How poetry can become an unexpected part of your mental health toolkit
After experiencing two severe depressive episodes in my thirties, for a while, I have been writing about ways we can look after our own emotional wellbeing, embracing strategies from nutrition to poetry which can make us feel more supported and connected.
My latest book is called You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs. To paraphrase the poet Paul Celan, a poem is like a handshake: it creates bonds between us. Or as Scott Fitzgerald wrote of literature: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
In the book, I explain and share the poems which have helped me (and those in my Healing Words workshops which I run for mental health charities and in prisons) to understand and allow our feelings, whether despairing or joyful and to feel we have a poem to keep us company.
I’ve organised my selections according to the season in which they more or less ‘belong’: we all have seasons of our minds, from the wintry and dark, to the more spring-like and hopeful.
And so, whatever the seasons of your mind, poetry might help you to understand your emotions and feel less alone at three in the morning, when there is no-one else to talk to, and NHS support is largely unavailable. Here are my three top poem choices: for when you feel you do not belong; for when you lose any sense of agency or feeling that you can make a difference; and finally a poem for when you need to find your courage.
For when you feel you do not belong: ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
As if in the middle of an intimate conversation between the poet and reader, the poem begins with what seems strange advice. Oliver urges us to unlearn one of the first lessons we are taught – to be good. In fact, we do not have to be good to be loved. Instead, all we need to do is reconnect with our essential loving, animal nature. All we must do is to ‘let’ this happen.
The intimacy between poet and reader is further heightened in Oliver’s promise that from now on we will trust each other sufficiently to open up, as we are equal in our humanity and our despair. ‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine’ shows how fiercely the poet wants to connect with her reader: this is the heart of the poem’s power – we are loving creatures, says Oliver.
We can mirror nature’s own sense of being unperturbed. (Note the ‘clear pebbles’ of rain: an arresting image given the solidity of stone compared to the translucence of water.) The natural world unfolds anyway, not because it has been told it must or should. This sense of freedom is conjured in the metaphor of the wild geese of the poem’s title. We too can fly free; we too can be kindred spirits to each other, calling to each other, just as the geese do. We are a part of some- thing bigger, an affinity that nonetheless acknowledges mutual pain suggested in the word ‘harsh’. Oliver’s message is powerful for not being sentimental: we too can head home, back into nature, both in our lifetimes and perhaps after our deaths.
Our place in ‘the family of things’ may even be our final home, just as the geese are perhaps heading home to their last resting place. I often find myself imagining the spirit of my late mother as a bird, finally flying free after the horrors of cancer and chemotherapy. She might even be one of Oliver’s wild geese, ‘high in the clean blue air’, her place assured in the family of things.
That feeling of belonging is what the poem leaves us with. For some periods of my life, I have felt as if I had no place in the world, as if I was unworthy, a sentiment with which many may identify. But Oliver’s world is one in which we all belong; one where we all have a place, no matter how lowly or useless we feel ourselves to be; and one, finally, in which we do not have to be other than who we are. It doesn’t get better, really.
For when you lose a sense of agency:From ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
In these two lines, about our ability to create our own reality, the speaker is Lucifer, or Satan, also called ‘The lost Archangel’ by Milton. He has just fallen from Heaven to the newly made Hell and is adjusting to this new place in which he finds himself. And he is persuading himself that his mind is not going to change just because he finds himself living in a pit of fire and brimstone. Hell can be as good as Heaven any day, he boasts, even if celestial light is not in evidence. Hell is a mental state, not a place. The truth is not out there; it is in here, in the mind.
The context in which Milton was writing was a religious one, and he would have been unlikely to have agreed with Lucifer. But the way he reverses the narrative of mental suffering by giving us some agency over our thoughts is relevant whether we believe in God or not. The imaginative power of our minds is acknowledged. We perceive reality not as it is, but as we are. It follows that in any given situation, it is less about the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and more how we respond to our circumstances. And that is within our power.
This is such an encouraging thought, one to bear in mind when- ever we feel helpless and impotent in the face of despair. I remember losing any sense of my own agency when I was depressed. It seemed as if my only hope was to rely on others, whether they were doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, or psychologists. And of course, their support was crucial. But part of my recovery has been to realise that I have a part to play too. I can make a difference. I can change my thoughts and feelings and use my imagination to write a more positive, and more joyful story. As Milton puts it so beautifully, I can create my own Heaven out of Hell.
A poem for when you need to find your courage: ‘Step by Step’ by Kobayashi Issa, translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite
Step by step
up a summer mountain – suddenly: the sea.
We take small steps into this small poem. Head bowed, not seeing much beyond the steps in front... But then a view of the ocean stretches out before us. Though compressed into three short lines, it’s all there: the simple and striking combination of ‘summer’ with ‘mountain’ is enough for our imaginations to do the work for us. Less is more. We can feel the steady hot slog uphill, followed by a sudden panorama at the summit that makes it worthwhile; the refreshing breeze it brings.
Suddenly, there we are – wow! – looking at the view and savouring it; a reminder of how exhilarating taking on new challenges can be, whether that is literally climbing a mountain, or metaphorically embarking on any endeavour. I sometimes pin this poem on a notice- board near my desk when I begin work. Word by word, step by step.
The poem is also a reminder that the revelatory moment when we glimpse the sea can only come after patient and repetitive action over a long period: one is impossible without the other. The two experiences are inseparable, yes, but very different in feeling. By yoking the two together, and drawing the contrast between them, Issa makes both more vivid and appealing. And in doing so, he encourages us to take the first step, whatever challenge we are facing. A poem about finding our courage, then, and how good that can feel.
Rachel Kelly’s new book You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs is published by Yellow Kite £16.99
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