I once sat next to someone at dinner who recommended that I buy an anthology and read one poem every night before bed. Some you like, some you don’t, he said. But like an apple a day, it's good for your health.
Poetry good for your health?! I never followed the advice.
To me poetry was wishy-washy and obscure. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.
Recently again I was encouraged to start reading it by the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. His constant quoting and love of it was infectious and I couldn’t help but think I might be missing out by listening to my pre-conceptions.
I thought about the man at dinner those years before who recommended a poem a day and decided to finally try it out. Though like many promises to myself, this one fell by the way side for some months.
Then, my great uncle George died on the 14th March. He was 86. We all went to his funeral in Romford- to the little church where he was a member.
George was a widower for the last 15 years of his life. My great aunt Shirley died tragically after a short illness in her sixties. They didn’t have any children. Naturally, it would be unimaginable to think that George would ever ‘get over’ Shirley’s untimely death.
Despite his loss he made a life for himself after Shirley. The service was full of laughter from tales shared. He loved a tipple, dancing the night away, flirting with the ladies, table tennis and a flutter on the horses. In that sense it was a bittersweet occasion, we were thankful that George had lived a ‘good life’, as he told my uncle Tom on his death bed. There was no need for tears, just gratitude.
The last hymn in the service was introduced by the Father as George’s favourite. He didn’t say why.
We stood and mumbled our way through the first verses and chorus… I watch the sunrise, lighting the sky, casting it’s shadows near… But you are always, close to me, following all my ways.
My eyes cast over to Uncle George’s favourite seat, in which my auntie Gina had placed a pot of daffodils. As the melody familiarised we sang louder.
I watch the sunset
lighting the clouds with sleep.
And as the evening
closes its eyes
I feel your presence near me.
I watch the moonlight
guarding the night,
waiting till morning comes.
The air is silent,
earth is at rest -
only your peace is near me.
It became all too clear as the words left our mouths. This must have been Shirley’s Hymn.
One by one I heard my cousins, parents, auntie and uncle’s voices crack and waver. Mine too. We tried to sing on quietly.
Perhaps for the first time since Shirley died did we truly understand George’s love and pain endured for the soul mate he had lost. It was like being winded.
We had all been hit, as Iain had said to me “in the solar plexus”.
We left the service in tears because of those twelve lines. I finally understood what this art form was all about. It is the ability to place us there. To allow us to see for the first time something we had looked at countless times before. It expresses something we feel but could never find the words to describe.
After George’s funeral I finally bought my first anthology. I try to read a poem a day. Yesterday I read one written by a widow whose husband died from a sudden, painful illness. Here are the last lines:
We learned to be thankful for being shielded for
so long from the knowledge that it could be like
this at the end.
And sometimes our hearts shone as they bled,
and we were thankful for that too
Again, I felt George in those words. Our hearts shone as they bled. Never could a feeling be expressed more truthfully.
'Discovering' poetry has been like unearthing new world of meaning. Sometimes I’m sure I can feel my heart or mind bursting as words on a page come to life. When the poem ends the emotions, questions and new perspectives seem burned in my mind for hours after.
And it is that lasting feeling that is perhaps most applicable for our modern, hectic lives. Poetry has helped me cultivate compassion by allowing me to better place myself in others shoes. It has been the best way to wind down or take a few moments out of the day- in a much more powerful way than meditation does for me. When you're lost in a poem, nothing else seems to exist.
We talk about the current trend of 'self care' being a way to look after ourselves when juggling daily demands, but I can't think how a turmeric latte or an expensive candle can compete with the wonders that poetry does in creating that gap- that space in the day when all that is weighing you down is released, and your mood transformed.
Whether it's purely for enjoyment, to cultivate more compassion and wonder, or to give yourself a moment in the day of escapism, I can’t recommend the ‘poem a day’ advice enough.