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How poetry can improve your emotional wellbeing

BY Rachel Kelly

5th Jan 2023 Book Club

How poetry can improve your emotional wellbeing

Why reading poetry can make you feel more connected to people and improve your life

T.S Eliot was wrong. For many, January rather than April is the cruellest month. Christmas is over, the skies are grey, credit card bills are rolling in, and you may already have broken any New Year’s resolutions you made in an earlier, more optimistic spirit.  

Loneliness is a health risk

No wonder many of us are feeling gloomy—and indeed lonely. Families and friends who came together over the festive season are once again dispersed. At least 3 million people, or around 6% of the adult population in England aged over 16, say they feel isolated “often or always,” according to Government figures, with those aged between 16 to 24 especially vulnerable.

"Feeling lonely is a risk factor for several mental disorders including schizophrenia and major depression"

When it comes to our emotional wellbeing, feeling lonely is a risk factor for several mental disorders including schizophrenia and major depression, and also makes us more fearful and anxious.

Poetry can connect us

Young woman with her dog sitting on windowsill reading a bookReading poetry could counteract feelings of loneliness. Photo credit: silverkblack

Indeed loneliness is now widely recognised as a major public health problem. What is perhaps less obvious is one answer to the problem: the healing power of poetry to make us feeling more connected to others.

Here things get personal. I first got involved in how poetry can support our emotional wellbeing after I wrote a memoir, Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me—My Journey Through Depression, in 2014 about how poetry helped me through two serious episodes of depression. Since then, I’ve been running Healing Words poetry sessions, for mental health charities and prisons, and have discovered first-hand the lovely feeling of companionship which poetry can bring.

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, whether tucked into a bag or on a bedside table, it feels like we’re being accompanied by a friend: an authorial arm is wrapped around our shoulders.

"Poetry lets us connect with other people who have experienced similar sentiments—we’re not alone in our despair or delight"

I remember one woman starting to cry as she read Derek Walcott’s poem "Love After Love" during a workshop held at my local hospital in West London. Fighting through tears, she eventually said, “I feel understood”. Everyone in the room knew just what she meant.

She had, in Walcott’s phrase, struggled to “love again the stranger who was yourself”. The poet’s invitation to “Sit. Feast on your life” was the nudge she needed, in language which spoke to her, to imagine loving herself in a way she had always found hard. Poetry had worked its magic, unlocking a feeling of inner connection, and in turn a connection to all of us sitting in the workshop.

Sharing poems old and new

To paraphrase the poet Paul Celan, a poem is like a handshake: it creates bonds between us.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, given my belief in the power of poetry to help us feel more connected, I’ve called my new book which explains which poems might help and why You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs. In it, I explain and share the poems—everything from classics by George Herbert and John Keats to newer voices like Pele Cox and Tishani Doshi—which have helped me (and those in my workshops) to understand and allow our feelings, whether despairing or joyful and to feel we have a poem to keep us company.

Clinical studies

Girl smiling as she reads a bookPoetry can be a distraction from feelings of stress and despair for the young. Photo credit: YakobchukOlena

I am not alone in believing in that poems can aid our mental health. There are beginning to be clinical studies on poetry’s therapeutic power. 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. Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection, the researchers concluded.

Poetry’s therapeutic power through the ages

Yes, you can share your feelings with friends, or a therapist if you’re lucky enough to have one. But that may not be possible, especially not at three in the morning when we can feel at our most isolated.

What I’m saying is not very new. The Ancient Greeks believed in the links between poetry and healing: Apollo was the god of poetry and medicine.

But much as I, and others through the ages have been advocates for poetry’s therapeutic power, I’m conscious that we need more proof of its efficacy. I feel hopeful however that more studies and evidence will emerge, given my own experience of how sharing poems can help us all feel a greater sense of belonging. How poetry can remind us that we are not alone in our feelings, in our gloom and indeed despair. You will never walk alone, even in this cruellest month.

Rachel Kelly's new book You'll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life's Ups and Downs is published by Yellow Kite at £16.99.

Banner photo credit: monkeybusinessimages

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