The Power of Poetry on Prescription

Emergency PoetDo you read as a form of escapism? Or perhaps you read to calm yourself down at the end of a busy day? Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems to Ease the Mind is an anthology of poems selected specifically to help those who are going through tough times (a form of “bibliotherapy”). I attended a fascinating event organised as part of the Stratford Literature Festival, to hear more about this concept. Dr Paula Byrne (academic and founder of ReLit charity), Dr Andrew Schuman (a medical doctor and poet) and Deborah Alma (aka The Emergency Poet) discussed the growing trend in taking literature seriously for its medicinal value in relation to mental health.   

Dr Byrne began by describing how she was speaking at an event about her biography of Jane Austen and, during the Q&A session, a girl in the audience said that, as a depressive, her “go-to writer” was Jane Austen. People seemed to laugh at this idea – the notion that Austen’s work could be helpful in that way. And yet, she explained, Austen’s work was actually prescribed to people with shell shock after the First World War.

Going through her own terrible experience, when her daughter was very ill, Byrne remembers how she wanted something good to read in the hospital, and she found a poem in her bag and “that poem got me through the night”. This made her wonder: “Perhaps there should be a Gideon bible of poetry?”

Dr Schuman reading a poem

Each member of the panel chose a poem to read to the audience

Dr Schuman (a medical doctor) is particularly interested in what he described as “a marriage of science and art”, suggesting that people don’t just want a scientific doctor. They also want their doctor to understand them. This is “a great redress that we need to address”, he explained. “Poetry can be seen as elitist, but actually it’s hard wired into our DNA. Jokes and song lyrics are also a form of poetry.” He said that he wants to “re-energise medical education, re-evaluating the job through the lens of poetry”.

Deborah Alma spoke about how she came up with the idea for ‘The Emergency Poet’ – an ambulance which travels to literary festivals prescribing poems for people. It started four years ago when she was using poetry to communicate with dementia patients, as well as making poetry with their words and giving it back to them. “Poetry can change a mood”, she explained, “in someone with dementia”. It can be “soothing or uplifting”, especially because a lot of them learned poetry by heart when they were at school. They could recite the poems with her as she read them aloud.

Alma was looking on ebay for a minibus, and happened to see an old ambulance for sale. “The whole thing came to me in an instant,” she explained, “and I haven’t looked back”. The first Emergency Poet event was at Wenlock Poetry Festival, and since then she has been to numerous other events. “The set up explicitly looks like a quack doctor,” she explained, “like a gypsy fortune teller”. She dresses up as a doctor with a pharmacy outside which includes various ‘poemcetamols’ and ‘blue remembered pills’. She invites people in and they lie down on a stretcher, “like a pastiche therapy session”. She then asks them questions about what they enjoy reading and helps them to “lie there and relax” before asking if there is anything specific they’d like a poem for, then she searches through a filing cabinet of poems to find the right one for that person.

Emergency Poet ambulance

The Emergency Poet was parked up at the Waterfront for the Stratford Literature Festival

Dr Schuman spoke about how prevalent the issue of mental health has become. In fact, he explained that 70-80% of doctors suffer from some kind of mental health problem, but almost none of them seek any help for it. He added that with chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, there’s often a mental burden as well. The panel discussed the fact that there seems to be much more of a problem with stress now due to the fast pace of modern living.

Dr Byrne spoke about the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) which she and Professor Jonathan Bate have created, entitled ‘Literature and Mental Health for Wellbeing’. The idea is to make this accessible for everyone. It’s completely free, and helps people to understand how literature can help in times of grief, stress, heartbreak, trauma, ageing and depression. The course (which people can sign up for when it starts again in September) includes video clips of people such as Melvyn Bragg talking about how poetry helped him communicate to his mother who had dementia. There are clips from famous people such as Stephen Fry (who writes poetry therapeutically) and Ian McKellan, but also ordinary people such as one lady who talks about how reading Hamlet helped her to move on after her sister killed herself.

So what is about reading that can help people? The Panel talked about how there is often a sense of isolation when people go through depression, grief or trauma, and the simple fact of reading that someone else, perhaps even 400 years ago, felt the same way as you, can really help.  Dr Schuman said that one of the biggest killers in today’s society is isolation and loneliness, and the course helps people by connecting them to poets and writers from the past, but also to each other. They can communicate via the online forum.

The three panellists each read a poem aloud. Alma read Postscript by Seamus Heaney, a poem which she said she would prescribe “to someone who is caught between big decisions” or “not taking time to look after themselves”.

This prompted the panel to consider how unique poetry is, as “the only work of art you can have in its entirety in your head”, not like a painting or a novel. Dr Schuman pointed out that Ted Hughes was very keen on memorising poetry. “It takes us out of our frenzied, harassed existences and slows us down”, he explained. They also talked about the power of hearing a poem read aloud, and as they each read their poems you could sense a kind of depth to the silence as we listened.

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