Sarah Stacey's Health & Wellbeing Notes: The healing power of poetry


When I can’t think what to say to a friend going through a tricky time – because there is nothing helpful to say or do, except listen - I often send them a poem. 

From lullabies and nursery rhymes onwards, poetry is part of our lives whether we absorb it on the page or aloud, listening to others or voicing lines of words in school, places of worship, with others or alone in the bath. Songs are poems too, remember.

Recently, John O’Donohue’s beautiful Beannacht (‘blessing’ in Celtic) winged its way from my computer to a star-crossed lover. A chance meeting with a past, much loved beau had left her jolted out of her usual calm and focus, which she needed to complete a demanding work project.

The last verse is this:

And so may a slow

wind work these words

of love around you,

an invisible cloak

to mind your life.

She responded ‘This is just beautiful. Thank you so much.’ Later she told me how very comforting it was. Truth to tell, every time I read it I feel comforted too. You can read the whole poem by this poet, priest and philosopher here.

The US National Association for Poetry Therapy calls it ‘a type of expressive arts therapy, [which] promotes growth and healing’, adding that one benefit is ‘enhanced capacity to capture and reframe significant life stories’. In other words, it helps us heal our emotions.

Publisher William Sieghart discovered the healing power of poetry at the age of eight when he was first sent to boarding school and desperately unhappy. ‘Poetry became my friend. Reading it aloud was the only thing I was good at – I even won a prize or two doing it.’ Many years later, William compiled The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul, which Stephen Fry described as a ‘matchless compound of hug, tonic and kiss’.

Last year, I had the luck to meet Susannah Herbert, Executive Director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which was founded by William Sieghart in 1991 to promote ‘public knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of poetry’.

We were having supper with a mutual friend and when Susannah discovered my love of poetry she dived into her capacious handbag and pulled out a red cloth-covered book – William’s Poetry Pharmacy. The next morning, I sat up in bed, sipping that first cup of tea and dipping into it – ‘soothed and enchanted’ as I emailed Susannah at the time.

The format is simple. A problem state of mind or body, for instance going through chemotherapy, news overload, regret or fear of the unknown is explained on the left hand page and on the right is a poem chosen to help salve that wound.

Take this one: Condition: Loss of Zest for Life; the poem is Ironing by Vicki Feaver. William’s contention being that ‘the things that give us pleasure, that motivate us to get out of bed, don't have to be huge at all – it’s often the small acts of self care that have the power to heal us’.

I love dashing away with a smoothing iron when things go awry – starching and folding napkins was particularly effective once when my computer went rogue just on the day I was tussling with a stack of deadlines. Looking at a pile of crisply ironed linen gives me back a sense of control and there is delight in ‘breathing the sweet heated smell hot metal draws from newly-washed cloth…’, as the poem puts it.

(Hmm, just looking at a huge pile of ironing with six of my husband’s shirts … but smoothing out the wrinkles, listening to the radio, having a little daydream is still an attractive thought.)

Now, just before National Poetry Day on October 3rd, William Sieghart is launching The Poetry Pharmacy Returns: More Prescriptions for Courage, Healing and Hope. I ordered it the moment I saw it was coming.

And please do look at events around you for the 25th National Poetry Day, which is nationwide and in schools too.