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‘Sometimes, only a poem will do’ - Poetry and Recovery

Writing by Amelia Lockhart-Hourigan. Illustration by Zoë Dutton.

“Sometimes, only a poem will do. These poetic prescriptions and wise words of advice from William Sieghart’s dispensary offer comfort, delight and inspiration for all; a space for reflection, and that precious realization – I’m not the only one who feels like this.” The Poetry Pharmacy

Everyone has a different way of coping with trauma. Throughout our lives we will all experience a number of events that impact us, varied in the impression that they may. Our own trauma is unique to us as individuals, with an event that has a lasting impact with one person being a minor experience for another. Moreover, the ways in which we have each been impacted by the shared trauma that has been the coronavirus pandemic has changed us all in incredibly varied ways, and left us all with wounds to be healed. In much the same way, the methods of coping and healing that we chose to employ vary just as greatly as our experiences, dependent on our individual emotional needs and expectations.

In spite of all this variety, I believe there is one grand unifier of the human experience; art. Art can make even the most earth-shattering events seem bearable, and make things we thought we could never overcome endurable. Author William Hieghart agrees with me - his two poetry collections are specifically targeted towards soothing the human spirit, with a poem prescribed for practically every experience under the sun, both titled “The Poetry Pharmacy”. The project, which has taken many forms, including a BBC radio show as well as a column in The Guardian, aims to show readers that they are not alone in what they feel, giving them a reminder that whatever you may be suffering from, someone has likely felt the same way before. The point these collections aims to express is simple; that poetry can provide healing for emotional trauma; that, like medicine, pieces of art can be prescribed to soothe wounds of the soul.

The poetic form has been an emotional outlet for humanity for generations for a reason. The style and form that it takes may have changed over time, but the emotional resonance it has managed to provide has not. There is a reason that the sonnets of Shakespeare, written centuries ago, are still read by those in love today. The feeling of being known that poetry can provide is not one that is really found in other creative mediums. We can read a novel and resonate with the characters or watch a film and empathise with the stories told, but seeing oneself in a poem is like looking into the mirror. This feeling of being met by another person helps remind us exactly what it means to be human. Not all poetry is great, not all poetry will resonate with you or change your life. But when poetry is great, it is transcendent. it will move you in ways that you didn’t know you needed and shift your world view irrevocably.

Living through a time that has been as volatile as the past year and a half has been has had impact on even the strongest of minds, and while the hopelessness and isolation that has come hand in hand with this pandemic may seem all encompassing, having the option to turn to others through the shared media of writing can act as balm for the soul. Poetic expression is often raw, and even though we might not all become published to critical acclaim, the catharsis that writing or reading poetry can provide is unmatched. Finding this emotional connection in the works of others therefore allows us to be seen in ways we didn’t even know we needed to be. Often, others are able to better describe our conditions than we are. Even though reading poetry is often solitary, the physical act of sharing poetry can help us form lasting communities. Writing a poem can be seen as an act of putting one’s soul to paper, and so it is only natural that once this work is shared, a deep and fundamental sense of unity is shared amongst those who have experienced it. The Poetry Pharmacy collections create this shared community, giving name to the trials that come with human existence.

As a society, we are in need of healing and recovery now more than ever. Life is tough, in ways we never knew it would be, and we are facing challenges that no one before has faced. And this is scary. We have found ourselves in unprecedented times, floating adrift in a world where it is difficult to find meaning of any kind. While it can feel like we are at the edge of the abyss, at the point of no return, the connection found through poetry can remind us that despite how it may seem, not all hope is lost. That although they may not have dealt with a global pandemic, the death of democracy or the fall of capitalism, those who have come before us have too known pain, have suffered and have recovered from the pain that comes with being alive. Poetic meaning doesn’t always have to be about joy or beauty or positive feeling, but rather can help us to process the negative emotions that come with being alive too. In the same way that poetry allows us a space to express the deepest love and happiness, it can also be a space in which we acknowledge the darker sides of human existence. Pain, death and violence in poetry creates a cathartic level of healing.

We may be a long way from healing as a collective. It will undoubtedly be a long time until we feel totally happy and at peace with our lives again or feel as though we are living to our fullest potential. It is unlikely that life will ever be the same as it was before the pandemic, or even if it is, we will certainly be changed. We can, however, hope and trust in the fact that the future will bring new things in due course. It may seem as though that living in the world is harder now than it has ever been before, and maybe this is true, but if we take time to recover from the painful experience that is being alive, maybe we will still be able to see that there still is beauty to be found.

Here is a selection of poems prescribed by Sieghart in his collections, for a variety of ills that you may be feeling given the state of the world at the moment.

Prescribed for: Disappointment with life

‘From the Hymn of Empedocles’ by Matthew Arnold

Is it so small a thing

To have enjoy'd the sun,

To have lived light in the spring,

To have loved, to have thought, to have done….?

Prescribed for: Glumness

‘Celia Celia’ by Adrian Mitchell

When I am sad and weary

When I think all hope has gone

When I walk along High Holborn

I think of you with nothing on.

Prescribed for: General Overload

‘The Orange’ by Wendy Cope

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange

The size of it made us all laugh.

I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—

They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange it made me so happy,

As ordinary things often do

Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park

This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.

I did all my jobs on my list

And enjoyed them and had some time over.

I love you. I’m glad I exist.

Prescribed for: Despair at the world

‘Don’t Hesitate’ by Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty

of lives and whole towns destroyed or about

to be. We are not wise, and not very often

kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this

is its way of fighting back, that sometimes

something happens better than all the riches

or power in the world. It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant

when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.

Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Prescribed for: Need for reassurance

‘Everything is Going to be All Right’ by Derek Mahon

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

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