons many love its musical cousins, rap and hip hop: authenticity, and an emphasis on realness, a place for confronting issues unabashed.
Meanwhile, poetry itself is all about musicality. A poem is written to be voiced, the sensory experience savoured as the words roll around mouth, setting the imagination free to ride the sound waves.
When I realised this, and began reading aloud, I understood. Listening, performing or reciting poetry yourself, has a remarkable capacity for healing. Rudyard Kipling even said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind [sic].”
In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Week, I’ve put together five poetic ‘cures’: poetry as a prescription for anxiety and stress, for feeling less alone, for insight into yourself and the world, for hope and for friendship.
Poetry for anxiety and stress relief
Reciting and hearing poetry is inherently soothing. It can reduce stress and anxiety and studies even suggest it can alleviate symptoms of depression.
Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic approach that supports the relief of mood-related conditions through slow reading, primarily of poetry. You don’t even have to understand a poem to derive benefit from it. As poet Gerard Hopkins says more intellectually: “Sounds can contain meaning above their syntactic information.”
So why not read an incomprehensible poem aloud for the sheer audacious pleasure of it? If you need a laugh, try our own world-famous Hera Lindsay Bird – whose poem Monica will resonate with anyone who’s watched too many episodes of Friends.
It opens with the soothing chant-like: ‘Monica / Monica / Monica / Monica’, and ends with some of my favourite lines in contemporary verse: ‘Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire / And don’t even get me started on Ross.’
Poetry to feel less alone
Feeling less alone is one of the more frequently expressed benefits of reading poetry. A study by the University of Cambridge showed people who learned poems by heart saw them as a life-enhancing emotional resource, especially a source of comfort in tough times.
British author, Jeannette Winterson, writes in her memoir about a highbrow version of my own Robert Smith experience. She was about to be thrown out of home at sixteen for having a relationship with a girl, when she opened T. S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral – believing it to be a crime story. She started to cry as she read, ‘This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.’
She recognized another failed family and found she was not alone.
“I had no one to help me, but T.S. Elliot helped me,” she writes.
Poetry for insight into yourself and the world
Poetry can also provide deeper understanding of ourselves and the world, and even foster ambition to challenge the status quo.
American singer-songwriter Halsey performed the moving poem A Story Like Mine, in lieu of a speech at the New York Women’s March in January 2018. The story of her experience of sexual assault was widely reported, resonating with people around the world. The video received almost eight million hits since she released it online, and has helped fuel the movement to expose and end sexual violence against women.
At home in Aotearoa, Dilworth School group The Boys, made the news in 2017 when they won Word: The Front Line, the national inter-high school spoken word poetry slam (a competition).
Jai Silkirk’s moving performance challenged Maori stereotypes: ‘These hands mean fight – not true / …All Maori are uneducated thieves living on the benefit using WINZ to pay the bills forgetting who the loser really is – not true.’ A video of his performance received over a million hits.
Mohammad Hassan, 2015 New Zealand National Slam Champion, said, “When we talk about social issues, racism, immigration, gender equality and the other issues we’re currently grappling with, we now have voices from the poetry community leading the conversation.”
Poetry as hope
A poem can also act as a talisman or compass, a guiding force for hope.
Rachel Kelly, who wrote the foreword to A Year of Reading Aloud: 52 Poems to Learn and Love, describes reciting lines from 18th century poet, George Herbert’s work The Flower when she was in a psychiatric hospital: ‘Grief melts away / like snow in May / as if there were no such cold thing’.
“I kept repeating those lines, and they spelled out hope to me…. He held my hands across the century and said to me, ‘You are going to be OK.’”
Poetry as a place of friendship
An appreciation of verse can also forge friendships. In Auckland, there is a vibrant spoken word culture that has created spaces for young people, in particular, to discuss issues, find friends and explore who they are.
Philip Toriente, member of The Boys, said at the 2017 Poetry Festival in Auckland that belonging to the group gave him “confidence in [his] work, heaps of friends and a great support network”.
“You don’t only have to talk about poetry” fellow member, Nathan Su’a added.
Young Canadian-Punjabi poet, Rupi Kaur, who has sold more than 2.5 million copies of her first book Milk and Honey, still primarily publishes on Instagram. Her three-million-plus fans share her poetry online to support each other with subjects such as heartbreak, abuse and trauma, as well as negotiating the world while being young, female and brown.
And I’m still friends with most of the people on my Seamus Heaney game team. I received instant LOLs when I enquired if they remembered Railway Lines and Intestines, although none of us can remember the poem. So, perhaps Miss Jolly was aptly-named after all, such was her success in embedding a joyful Heaney-themed memory in a group of wayward teens.
Humans come from a great history of poetic storytelling. The rhythms and rhymes enabled us to recall and recite words that served as inspiration, as well remind us who we are and how we’ve overcome tribulations in the past.
Poetry is a place of peace, a place to discover oneself and make sense of a complicated world. It has long been a source of hope and the foundation of friendship. As Jeannette Winterson says in her memoir, it “isn’t a hiding place, it’s a finding place.”
Tips on how to get more poetry in your life:
- Browse the Poetry Foundation’s themed collections (there’s one on hope)
- Sign up to ‘poem-a-day’ for a regular dose delivered to your inbox
- Try some bibliotherapy
- Pick up some hard copy – ask your librarian or bookshop seller for suggestions
- Watch a New Zealand Poetry Slam
- Go to the JAFA Slam final on 24 October
- Head to Poetry Live on Tuesday nights at Thirsty Dog
- Attend a performance poetry workshop on 26 October at Words Will Work, South Auckland Writers Festival
- For further ‘textual healing’, try the BBC Column ‘Can you read yourself happy?’