Why poetry will save your soul

16 Oct|Rachel Kelly

Churchill read Arthur Hugh Clough to keep the Black Dog at bay

Author Rachel Kelly on her forthcoming series of #healingwords workshops at the Idler Academy

PEOPLE are often baffled by my dedication to poetry as an aid in the battle against depression. What is it about poems that makes them such a tonic in times of difficulty?

Well, they’re free, have no side-effects, keep me in the moment, stop me worrying about the future or regretting the past, and provide a positive narrative in my head. I’m so convinced of poetry’s efficacy that I’m now running #healingwords workshops to share my belief with others.

Participants say they particularly enjoy the sense of community that is instantly created through the shared discovery of new verse. Poems are often my companions when I feel at my most desperate and alone; sharing poetry with others is one of the most effective ways that I can think of to dispel isolation.

In my workshops there is no knowledge of theory, background or critical reading required – just the pure pleasure of reading the text as “the thing itself”. Reading the poems can work a bit like mindfulness, because sometimes concentration is required to unpack the meaning – this untangling keeps everyone present in the moment. We all get a little respite from our worries even for that short session.

Read aloud, the poems become even more absorbing. Vocalising the words on the page is at the heart of shared reading: it is at once a deeply personal, and deeply sociable experience.

For many, the last time they read aloud was as a child. The last time they read poetry was also often in youth, in lessons at school. It is wonderful to see these practices rediscovered in adulthood. Reading aloud has huge benefits. It helps you to digest the poems slowly, opens your eyes to the musicality of the verse, and allows you time to simply put the text down, sit and listen to other people reading. It can also provide a confidence boost – the first time an individual volunteers to read something aloud can be a big step.

My favourite part of the workshop is always the discussions that follow a reading, on how the poem may be making everyone feel, and how the poet has managed to provoke this response. The workshop dynamic creates space to explore emotions highlighted by the literature and bonds a group of people, over a series of weeks.

My series of workshops with the Idler Academy will run from 5th to the 26th of November. The course is split into four workshops. Each session will look at the poetry and wise words best suited to support you during a journey from dark to light, with the last session working with poems to help with everyday life. Each session will include handouts of five or six poems that we will discuss and for participants to take home.

The first session will focus on understanding darkness and despair, with cathartic poems about mental unrest by Stevie Smith, Anne Sexton and Roger McGough amongst others – words that can speak for you when you are unable to speak for yourself. Rachel will also teach you the short mantras which helped her get over the worst.

The second session will look at comforting works that may be a voice of calm in difficult times, and remind you that you too will get better. The session includes poems by George Herbert, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and Arthur Hugh Clough’s inspirational poem ‘Say not the Struggle Naught Availeth’, which was Churchill’s favourite poem during the war.

The third session focuses on poems that look outwards to nature and the passing seasons to provide healing images that can help transport us from an uncomfortable present into a more pleasing place. This session includes poems such as Emily Dickinson’s ‘ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers’ – which has been the most popular verse discussed in my #healingwords workshops to date – and e. e. cummings’ uplifiting ‘i thank You God for most this amazing’.

The final session will provide you with poems to help maintain good mental health for everyday life and equip you with literature to deal with what Freud called ‘ordinary human unhappiness’.  We will look at poems by Rudyard Kipling, Derek Walcott and Raymond Carver.

I hope that by the end of the four weeks of the course, each participant will be equipped with a new kind of first aid kit in times of difficulty: an inventory of healing poems.

Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression, is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available for purchase on Amazon. The Black Rainbow app can be downloaded for free on the Apple App store and on the Google App store for £1.49. All author proceeds to SANE and United Response. Follow Rachel @rache_Kelly or visit www.blackrainbow.org.uk

The workshops will be held at the Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne Park Rd W25QH, every Wednesday 6.45-8.15pm from 5th-26th November.

Visit this link to sign up.