The Mental Health Benefits of Poetry
Why do we read and write poetry? This is an interesting question with an infinite number of possible answers, all truly individual. I know why I read and write poetry: to help clarify my sometimes irrational thoughts and feelings in, I hope, a constructive and positive way.
I have battled mental health difficulties, principally depression, since I was seventeen years old. Now, at fifty four, I have been diagnosed with dysthymia: a chronic low mood disorder. Needless to say, this affects all aspects of my mental life, and the way I respond to the world around me. My emotional life and how I feel about its purpose, meaning, values and beliefs is constantly challenged by a predisposing negative viewpoint. It makes it very hard to remain balanced in the face of a seemingly inexplicable tsunami of hopelessness that breaks upon me every single day. It still does, but I have been fortunate to discover something that provides me with a little refuge from the storm: poetry. It would be foolish to advocate poetry as a panacea for all ills, but it has given me some focus; and, yes, consolation. Consolation to know that I am not alone in feeling like this, and even that much more gifted minds than mine have experienced the same; despite these problems, they have been able to function and, in the process, create beauty and meaning in their lives.
I have always enjoyed reading poetry. Through school, and later in local amateur dramatics, I have delighted in the magic of our rich language. But it was only this year that I decided to take the plunge and put pen to paper myself. Why did I leave it so late? I don’t know. Perhaps I felt I didn’t have anything meaningful to say that hadn’t been said before by more skilled practitioners of the “art”. Whatever the reason, the most important thing is that I’ve now found a means, a conduit through which I can express my thoughts and feelings in a creative way. For me, poetry fits the bill. For others, it may be prose or a combination of various forms or styles of writing. The point is that all these modes of expression are creative.
So, what is the attraction of poetry, specifically? And why do I advocate this form of writing as being potentially beneficial for mental health? I have always liked the answer given by Robin Williams’ character in the film Dead Poets’ Society when asked why we read and write poetry:
Because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion.
For me this is a literal truth. It is a widely acknowledged fact that artistic endeavour of various kinds is considered beneficial in the treatment of certain mental health conditions. For instance, we are all aware of the calming and/or stimulating effects of music in our increasingly hectic daily lives. It is my contention that, as poetry mirrors music in its beat or meter, not to mention natural bodily rhythms (it has been asserted by some renowned academics that the iambic pentameter closely correlates with human heartbeat and breathing rhythms), it has the power to alter mood and re-calibrate the mind. How this is achieved is not wholly understood, and much heated academic debate and research continues in an attempt to identify the mechanism responsible for causing these apparent changes.
In addition to this is the obvious fact that the putting of words on paper objectifies our thoughts and feelings, forcing us to more fully explore their nature. The power of poetry lies both in its form and content, and more precisely in the exquisite balance that exists between the two. In poetry you are sometimes compelled by form or rhyme to search more deeply for the right word or sequence of words to express an idea. This is the key, I believe, to the magic of poetry. Finding that correct word or phrase can create a wholly new and unexpected image or metaphor that both surprises and delights. An excellent example of this can be found at the end of George Herbert’s famous poem The Pulley, where the use of the word ‘tossed’ creates an image of humanity adrift on Life’s turbulent sea, finally washed into the loving arms of God for much-needed rest upon death. I highly recommend reading this poem, though there are countless other examples of this device out there in acclaimed anthologies.
I should state clearly that although poetry has many technical aspects, these need not cause sleepless nights nor prevent you from fully expressing yourself. It is my fervent belief that anyone with reasonable competence in the language can write poetry. Poetry or verse can be good or bad, formal or free. None of this really matters. What is important is the act of expression. Use your imagination. Don’t be afraid to make that first mark on the blank page, and have the confidence to put words together in unusual ways; you might be surprised by the results. The only noteworthy guiding principle is authenticity. Remain true to yourself and write about what you know. That could be a feeling; an insect; an afternoon spent in your back garden; or a favourite food. You could try:
A brimming ashtray
a grain of sand
a summer’s day
the human hand.
Whatever your subject matter, remember to be honest about how you respond to it, and the world around you. That is all you need to know. Go on, give it a go!
Even if the thought of writing poetry is too scary or onerous, that should not stop you from the enjoyment of reading it. There is a world of fantastic verse out there, collected into many famous anthologies, to cater for all appetites and occasions. Some is deeply spiritual and contemplative, some is positively anarchic and surreal. The joy of poetry is that it celebrates and explores the experience of living: the inner and unique world of thought and feeling, and the complex external world of Nature and how we interact with it. It has the capacity to excite love; thought; sadness; wonder; exultation and amazement. Whether you delight in Shakespeare’s sonnets or Edward Lear’s nonsense verse, there is something out there for everyone. All you need to do is find the time and courage to dive in.
© 2016 Nemo
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Nemo is a poet from Thanet who writes poetry to improve his mental health.