Perspectives on the value of art and culture
How poetry can be a lifeline READ ON
The bestselling author of Black Rainbow reflects on her experience of depression – and how words illuminated her road to recovery. When I was first hospitalised with depression in 1997, poetry proved an unexpected lifeline. As my mother sat by my bedside, she took to repeating a phrase from the Bible, which of course is full of poetry: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ It was a line she had read to us when we were children. I was so weak and in such physical pain that it would have been impossible to learn anything new. But I could remember these words from my childhood without much effort. The phrase became a positive mantra, a welcome respite from my previous chant – that I wanted to die. The beauty of the language soothed me. I clung to those few paradoxical words, that in my weakness I would find strength. As I recovered, I began to be well enough to absorb not just lines, but verses, and then whole poems. It was clear that poetry was the perfect medium for me when unwell. Its brevity was a blessing. So too was the way that it dissolved my feelings of solitude. In reading the words of others I came to realise I wasn’t alone. Poems such as ‘Love III’ by George Herbert required me to concentrate on something outside of myself and to be in the moment to unpack their meaning, to savour their images and to appreciate the specificity of each word and phrase. It was helpful to read and understand Herbert’s own description of depression. As he puts it, your soul feels ‘guilty of dust and sin’. And yet Herbert also describes the presence of ‘Love’ in the poem. ‘Love’ speaks in a very different voice, a compassionate, soothing one of forgiveness and acceptance. Learning to accept rather than deny the depression proved a key step to recovery.
Six months after I had first fallen ill, I returned to work as a journalist. But I didn’t forget how poetry had proved my friend in a time of need. Though I was better in myself, whenever those around me needed comfort, whether because they were facing illness or heartbreak of some kind, I would send them a poem that had helped me. Others seemed to be consoled in the same way that I had been. As one kindred spirit put it, poets are often better writers than the authors of self-help books. This led to the germ of an idea, which, nearly 20 years later, informs my working life. My gratitude at being thrown a lifeline all those years ago inspired me to attempt to do the same for others. My first poetry workshop was held at my local prison three years ago. Given the poor mental health of many prisoners, I welcomed an invitation from the prison’s education department to share a selection of poems with inmates on National Poetry Day – and did my best to put together a choice that they might find relatable and uplifting. The 20 or so prisoners who attended were keen to engage. One man said that he felt the poem ‘Love After Love’ by Derek Walcott well described his own journey towards becoming more self-compassionate. He particularly liked the lines The time will come when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror and each will smile at the other’s welcome. Other prison workshops followed. Then, in April last year I published my memoir Black Rainbow: How words healed me – my journey through depression, which shares many of the poems that helped me recover. I created a free app of the same name, with poetry readings performed by actors such as Julian Glover and Isla Blair.
‘ In reading the words of others
I came to realise I wasn’t alone.’
‘ We look at the research carried out
by the University of Liverpool among others that poetry can actually alter what happens in our brains in a positive way.’
I now run workshops for mental health charities including Depression Alliance, SANE, Mind and CoolTan Arts. In a typical four-part workshop series, each hour-long session is spent looking at six or seven poems best suited to support participants through a journey from dark to light. The first of these four sessions includes a general introduction to the healing power of poetry. There’s nothing new in the notion. After all, Apollo was the God of both poetry and medicine. We look at the research carried out by the University of Liverpool, among others, which shows that poetry can actually alter what happens in our brains in a positive way. We share the ways poetry can provide a different voice in our heads and make us feel less alone. We then look at understanding darkness and despair through cathartic poems and descriptions of mental unrest including Keats’s ‘Ode to Melancholy’ and Anne Sexton’s ‘The Sickness Unto Death’ with its searing line ‘My body became a side of mutton/and despair roamed the slaughterhouse’. In the second session we discuss poems that can help us find the strength to overcome desperation and provide the motivation to fight on. Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’ is always a popular choice. The third session is about using poetry to re-engage with the wider world, often through an appreciation for nature’s beauty. In the fourth and final session we turn to poetry to help us through ‘everyday life’ – to keep on keeping on. Here the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi is often a favourite, especially his poem ‘The Guest House’, which invites the reader to welcome all guests who come – including darkness and despair.
Cartoons © Jonathan Pugh
Cartoons from ‘52 Steps to Happiness’
For many who attend the workshops, the last time they read aloud was as children. It is wonderful to see this practice rediscovered in adulthood. Reading aloud as a group helps participants to digest the poems, opens their eyes to the musicality of the words and allows time for them to put the text down and be read to. It can also build confidence. For those taking part, the first time they volunteer to read aloud can be a big step. Participants say they enjoy the sense of community that is instantly created through the shared discovery of verse. Some are even inspired to write their own work. While reading and literature can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, we don’t altogether understand why or how this works, or what its limits are. This is why we need more research in this area. ‘Bibliotherapy’ is not a replacement for front-line mental health care but it clearly can play a supporting role across a range of conditions. While I run workshops for those who suffer anxiety and depression, others are using poetry to help the elderly and those with dementia. Jill Fraser runs the charity Kissing it Better which provides volunteers to visit the elderly in hospitals and care homes. Fraser has found that many older people come alive when reminded of classic poetry such as Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ or Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, which they had learnt at school. This can re-engage a different part of their brains and remind them of happy childhood days. Similarly, Susanna Howard from the charity Living Words is finding that dementia patients are better able to find their voice when encouraged to write down their thoughts in poetic form.
‘ I have to concentrate on the words in
hand, and can’t regret the past or worry about the future - the usual thought patterns of someone who is depressed.’
Mindfulness therapists are also increasingly incorporating poetry into their work, to help people be more present in the moment. Poetry has certainly helped me be more attentive and conscious. I have to concentrate on the words in hand, and can’t regret the past or worry about the future – the usual thought patterns of someone who is depressed. Raymond Carver’s ‘Happiness’ describes the simple joy of a boy and his friend doing their paper round in the early morning light and perfectly encapsulates the pleasure of being in the moment. Such beauty that for a minute death and ambition, even love, doesn’t enter into this. Happiness. It comes on Unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really, Any early morning talk about it. When I read a poem as powerful as Carver’s, or when I come home from running one of my workshops, I feel as if my strength is indeed, very slowly, being made perfect in weakness. — Arts Council England recognises that there is an increasing awareness of the ways in which arts and culture can contribute to our individual and collective wellbeing. We believe we need more research in this area. That’s why we are committed to a research programme in partnership with leading academic institutions. You can find out more about this work on our blog. Rachel Kelly’s new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available for purchase on Amazon. For more information please follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit: www.rachel-kelly.net
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Published on Jan 15, 2016
The bestselling author of Black Rainbow reflects on her experience of depression – and how words illuminated her road to recovery.