The founder of National Poetry Day and the Forward Prize for Poetry, William Sieghart, chats to us about the joys and healing powers of poetry as well as The Poetry Pharmacy—his new book of tried-and-true prescriptions for the mind, heart and soul.
How was The Poetry Pharmacy born?
The Poetry Pharmacy was born around five years ago at the Port Eliot literary festival in Cornwall. Jenny Dyson, an old friend of mine, suggested to me that I was always busy prescribing poems to her and my friends to help them through the difficult moments in their life.
She organised for me to be interviewed at this literary festival and then after my talk, she would set me up in a tent with two armchairs and a prescription pad that she had designed especially for that purpose. Outside the tent, she put up a blackboard and offered people ten-minute prescription slots where they could come and tell me their worries.
I thought the whole experience would last an hour. Many hours later there was still a queue of people sneaking around the tent and from then on I realised that we had stumbled upon something remarkable.
What was the process of assembling the poems like?
I spent many hours in bookshops and secondhand bookshops going through poetry anthology is in search of healing balms.
What are the most common “ailments” that people come to you with?
The most common ailments I deal with are loneliness, particularly exacerbated by social media in this modern age. Also high on the list are lack of courage, depression and all aspects of love and grief.
Have you witnessed any extraordinary, poetry-aided transformations in people?
I often feel if I prescribe correctly that the patient gets out of the chair a foot taller with a smile upon their face and a sense of being understood at last. I did receive one wonderful email from somebody I had seen six months earlier in Liverpool to tell me that she'd had a terrible drama coming home that night, finding that a burglar had ransacked her flat but what got her through the night were the three lines of Hafez that I had told her to stick on her mirror.
"Always read a poem like a prayer"
What would you recommend to someone who doesn’t understand poetry?
I think far too many people are intimidated by poetry and for that I blame the intermediaries in their lives; teachers, librarians and booksellers. The best advice I can give to people who want to get over their fear of poetry is to read a poem out loud or at least out loud in their head. Always read a poem like a prayer. Never read a poem as though you're reading a piece of fiction or piece of journalism. You will miss all the rhythms, cadences and musicality in the poem.
Which prescription are you most frequently after yourself?
My most used prescription and my favourite was written by the Persian poet, Hafez who wrote around 800 years ago:
"I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being".
Can you think of a particularly memorable time when a poem helped you get through a difficult period?
Many years ago I was crossing a London road. The man standing next to me began crossing the road as the lights changed and got struck by a car. Before I'd had time to make sense of the horror in front of me I found myself helping an experienced first aider try and give the victim the kiss of life.
Amazingly his heartbeat returned and an ambulance took him to hospital. The police took my statement and suddenly the traffic was back to normal and the only evidence I heard of this extreme drama was some blood on my hands.
Trying to make sense of this extraordinary moment in my life I recalled a poem by Philip Larkin called "Ambulances". It's a poem about how disturbed we are when we see an ambulance inevitably come to our street and, in his words, "brings closer what is left to come, and dulls to distance all we are."
Having those words course through my head helped me to make sense of the trauma I was going through and that's the extraordinary power of the sense of complicity poetry can bring you.
What was the first poem you ever read?
I've no idea. Probably something from Winnie the Pooh.
Is there one poem that you come back to over and over again?
"Aubade" by Philip Larkin. One of the finest and most important poems I've read. When I recite it publicly, it never fails to stun an audience.
William Sieghart CBE, has had a distinguished career in publishing and the arts. He established the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992, and founded National Poetry Day in 1994. He is a former chairman of the Arts Council Lottery Panel, and current chairman of both the Somerset House Trust and Forward Thinking, a charity seeking peace in the Middle East and acceptance of British Muslims.
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