The positive benefits of poetry

woman reading book

‘Neurologists at Exeter University, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, found that reading poetry activated different brain regions to prose – even the lyrical prose we find in fiction. When the research participants read poetry, it lit up the regions of the brain variously linked to emotion, memory, making sense of music, coherence building and moral decision-making. Poetry, the study’s authors concluded, induces a more introspective, reflective mental state among readers than does prose.’ – Sarah Holland-Batt, Weekend Australian, 21–22 March 2020

If you feel you’re losing your ability to focus on a long book while confined indoors and surrounded by digital screens (as staying up to date on a global pandemic seems to command), try turning to poetry to nurse your shrinking attention span back to life.

In the Time of Pandemic

And the people stayed home.

And they read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.

And they listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.

Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed.

And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

 

—Kitty O’Meara

‘Poetry is the quiet music of being human and in these days and nights when our humanity is fully vulnerable and exposed, poetry takes a small step forward. In our separate isolations, a poem is like the Tardis: bigger on the inside. Like spring – to recall TS Eliot – poetry mixes memory and desire.’ – Carol Ann Duffy, The Guardian

This poem by poet  Ian McMillan,  reminds of us of just what we lose each time a library is closed.

Adult Fiction

I always loved libraries, the quiet of them,
The smell of the plastic covers and the paper
And the tables and the silence of them,
The silence of them that if you listened wasn’t silence,
It was the murmur of stories held for years on shelves
And the soft clicking of the date stamp,
The soft clickety-clicking of the date stamp.

In late summer, just as autumn was thinking about
Turning up, and the light outside would be the colour
Of an Everyman cover and the lights in the library
Would be soft as anything, and I’d sit at a table
And flick through a book and fall in love
With the turning of the leaves, the turning of the leaves.

And then at seven o’clock Mrs Dove would say
In a voice that wasn’t too loud so it wouldn’t
Disturb the books “Seven o’clock please …”
And as I was the only one in the library’s late summer rooms
I would be the only one to stand up and close my book
And put it back on the shelf with a sound like a kiss,
Back on the shelf with a sound like a kiss.

And I’d go out of the library and Mrs Dove would stand
For a moment silhouetted by the Adult Fiction,
And then she would turn the light off and lock the door
And go to her little car and drive off into the night
That was slowly turning the colour of ink and I would stand
For two minutes and then I’d walk over to the dark library
And just stand in front of the dark library.

From Talking Myself Home, published by John Murray, 2008

‘The astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was twenty-nine when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that typically invades people in their sixties and seventies. Throughout the bodily brutality of the treatment, throughout the haunting uncertainty of life in remission, she met reality on its own terms — reality creaturely and cosmic, terms chance-dealt by impartial laws — and made of that terrifying meeting something uncommonly beautiful.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

‘When she returned her atoms to the universe, not yet forty, Elson bequeathed to this world 56 scientific papers and a slender, stunning book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — verses spare and sublime, drawn from a consciousness pulling the balloon string of the infinite through the loop of its own finitude, life-affirming the way only the most intimate contact with death — which means with nature — can be.’ – Maria Popova

Elson’s crowning achievement in verse is the poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,”

ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH
by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Hope you felt the positive benefits of reading these poems.

Stay safe and be well everyone.

9 thoughts on “The positive benefits of poetry

    1. hi Neil, i guess you read The Chosen before reading The Promise? i must have a reread of these two very famous books. also set in the traditional world of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, are the two Netflix series that have been very popular in Australia: Schtizel and Unorthodox. have you seen them? Libby

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Libby, thank you for this strong and beautiful post. It really gives so much.
    The poems are extraordinary, I am copying and keeping them to re-read often. I am also taken by the
    findings by the Neurologists at Exceter, how fascinating.

    I do know these scans can read emotions and reactions. I love they used them whilst poetry was read.

    Miriam

    Liked by 1 person

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