What are you doing for National Poetry Day?
Thursday 7th October is National Poetry Day in the UK. National Poetry Day is a British campaign founded by William Sieghart in 1994 to promote poetry, including public performance. Sieghart advocated the reading of poetry everywhere, out aloud, on the bus on our way to work, in the street, in school and in the pub. Well I’m probably not going to run around reading poetry out loud in the street to every passerby. But I am really interested in the therapeutic benefits of poetry for my clients and for anyone at all struggling with their mental health.
Choice and conflict
This year’s theme is Choice and it’s an important theme in the counselling room. One of the key reasons that people come to counselling is the overwhelming distress caused by internal conflict. Often there is an internal struggle between the different parts of ourselves, each part with different needs and wants vying for attention. As A.E. Houseman puts it in his poem ‘The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do’. The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do: My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two. But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest, The brains in my head and the heart in my breast …
I imagine that many of us can relate to this poem. I often hear people say: ‘it’s like a war raging between my head and my heart’ or they may use other metaphors such as 'it's like there's a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other' or they describe ‘good’ me and ‘bad’ me fighting again. It can be a painful process.
Poetry as therapy
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that creative and expressive writing has significant therapeutic benefits and in particular, a growing interest in Poetry Therapy as a therapeutic intervention, ‘promoting growth and healing through language, symbol and story’. Poems can be vehicles for processing very complex emotions, saying the unsayable (Hall 1993). The use of metaphor, simile, images and allegory enable us to symbolise very complex thoughts and feelings in regard to our lived experience. Poetry invokes images that help us to make sense of what we’re thinking, feeling and experiencing. The meaning of words can be expanded to encompass the very complex thoughts, feelings and senses we can experience, helping us to cope at the most difficult times in our life.
Poetry and me
I can relate to this. There have been times in my life when I’ve really struggled to process some very complex emotions resulting from loss. In poetry, I found a way to express what I was experiencing – the processing of deeply painful and unmanageable thoughts, emotions and physical sensations through the creative endeavour of writing poetry. I found I could express the complexities of processing my loss through the use of poetry, its ambiguity, innuendo and tone. I found that by leaving the lines open, cadenced, multi-layered and open to multiple interpretations and nuances, I was able to accommodate, hold inside myself and manage the overwhelming, painful internal conflict raging inside me (Lankton & Lankton, 1983, quoted in Roos 2007).
Connecting with the Self through poetry
There is a saying that three poems are equal to one milligram of Valium. Whether reading it or writing it, poetry requires us to slow down, to connect with ourselves, to focus on the here and now. Poetry creates an intimate connection with our inner world, our self. It brings us to ourselves and our lived experience, in this moment, connecting us to what we are thinking, feeling and experiencing. It teaches us that reality is not all about what is happening externally in the world, but also what is happening here, in our own private space, in this moment. (Poems for Giving Life and Loss New Meaning, Susan Roos, 2007).
The benefits of poetry
Poetry requires attentiveness to our creative endeavour and mindful attention to our individual process. Our ability to focus, listen and pay attention to the different parts of ourselves, with creative curiosity and without judgement, enables the healing process. It’s a safe and gentle way of learning about ourselves, of being able to express and accept as valid our innermost thoughts and feelings and of finding relief from mental distress.
How to celebrate National Poetry Day
There are lots of ways we can celebrate National Poetry Day, either together or alone in private, do whatever makes you feel good. Some ideas promoted by Arts Council England include:
Read a poem: if poetry isn’t your thing, or you don’t really know what type of poetry you might like, then there are a selection of poems here
Write a poem: write or dedicate a poem to a friend or loved one – it doesn’t have to be an award-winning piece, it just needs to come from your heart (and your head of course).
Share a poem: tell us what your favourite poem is or use #nationalpoetryday to share your favourite poem on social media
Perform a poem: get your smart phone out and record yourself reading a favourite poem and share it online or just with friends and loved ones
I’m going to leave you with one of my favourite poems, Musée des Beaux Arts
By W. H. Auden. This poem is a reflection on Pieter Brueghel’s painting, The Fall of Icarus. Auden reflects on pain and trauma, how it just goes unnoticed as everyone just carries on with the banality of daily life. Every time I read this poem it leaves me with a sense of responsibility to notice and acknowledge the pain of others, to not just walk on by, scratching my behind, oblivious to the suffering of others.
Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
I’d love to hear your views on this poem or feel free to share your favourite poem with me. I’m sure we can find some shared meaning - as James Joyce has been quoted as saying, ‘‘In the particular is contained the universal’’ (Milesi, 2003, p.4).