Articles - 5th February 2019

Poetry, Psychotherapy & Politics

Words by Zoe Southcott

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 – Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Poetry Sales and Politics

Nielsen BookScan statistics show that Poetry sales soared in 2018, growing by just over 12%, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018.

This added up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m from 2017. Additionally, 75% of buyers were millennials younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22.

Andre Breedt, of Nielsen, is quoted in The Guardian saying that sales were booming because, in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world:

“Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”

This trend is comparable to the boom in poetry’s popularity during other times of political tension – such as the miners’ strike in the 1980s, and during the rise of Chartism in the 19th century.

Poetry is a perfect way for us to critically discuss events like Brexit and Grenfell, issues that are relevant to contemporary society.

This is not just an exercise in reflection, instead this is a way of engaging with what is happening.

Poetry can be a way of putting forward a narrative that is different than the dominant one.

Poetry is a vital tradition, one that has its roots with the people. Today, of course, the internet and social media offer the opportunity for work to spread quickly without it being learnt and passed on orally.

Poets see the furthest down the road, so to speak, and we ignore them to our detriment, as Ursula k. Le Guin put it:

“Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians.

“We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.”

Poetry gives us a way of understanding, one that complements the learning of true and rational facts. We aren’t solely rational creatures, we are emotional, imaginative, and relational too.

This imaginative mechanism is something that seems inherently present, which is an exciting insight into the functioning of the mind in itself.

The stories we tell each other are both creators and projectors of our dreams, fears and our beliefs, they serve to bond us together, and provide a framework in which we can cope with a world that is always half in shadow.

Poetry and Psychotherapy

As a psychotherapist, I often find myself sitting across from those who have voluntarily embarked upon a journey of vulnerability and transformation.

People in psychotherapy are often hard at work, consciously examining and changing the thought patterns and belief systems that they have held all their lives.

Often clients tell me about the things that they have found meaningful that week, a film, a thoughtful gift, a book of poetry.

This week a client recommended William Seighart’s The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul. Described by Stephen Fry as:

“a balm for the soul, fire for the belly, an arm around the lonely shoulder, a matchless compound of hug, tonic and kiss.”

And, having bought a copy, I would like to pass this recommendation on to you.

The anthology is a preventative pharmacy for the various emotional and mental difficulties listed in the contents.

A poem is neatly prescribed for each one. Presented alongside ‘The Conditions’, a short introduction to the poem and what is being prescribed for it.

Of course, every person’s experience of depression will be subjective. Each poem will not necessarily be a perfect fit every time. But I do feel that Sieghart didn’t miss the mark too often.

I love way that Sieghart has linked poetry and therapy in this explicit way. Some may criticise this collection as being focused on the self, over community.

But, as a first order of business, managing our own selves, and allowing ourselves to flourish, and use our talents effectively, is a necessary precursor to everything else.

As per much philosophical and religious thought, most of us are familiar with the maxim ‘God helps those who help themselves’ (The New Testament (Matthew 25)).

Poetry and Peace of Mind

You don’t need to be a poet to find comfort in poetry, as Alan Bennet put it:

“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.”

The themes that The Poetry Pharmacy addresses are timeless and universal. They are always in the forefront of the human experience: fear of the unknown, grief, depression, and bereavement. There will never be a human being whose life doesn’t address or contend with any of these things.

The problems we face that are articulated here, are evidently shared and have become something poised and beautiful. There is solace in that.

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