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The healing power of poetry

8th October 2015 - Deborah Alma


Emergency PoetTo mark National Poetry Day, Deborah Alma   creator of anthology The Emergency Poet, the world's first and only mobile poetic first aid service — reveals how poetry, with its millennia of history, has long been recognised as the perfect way to soothe trouble minds.



 "Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak,
 Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break."



An understanding of poetry as balm, tonic or medicine, is not a new thing. Apollo was god of both medicine and poetry; the ancient Egyptians wrote cures on papyrus and literally swallowed the words when they were sick; Native Americans, the Navajo in particular, believed in the curative powers of song and chanting; prayers, curses, blessings and invocations are all poetry.


And poetry is all around us; we cannot help but seek it out. From a badly written rhyme in a Hallmark card for a wedding anniversary, to inspirational memes on social media, a verse at a funeral, a poem read at a wedding... And beyond that a score of poetry anthologies aimed at ‘treating’ us – specifically for depression, for coping with grief, ill-health, for making grown men cry...


I have become convinced of the special magic of poetry as healer in various ways over the years. I am a poet but, more than that, I am a reader of poetry. I worked for years as a bookseller and then in sales for what was then the Chatto Cape Virago publishing house (now an imprint of Penguin Random House). I read a lot. When I found myself listening to a friend in tears with a broken heart over the kitchen table, as well as the cake and tea I would pass them Derek Walcott’s 'Love After Love':


 You will love again the stranger who was your self.
 Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
 to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
 all your life, whom you ignored
 for another, who knows you by heart.


It would get stuck up on a fridge and the phrases repeated and absorbed and understood until it was no longer needed, when its magic had worked.


Later, I worked with people with dementia using poetry to assist communication. As well as making poetry together, I would also read them poetry, usually on a theme. Many of the individuals were of a generation that had learnt poetry by heart at school and I’ve had many joyful moments with groups of people reciting together Masefield’s 'I must go down to the sea again...' or Auden’s


 This is the night mail crossing the Border,
 Bringing the cheque and the postal order
 Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
 The shop at the corner, the girl next door...


This is poetry functioning not explicitly as therapy, but lifting the spirits, changing moods and making human connections.


Working with people with dementia improved my listening skills. I learnt to listen well, to give and hold a space, and in writing down words verbatim, I learnt just how beneficial it is for people to talk about themselves. I do not say this with any cynicism,: that is what I was there for, to show them that I valued their words so highly that they were worthy of being written down. For people in care settings this was a rare and much appreciated gift. I learnt that when time no longer has meaning for them, people with dementia have an almost zen-like gift of being ‘in the moment’.


These things I learnt in a care-home setting, coupled with my shelves and shelves full of poetry books, led me to the work I do now: prescribing poetry to individuals from the back of my 1970’s ambulance as Emergency Poet. On the surface the set up is a piece of theatre; in presentation it has much in common with quack doctors, travelling gypsies telling fortunes and palm readers. But what it also does is marry all of the things I have learnt so that I can use poetry as a gift for other people.


There is a 'consultation' which mimics an old-fashioned therapy session with a psychiatrist; ‘patients’ are asked to lie down, to relax. I sit to one side with a clip-board and ask them questions about their reading habits, their favourite places to read, how they relax and other gentle questions. I listen well and carefully. I write down their answers. The skill, if there is one, is to match the right poem to the individual. It is, I suppose, bibliotherapy but I would hesitate to call it that. The word therapy comes loaded with expectation, hence the sense of theatre which lightens the whole experience. I like the idea of the poem as a gift; no money changes hands. It is as though I were a friend listening over the kitchen table.


I was surprised from the first by the flood of positive feedback from people who had come inside and ‘had a go’. Something magical happens and the poems I’ve prescribed have often affected people quite profoundly. I have prescribed Myra Schneider’s 'Red Dress' to women with breast cancer, an extract from Eliot’s 'East Coker' to those recovering from heartbreak and Elizabeth Jennings’ 'Friendship' to a woman whose best friend had died that morning.


I prescribe the poem and a set of instructions as to how they must take their ‘medicine’ and this prescription will come from something that they have told me during the consultation; it may be that they have to sit in the garden with a pot of tea, listen to bird-song, perhaps plan a trip to the sea or get hold of a poetry anthology and place it by the loo and read a poem a day...I am amazed how much people enjoy carrying out these instructions!


I believe that poetry is unique amongst the arts in its ability to be at once intimate, uplifting, wise, challenging, music, magic, a blessing, a curse... to talk directly as though from one person to another.



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