Phew. I’m not alone, it seems, in my enthusiasm for poetry’s healing power. No less an organisation than UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) also believes in banging the drum for verse: March 21st is World Poetry Day, established by UNESCO.
It was back in 1999, it turns out, that UNESCO set up World Poetry Day during its 30th General Conference in Paris in 1999. Its aim was to support “linguistic diversity through poetic expression” as well as “Increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard.” All very laudable, but the bit that spoke to me in UNESCO’s blurb was this, and I quote: “As poetry continues to bring people together across continents, all are invited to join in.”
It is the power of poetry to connect us to others, and indeed ourselves, that speaks most powerfully to me. That poetry unlocks a feeling of closeness to others is something I’ve witnessed in my own Healing Words workshops which I run for schools and in prisons. But how exactly can poetry make us feel connected? To borrow a famous line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, ‘Let me count the ways.’
The first way poetry can bring us together is that we discover other people who have experienced similar sentiments, and we are not solitary in our despair or indeed our delight. When we have a poem by our side, whether on a bedside table or tucked into a bag, it feels as if we are accompanied by a friend: an authorial arm is wrapped around our shoulders. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote of literature: ‘You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’
This particularly matters for our well-being at a time when many of us feel isolated. Yes, you can share your feelings with friends, or a therapist if you are lucky enough to have one. But that may not be possible. Sharing words as an alternative allows us to become more connected to ourselves and others (not least the poets themselves), and this has never been more true or necessary than during our uncertain times.
Knowing that someone else has felt in a similar way makes it all okay. Poetry allows all those feelings to find expression. It lets us more fully inhabit that feeling. And gives us the words and images for our emotions when we struggle to find them, which is especially good if you are no wordsmith or are busy with other things, as most of us are.
Poems are short, and handy when you are in a rush and trying to nail a mood. There’s that lovely moment of recognition when you go, ‘yes! – that’s spot on! That’s what I’m feeling!’ Poets can be so generous in sharing amazing images to make sense of our moods, images that have made my frightening feelings less scary, and my happy feelings even happier.
Take Gerard Manley Hopkins writing about despair in his poem ‘No Worst, There is None’ .
He evokes the unending, unrelenting nature of that despair with the unforgettable image of a mind having mountains – cliffs from which we fall. Repeating the word ‘mind’ in a grammatically odd way makes the phrase more striking still. The terrible twist is that we never reach the bottom.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.
Hold them cheap May who ne’er hung there.
I remember thinking this was the most perfect description of my own depression. The fact that Hopkins had felt a similar feeling did indeed make me feel less alone. Our hearts go out to Hopkins even more when we realise that he wrote the poem in the 1880s, while experiencing severe depression himself.
A second way that poetry can bring people together is also illustrated by Hopkins: it can provide a way of letting others know how we feel. Hopkins’s image is one that allows
someone who has not known despair – ‘hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there’ – to feel something of that descent into dizzying horror. I remember my husband sending friends a copy of Hopkins’s poem as a shortcut to explain how I was feeling, when I suffered my two serious depressive episodes in my thirties.
Feeling less alone, and being able to let others know how we feel, are two ways poetry can bring people together. Good verse can also be make us feel more connected to ourselves, and become a helpful companion, whatever you are feeling.
Here the question for me has been, how do you make poetry part of your everyday emotional life? In a practical way? For me, there have been two answers.
The first is by keeping poetry close, literally. And the second is by memorising poetry by heart.
The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne used to write his own inspiring quotations on the beams of his sitting room, where they remain today. I do not have any beams to decorate, but I like writing out quotations in nice ink in a tidy script, perhaps decorated with an illustrated border to keep poetry close by. I like short poems and copying them out helps me remember them. Feelings are awakened during the process of committing the words to the page.
I also enjoy jotting down my favourite lines of poetry on cards, so I have them to hand, slipped in a pocket or bag as aides-memoires. Sometimes I prop the cards up on a bathroom mirror or by my computer – pocket reminders of feelings or approaches that can be helpful. For example, John Milton’s ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven’ reminds me of the power of thought, and how by changing what we think we can change how we feel. And I reflect on the truth of Susan Coolidge’s line that ‘Yesterday’s wounds, which smarted and bled / Are healed with the healing which night has shed.’
Other favourite sayings calm me down: reassuring messages such as Max Ehrmann’s conviction that all of us are children of the universe ‘no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here’; or Roger Hammerstein’s promise that if we ‘Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart / . . . you’ll never walk alone’.
Some are simple calls to action, good for days when motivation deserts me: Gaskell’s ‘Do something’ comes to mind. or they amplify that glorious feeling of being at one with nature: Wordsworth’s‘A motion and a spirit that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things.’
My second way of staying connected to poetry is to learn it by heart. I often write out a poem first, before learning it. Writing slows you down and gives you time to learn the lines. I learn what the poem is made of – each word and pause and line feels special. Its meaning is one that has become part of me. It works its cathartic magic.
Learning by heart emotionally companionable poems may help you to engage even more closely with the emotions they evoke, without the distraction of the printed page. Your feelings, and the way the words work on them, can merge, the two becoming embedded in your psyche. There you may find some answers to those feelings, ways of negotiating them and truths that can help.
That way, you take the poem inside you into your brain chemistry, and you know the poem at a deeper, bodily level than if you just read it off the page. Through learning by heart, your own heart feels the rhythms of the poem, almost as if they were echoes or variations of your own heartbeat.
So wherever you are across the globe this World Poetry Day, my hope is that poetry helps you connect with others, and indeed yourself. I can’t improve on UNESCO’s own invitation: please join in and enjoy a poem, and share one with someone else too.
Rachel Kelly’s new book You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs is published by Yellow Kite.