22 February, 2016Issue 30.2Poetry

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Poetry as Pharmakon

Jennifer Rushworth


Stressed, unstressed: classic poems to ease the mind
Edited by Jonathan Bate, Paula Byrne, Sophie Ratcliffe, and Andrew Schuman, with an afterword by Mark Williams
HarperCollins, 2016
215 pages
ISBN: 9780008164508






This new poetry anthology is the product of an innovative collaborative project between three writers (Jonathan Bate, Paula Byrne, and Sophie Ratcliffe) and a GP (Andrew Schuman), all of whom live and work in Oxford and share a love of literature as well as a strong belief in the healing power of reading. The book partakes of the same aims as the charitable enterprise ReLit, founded by Byrne; both seek to rediscover and promote the ancient art of ‘bibliotherapy’, and it is to this same charity that proceeds of the volume will be donated.

Together, the four editors have selected over one hundred poems to take the stressed or otherwise suffering reader on a mindful literary journey. The journey is one of suitably epic proportions, structured in twelve chapters, each of which presents a different poetic challenge for the reader to undertake and experience. These challenges are gentle suggestions of ways of engaging afresh with our thoughts, dreams, desires, and memories; ways, that is, of facing past, present, and future with renewed confidence and clarity. The target readership is deliberately broad and inclusive, encompassing the averagely stressed-out general reader, exhausted by the tribulations of everyday life, in addition to readers suffering from a wide variety of more specific or serious complaints, whether one-off (the sort of nerves one experiences before a job interview, an exam, or a medical diagnosis) or chronic (the lingering pain of bereavement, insomnia, and illness both physical and mental).

Each section begins with a short prose introduction, which is designed to aid the reader in preparing a mentally receptive space for the imminent encounter with the proposed poems. At times, some basic scientific analysis of the physiological effects on the heart and body of stress is also included at this juncture. Throughout, this paratextual narrative is well-judged, neither intrusive nor patronising, and proceeds with admirable delicacy and care. These last characteristics, in particular, are essential for a volume which treads where even angels fear to and knows all too well how serious and destructive stress and distress can be. Towards the back of the volume a list of further contacts directs the reader to other potentially helpful organisations, such as Samaritans, Mind, and Childline; poetry, whatever the claims for bibliotherapy, must know how and when to act in conjunction with and even to defer, albeit temporarily, to established avenues of care.

The collection begins with a section entitled “stopping”, a salutary invitation to take time out of our busy, stressful lives in order to find ourselves once more in and through poetry. This section culminates with W.H. Davies’s ‘Leisure’ (“What life is this if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?”), an obligatory presence in and summation of this first dose of poetry. The volume then continues with some basic and familiar generic meditative exercises, endowed with a poetic twist: “composing” (a section devoted to sonnets) and “meditating” (a collection of haikus and poems about nature). These two headings exploit the shared vocabulary of poetry and mindfulness, thereby reaffirming that composition leads to composure and that meditation is medicine. The formal restraints of both sonnet and haiku embody in a particularly concentrated, stark, and tradition-hallowed manner the anthology’s broader raison d’être, namely the belief that the repetitive order of rhythm and rhyme can be comfortingly, reassuringly predictable in times of emotional chaos. The fourth section, “stress-beating”, continues – like the volume’s title, Stressed, unstressed – to play on this interpenetration of poetic form and desired emotional consequence.

Following two further sections on “remembering” and “releasing” (this last with a particular focus on poems which embrace anger), the second half explores more directly and thematically the practical and emotional consequences of mortality and bereavement, under the headings “grieving”, “feeling alone”, “living with uncertainty”, and “moving on”. Finally, the reader is exhorted towards “seizing the day” and “positive thinking”, ensuring a happy ending at least textually. Unusually, then, this is an anthology that, more than most, might benefit from reading cover-to-cover as well as in the more typically sporadic fashion befitting the genre.

The titular term “classic poems” is risky in academic circles, evoking as it does issues of canonicity, though its intention is likely to reassure the reader that the contents of this book are safe and trustworthy, both of which are important factors given the volume’s curative, medicinal aims and claims. Certainly, there are lots of canonical Williams and Johns here, but also some Emilys, amongst a notably high proportion of women poets compared with the typical fare of many similarly ‘classic’ literary anthologies. Individual readers must, naturally, make up their own mind which poems from this rich platter work for them, and also which poets, inevitably, they would want to have (or to have not) invited to the feast. On the whole, however, the editors have achieved an enjoyable mix of familiar and less familiar texts; while a number of the chosen poems may stir in the reader memories (pleasant or otherwise) of English GCSE or A-level syllabi, others are more unpredictable or adventurous.

To judge from this collection, our most mindful (or potentially mindfulness-inducing) poets include John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, and Edward Thomas (four poems each), chased by another Thomas (R.S.), William Wordsworth, John Keats, W.B. Yeats, A.E. Housman, William Blake, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, George Herbert, and Emily Bronté, each with three apiece. First place, nonetheless, goes to Matsuo Basho, a seventeenth-century Japanese poet famous for that crystalline shot of poetic loveliness, the haiku; four haikus from Basho, and extracts from a longer poem, ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’, adorn this collection.

Overall, two things in particular stand out for me in terms of the choices underpinning this anthology. First, the editors are pleasingly unafraid of long poems or of testing and extending the reader’s powers of concentration: witness the inclusion of, in order of appearance, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, Edward Lear’s ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’, and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘Sonny’s Lettah’. These three longest poems give some sense of the volume’s variety of tone and scope. Second, the editors have a refreshingly open-minded approach to poetry in translation, which is not always the case with English-language poetry anthologies. Hence the inclusion of Basho, as well as poems by Horace and the nineteenth-century Austrian poet Franz von Schober.

In his introduction, Jonathan Bate claims that “the reading of poetry” is “one of the oldest remedies of all,” and so it is appropriate to recall here the Platonic notion of writing as pharmakon, a word which means both remedy and poison. (I could send my reader to Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card for further meditation on the many meanings and permutations of the Greek term, but that is, I warn you, a text certainly not designed to ease the mind.) Similarly, if “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind” (so, apparently, said Rudyard Kipling, and so declares the back cover of this volume), it is obvious that the word “drug”, like pharmakon, is a two-edged sword, denoting both medicinal and less legal substances. This, then, is the joy of the volume: that, despite its self-professed desire to “ease the mind”, it still delves into poetry that is, to extend the drug analogy, not merely an anaesthetic, a sedative, or a narcotic, but also a stimulant and an intoxicant. A spoonful of sugar may at times help the medicine to go down, and sugar is, delightfully, what we get in poems such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘My Bed is a Boat’. Nonetheless, many of these poems are also, unavoidably and refreshingly, agonisingly bitter. I am still smarting from the intense desire and pain of disillusionment of John Milton’s ‘Methought I saw my late espousèd saint’, as well as from other outpourings of grief located later in the volume, including a deeply moving, even sickening poem by the seventeenth-century poet Katherine Phillips on the death of her baby boy.

What counts in the end is, as Bate stresses in his introduction, that individuals learn to share, recognise, and express their pain and in so doing join and participate in what is boldly hailed as “an immortal community” of poetry-loving writers and readers throughout the centuries. Poetry is not a matter of sublimation of stress, as the unilateral titular movement from “Stressed” to “unstressed” might initially suggest. Instead, as Bate also points out, the alternating, oscillating rhythm of poetic meter replicates that of the beating heart. Survival is, then, hardly to be achieved by altogether putting a stop to this movement, but rather by attuning the frantic heart to a different, more measured beat, that of poetry.


Jennifer Rushworth is a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford.