Can poetry be therapeutic? William Sieghart, editor of the recently published The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried and True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul, certainly believes in the power of a carefully selected poem to comfort and to make sense of feelings that threaten to overwhelm us at times of great stress. He argues that a poem can help us understand our emotional state and alleviate our fear that we are the only person who is suffering in this particular way. The inspiration for the book arose from a friend’s suggestion that after his talk at a poetry festival, Sieghart should offer short consultations to audience members and prescribe a suitable poem for their individual state of mind. It proved a great success and Sieghart subsequently toured the UK offering poetry pharmacies in libraries and festivals. As he states in the introduction to the book:
In all of this, I learned how much most people’s heartaches have in common.”
This small hardback book is beautifully designed in its compilation of 56 prescribed poems. There are five headings: Mental and Emotional Well-Being; Motivations; Self-Image and Self-Acceptance; The World and Other People and Love and Loss. Under each of these divisions a particular condition such as ‘Loneliness’ or ‘Fear of the Other’ is summarised on the left hand side of the page and the accompanying poem appears on the opposite page. I was pleased to see that Sieghart had limited the text in this way because both the eloquent description of the problem and the linked poem are easily digestible.
The Poetry Pharmacy is a book to be dipped into at times of need, or for pure enjoyment. Many of the poems are witty, delightful and enlightening. The poem prescribed for ‘Glumness’ is Adrian Mitchell’s wicked verse Celia Celia in which the poet improves his sad and weary mood by imagining Celia with nothing on. The range of poets is impressive and reflects Sieghart’s extensive knowledge of poetry through his long career as a publisher and as a leading advocate of the arts. (He established the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992 and founded UK’s National Poetry Day in 1994.)
Two poems by Hafez from 700 years ago reinforce the fact that human suffering is universal and recurrent, irrespective of century, country or gender. There are well-known favourites such as Donne and Kipling but also many contemporary poets featured, although none that I spotted from New Zealand. A nice touch at the end of the book is Sieghart’s inclusion of his email address, and his request for suggestions for other poems that have meaning for his readers. He is aware that this book contains his personal preferences although part of its appeal is the way it introduces readers to poets we may not have encountered before.This is a concise and thoughtful book that reinforces the importance of poetry as life-enhancing as well as providing comfort in the times of darkness, an inevitable consequence of being human.
Dr Emma Storr has worked as a GP and Senior Lecturer in General Practice in both Dunedin (NZ) and in Leeds (UK), where she currently lives. She is now turning her attention to poetry and has recently completed an MPhil in Writing at the University of South Wales. Emma’s poem, “Differential”, was commended in the 2016 International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.