Sarah’s Health Notes: Poems please

Sarah’s Health Notes: Poems please

What do you long for when you feel low? A hand to hold? A hug? An arm around you? For writer Rachel Kelly who has written about her own experiences of being engulfed by depression, one of the ways that can be expressed is in poetry. This week sees the launch of Rachel’s new book, an anthology of her favourite verses called, sweetly, You’ll Never Walk Alone – poems for life’s ups and downs. 

As Rachel explains: ‘Poetry lets us connect with other people who have experienced similar sentiments. We’re not alone in our despair or delight. When we have a poem by our side, it feels like we’re being accompanied by a friend.’

For many the pandemic exacerbated feelings of not belonging, made worse by the lack of access to mental health resources (an ongoing problem). ‘More happily, however,’ says Rachel, ‘it also led to pockets of poetry sharing, both online and actually in doctors’ surgeries – also in poetry workshops like the Healing Words ones I have been running for the past six years.’ 

There’s plenty of data that poetry can help our wellbeing, she adds. ‘To take just one recent example, a 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that a group of 44 hospitalised children who were encouraged to read and write poetry saw reductions in fear, sadness, anger, worry and fatigue (5). Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection, the researchers concluded.

I’m not depressed but turning to the section of poems for Autumn, I realise that the leaden grey skies and daily deluges are not a recipe for jollity. So I loved these lines from ‘Life’ by Charlotte Brontë – a woman who, with her sisters Emily and Anne, would have known wuthering weather all too well.

‘Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say; 
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.’

That seems prescient, as many mornings recently I’ve been on the verge of rushing down to get my ancient horses into their stables because of the driving rain, only to find that ten minutes later the sun is beaming down.

I just have to give you four extra uplifting lines, reminding me to make the most of the golden days:

‘Rapidly, merrily,
Life’s sunny hours flit by,
Gratefully, cheerily,
Enjoy them as they fly!’

Beside each of the 52 poems Rachel gives her own illuminating thoughts, explaining what the poem is about for her and why she has included it. So, for Charlotte, she writes: ‘Brontë combines this light touch with realism…. To be cheerful and full of hope is not to deny difficult times – sorry and joy are intertwined and one cannot thrive without the other. A mix of joy and toughness is required if we are to flourish.’ 

That reminds me of one of my favourite sayings: ‘sometimes you have to get behind yourself and push…’. (Rosa Monckton Lawson told me that many years ago, explaining it was a motto from her father.)

You might think that a book of poems would be more likely to please women rather than men (although the majority of poets are male) but to my surprise I found my husband reading Rachel’s book. Which poem did he like, I asked? The book fell open, he explained, at ‘Crossing’ by Jericho Brown, using the sameness of marching alongside miles of water and the flame of sunset sinking every day to illustrate how life can trap us in endless repetition. But then the poet contrasts it with a sunburst of self-affirmation.  

‘I’m more than a conqueror; bigger
Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.’

Interestingly, my husband said that it was reading Rachel’s words about the poem that drew him into it. Jericho Brown wrote it during a state of depression when he felt the only thing he could count on was his ability to write poetry and took solace that he could express himself in that.

Whether you choose to read poems on your own or with others - or indeed write them – they can be a warm wrap around your soul. It’s a lovely book and a perfect companion for the dark days of winter.