The words that can make us calmer
By Fiona Macdonald
27 September 2017
In the introduction to his new book The Poetry Pharmacy, William Sieghart quotes the British playwright Alan Bennett. “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Sieghart’s book is subtitled ‘tried and true prescriptions for the heart, mind and soul’, and it brings the special and particular in 56 poems to bear on anxiety, depression and grief. Whether it’s a poem to read before a party – which “can inject self-belief like a shot of adrenaline” – or 17 lines that remind us “there is a small, wide-eyed animal within each of us that doesn’t understand why we keep kicking it”, the words in The Poetry Pharmacy have replenishing qualities. “This is not a poetry anthology, it’s a self-help book for life,” says Sieghart, who has dispensed more than 1000 ‘poetry prescriptions’ since his Poetry Pharmacy began in 2014.
He established the UK-wide National Poetry Day in 1994, after setting up the Forward Prizes for Poetry a couple of years before that – and is constantly trying to find ways of bringing poetry into everyday lives. “I’ve spent a quarter of a century – or more – trying to get poetry out of Poetry Corner,” Sieghart tells BBC Culture.
The Poetry Pharmacy is “a distillation of a whole life’s work”, he says, arguing that the prescriptions encompass “people’s access point to poetry – time of need. I feel at last I’ve been able to explain what’s obsessed me all of these years.” In the book’s introduction, Sieghart reveals what first drew him to poetry: “I was eight years old when I was first sent to boarding school, and I was desperately unhappy. At a time when friends were in short supply, I found that poetry became my friend.”
He also describes witnessing a road accident later in life, and finding relief in Philip Larkin’s 1961 poem Ambulances. “There I was with blood on my hands, trying to work out how to cope, and I remembered some lines from Ambulances, where you ‘sense the solving emptiness/That lies just under all we do,/And for a second get it whole,/So permanent and blank and true.’ And that was a brilliant explanation to me about just what was going on,” he says.
“I’ve got lots of couplets like that which hit me often – just relating to day-to-day events or what someone’s said, or a thought – it just gives a delightfully beguiling resonance to life. A way of understanding something in a different way, in a different light.”
A range of conditions appear in the book, including ‘loss of zest for life’ – answered by a poem about ironing – and ‘social overload’, with another Larkin poem prescribed for those who have “spent so little time in their own company, that they probably couldn’t pick themselves out of a line-up”. There is solace offered up from 700 years ago – from the 14th-Century Persian poet Hafez – and thoughts on migration from Imtiaz Dharker, who was born in Lahore, grew up in Scotland, and now lives between Mumbai, London and Wales.
Sieghart believes people are put off reading poetry because they’re not sure how to tackle it. “Reading poetry aloud is critical – out loud, or in your head,” he says. “If you just read it as though you’re reading a piece of journalism or a novel, you’re missing a dimension, you’re reading it flat on the page and you can’t really get what the poem’s on about.”
It can also difficult to find a way in. “Most people don’t know where to begin with poetry, they know a few dead poets’ names and very few living poets’ names,” says Sieghart. “In a way it’s hard to find what you’re looking for, it’s like a needle in a haystack. But you know you’re feeling anxious, depressed, sleepless, grieving, heartbroken – and what you really want is someone to say: ‘This is the one to read, this is going to help you’.”
One of his favourite poems is not something that would fit a prescription, however. “Something I hold dear is Aubade by Phillip Larkin – it was written quite late in his life, and it’s about lying awake at night and being frightened of dying. He manages to hold onto the thoughts we’re most scared of, and develop them and explore them – most of us just want to push them aside,” says Sieghart. “It’s bold, it’s stark, it’s straight to it – and it’s a fantastically moving poem. Whenever I read that at a reading, it stuns and silences the room.”
Below are three prescriptions from The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart, published by Penguin Press.
Also suitable for: boredom, fear of change, lack of courage, inertia or fear of mortality
What intrigues me about Philip James Bailey’s wonderful poem We Live in Deeds is its call to action. There’s something intensely motivating about the idea that we might fit a whole life’s worth of living into an hour, if only we had the courage. So often we are paralysed by our fears, concerns, worries and ‘what-ifs’, and we forget to dread the ‘what-if-I-don’ts’ instead.
Imagine if everything this poem claimed were true. If we measured our lives by our hearts’ throbs – by our excitements, our longings and our pangs of misery – just think how differently we’d do things. We’d take risks for the sake of taking them, and fall in love for the thrill of it. We’d sacrifice ourselves for others with ease and grace, because in doing so we’d also be enriching ourselves.
If we feared boredom, or being boring, more than we feared the consequences of bold action, I can barely conceive of the marvellous things we’d create and the spectacular lives we could lead. There is such huge potential within us, and within the world itself, and yet for some reason we choose to live lives of constraint and repetition. Imagine if we didn’t.
All of this may sound grandly unattainable. But is it as silly as it seems? Or is it, actually, the way we all wish we had the courage to live? Life is not valuable to us in itself, so much as it is valuable as a means to other ends, like experience, kindness and joy. This poem reminds us that a shorter life can still be full. It’s the richness of life that matters; its duration is simply a number.
Avoiding One’s Fears
Also suitable for: anxiety, avoidance behaviours, general fear or substance abuse
Most of us spend a huge amount of mental energy trying to push away fear, to block it from our minds completely. We live in a world of painkillers, tranquilizers, beta blockers and all sorts of more raucous solutions to fear; people will go to remarkable lengths to push aside the thoughts they least want to think.
Yet, as William Stafford suggests in For My Young Friends, it is only by allowing our fears in, by bending with them instead of trying rigidly to ignore them, that we can grow. Our fears are always on the edge of our vision, with us whether we acknowledge them or not. By understanding them better we can also understand ourselves. Fears are our motivations just as much as desires are. They are what makes us who we are, and what keeps us safe.
Running away may feel good in the short term – in fact, it can feel wonderful for a while. But if you’re always running and never engaging, you’ll find you’re facing in the wrong direction for your whole life. You’ll never have the chance to look back the way you came and feel proud.
Fears are not your enemies, they are your companions. Some of them are liars, and some of them are wise guides. Without getting to know them properly, you will never be able to determine which ones are which. Look your fears dead in the eye, and try to understand them. Don’t flinch, and don’t blink. You are not alone. Everyone is afraid. This is the world, and we all live here.
William Stafford, For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid, from Ask Me. Copyright © 2014 by the Estate of William Stafford. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org
Grief at premature death
Also suitable for: coping with the loss of a child
A premature death feels entirely different to the loss of a person who has had their time and used it well. The terrible, gasping unfairness of it all compounds our grief, and the shock of losing someone we thought we had decades longer to enjoy is ghastly. When the person we have lost is a child, the sense of horror, of a fundamental unnaturalness, is even more staggering. There is very little to be said that can make it any more bearable.
And yet Ben Jonson has found something to say, and it is a comfort. He tells us that the value of our lives is not dictated by their length, or their solidity. Living like an oak tree, becoming ancient and huge and eventually toppling over under our own weight, is not the only way to live a good human life. For all that the oak is strong, it will never flower.
There are those among us who are lilies. They may be destined only to last for a summer’s day, but they are, as Jonson says, the plant and flower of light. Their beauty is not constrained by their fragility, and nor is their impact diminished by its brevity. Their life, though it may be short, can still be perfect. In fact, it may be in part because they are with us for such a brief time that they manage to move us as they do.
The essential thing when thinking about a life cut short is not to imagine it as an oak sapling, cut before its prime. Those we lost were never meant to be grand old trees at all. Instead, they lived their days bright and treasured; they bloomed before they fell, and that was enough. Their lives were beautiful, and whole, and perfect, like a flower on a summer’s day. They are gone now, but their memory remains with us, a source of light. It will never be extinguished.