Guest Blog: Poetry and Human Connection

This Mental Health Awareness Week we’re delighted to have a guest blog from Jamie Jones:

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Featured Poem: What if you Slept? by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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This week we have a wonderful Reader Story from Reader in Residence Laragh behind our Featured Poem, What if you Slept? by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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Poets Don’t Lie – The Reader Volunteer Anthology

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Introducing our latest anthology, Poets Don’t Lie, created by and dedicated to the volunteers who make possible so many of our Shared Reading projects across the UK.
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Connecting to the stress-relieving power of poetry

london group poemIt’s great news to hear that the connection between poetry and mental wellbeing is being highlighted, thanks to the launch of ReLit and their anthology Stressed Unstressed, a volume of 150 poems selected to ease the mind and provide solace in troubling situations. Amongst those who have identified poems that have helped them to cope during times of stress are Melvyn Bragg, Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.

The members of our Shared Reading groups are experiencing the power as well as the pleasure of poetry on a weekly basis, from community groups in libraries to patients on mental health wards and prisoners in high-security units. Reading poetry aloud as a group gives people access to powerful language, thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human, and in experiencing these complex meanings with others they can start to build – or rebuild – a better understanding of themselves and the world. Whichever way someone is struggling – on a particular day, week or on a longer-term basis – a poem can help to reach out on a personal, emotional level.

The best way to feel what a poem is and can do is to read it, with other people.

Take, for instance, the women at HMP Low Newton who read Mattresses by Jean Sprackland:

Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman can’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listen politely, sensitively, but then the group move on, back to the text, and the talk returns to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changes to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading is a genuinely new one. Another, deeper, insight follows: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startles this woman to a laugh, and you can see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.”

Or a group member on a mental health ward in Manchester, who found comfort in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by Wordsworth:

“On the morning of the group, he was on a 2:1 because he was ‘punching out and shouting at the staff’. He came in to the group, sat down and his focus was completely on the poem throughout. He was calm, reflective, and had read the whole of the poem aloud in a wonderfully clear voice. We were talking about places that we can remember that made us happy, and he told the story of going on picnics with his Mum, Dad and sister.  By the end of the group, he only had one staff member with him, and showed no signs of aggression, upset, or distress.”

group 1A great amount of the literature we use in Shared Reading groups deals with difficult subjects, evoking distress and often painful memories that do not seem on the surface designed to comfort or put the group member’s mind at ease. However below the surface different emotions rise up, showing how we sometimes need what is difficult to break through to the deeper part of us.

“We were reading war poetry and as I read John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields Ivy shifted in her seat, and I could tell before I finished the poem that she wanted to speak. One memory in particular, translated through the poetry, brought tears to her eyes as she shared it with the group:

‘I remember once I walked in on my Father as he was changing his shirt ready to go out with Mother. He shouted ‘Don’t come in, I’ll be down in a minute’, but it was too late, I had seen his side and there was a great hole there. I ran down the stairs to Mother crying and said ‘What happened to Dad? Did he fall down the stairs? And she said, ‘No love, that is a war wound’. I remember I was so upset.’

Her emotion at recalling the story of the wound demonstrated why, even though it took place when she was very young, this was an event which shaped her and has stayed with her over the years. I asked her if she was okay, if she was happy to continue reading the poems and she replied ‘Oh yes, I like them.’ When we read next Now to be still and rest, while the heart remembers by P.H.B. Lyon, she smiled and nodded and was keen to point out, ‘We celebrate every year, we never forget.’ “

Our research with partners CRILS at the University of Liverpool further demonstrates how reading poetry aloud can have powerful effects on people across all ages, backgrounds and life situations, from those living with dementia for whom poetry can stimulate emotional experiences in the present as well as rememberance and help to improve mood, to encouraging better social, emotional and psychological wellbeing amongst female prisoners. The shared reading of poems and literature has the effect of creating bonds and friendships, which our research has found contributes to a more positive outlook on life.

As the year is still fresh, here’s to more poetry, less stress and loneliness – and in reading together, sharing the comfort that comes from great literature on a wider scale.

On Active Service: 1914-1918

On Active Service coverTo commemorate the centenary of the start of World War One, The Reader Organisation has published an anthology of poems collected from the ‘Great War’, showcasing the extraordinary experiences of ordinary people during the course of war as it happened.

‘On Active Service: 1914-1918’ features a selection of poems that emerged from WW1, chosen and edited by Brian Nellist, co-editor of The Reader magazine and a guiding force of literary spirit for The Reader Organisation. As well as including ‘famous’ names typically associated with the Great War such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, the anthology features poems written by less well-known poets – in fact, some selections so rare that they required a considerable effort to be tracked down. By including the work of these poets, the anthology helps in ensuring that the experiences of generations now passed will live on for years to come, in their own words.

Instead of being categorised by year, the poems have been compiled by themes widely felt by those fighting in WW1, both on and off the battlefield. The backdrop of war inspired the moving, poignant and, at times, grimly humorous words of the verses included, presenting a full portrait of the lives that were irrevocably changed.

On Active Service 1On Active Service was launched this morning – Armistice Day – at a special event for our shared reading group members at Calderstones Mansion House. Following a commemorative two-minute silence, a selection of poems from the book were read by members of TRO staff, along with a moving historical account of Liverpool and its Pals Battalion who enlisted in their thousands at the advent of WW1, many believing they would be home for Christmas and who would not see a Christmas again afterwards.

There were also tours of the Mansion House which operated during WW1, and a Trench Cake baked to the original recipe from housewives who sent the fare out to their husbands and family members in the post to the Front. It went down so well that it was just as well we had recipes on hand to distribute!

On Active Service will be read in our shared reading groups across the breadth of the UK this week as commemorations for remembrance continue, with the poems read aloud and thoughts shared. You can reflect upon the verses for years to come by purchasing your copy from The Reader Organisation’s website, for the price of £6: http://www.thereader.org.uk/anthologies

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At the weekend, we let you know about the arrival of Issue 55 of The Reader, featuring contributions from Maxine Peake, Howard Jacobson and David Constantine. We’re pleased to say that technical issues have now been resolved, and you can order your copy of all the latest Readerly goodness online now: http://www.thereader.org.uk/magazine

The Reader Organisation in Inside Time: An inside view of shared reading

inside timeThe Reader Organisation’s activity in Criminal Justice settings is expanding all the time, with regular shared reading groups being delivered in prisons, secure hospitals and offenders institutes throughout the UK each week providing opportunities to reform, rehabilitate and reduce reoffending through the reading of great literature in a safe environment. Not only does the use of shared reading in secure environments create a foundation for a collaborative approach to reducing criminal behaviour, it allows the space for offenders and ex-offenders to transform their attitudes, thinking and behaviour through a medium that has a direct personal impact as well as helping to contribute to stronger and safer societies in the long run.

Our work sharing reading within Criminal Justice settings is highlighted in Inside Time, the national monthly newspaper for prisoners in the UK. Inside Time creates a ‘voice’ for its readership – currently standing at an estimated 50,000 – providing articles and comments that seek to be informative, interesting and entertaining, and a key link to the outside world for its readers as well as connecting them with their family and friends. Amongst its contributions is cultural content including  a regular poetry slot, which has produced 5 volumes of the Inside Poetry publication.

Each month in the paper, a member of TRO’s Criminal Justice team provide an insight into a shared reading group session that has taken place through a poem or extract from a short story and a snapshot of the discussion that has accompanied the piece of literature. Always interesting and often revealing, the columns show how vital great literature is as a sounding board, connector between people, thoughts and emotions – and in many situations, as a lifeline.

Here on The Reader Online we’ll be regularly featuring the TRO Inside Time articles on a monthly basis, bringing you our latest column hot off the press and giving you a closer view of shared reading in secure settings. To begin the feature, we’re visiting a piece from the archives, originally published in September 2013. Wigan Project Worker Val Hannan takes us into a session at her group in Hindley YOI (funded by Greater Manchester West Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust), where the group shared the poem Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye.

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.

—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

– Reprinted from Tender Spot: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) by Naomi Shihab Nye, with kind permission of the poet

After I’ve read, the group take turns reading a stanza each. We begin with the epigraph: ‘We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.’

‘It’s strange,’ says C, ‘intriguing’.

‘It’s basically saying that everyone’s going to die’ says T.

C continues: ‘Some of us are alive but some of us are dead and we’re all going down the same path – we’re alive but we’re all dying.’

Suddenly F repeats the last stanza: ‘‘I who did not die, who am still living…/clenching and opening one small hand’ – This is me. It’s about me. It’s how I feel. I look at my hand – I always do that.’ F holds his fist up. ‘What’s that on my hand? Have I got blood on my hand? These thoughts are always at the back of my head.’

Lady Macbeth’s anguish is vivid in my mind.

‘It wasn’t premeditated,” offers T, seeking to comfort. Others nod, faces showing sympathy.

F says he is fine; he wants to continue.

We look at the first stanza.

‘What could the drum be?’ I ask.

‘It’s his pulse or heart beat getting slower,’ says T.

‘The narrator is only seven at this point – what about that?’

‘He’s getting scared and getting further away from home – going somewhere he doesn’t know,’ says C.

‘It could be about fate,’ says T. ‘He’s leaving his soul or one life behind.’

I ask about the image used to describe how the person felt: ‘My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.’

‘When I first came down to jail, I felt like that,’ says M. ‘My stomach had gone, I was only 12.’

I ask about the lines: ‘When you can no longer make a fist’?

‘This is when you can’t move, when you don’t have any strength.’

‘It makes me think of when you’re in your cell,’ says, C, ‘and you want to get out and you pound the bed and walls in anger and you can’t do anything and then you just get really weak and end up crying with the anger.’

They all agree with this and talk about how they often feel there is no release for their pent-up anger and frustration.

I ask about the image of the journey and why the ‘backseat’?

‘It could be the journey of life,’ says T.

‘It’s life as a car journey,’ says M.

‘But why the backseat?’

‘The back is in the past. The front seat is moving forward but you’re in the back seat of life when you don’t know what’s going to happen,’ says C.

‘What about borders – what could they be?’

‘It could be death – the border between life and death,’ says T.

‘Past and future,’ says M. ‘Childhood to being an adult.’

We focus on the final image: ‘clenching and opening one small hand.’

‘It’s your pulse, a heartbeat,’ says M.

‘It’s like stress,’ says F, ‘when you have to keep opening and closing your hand. I do it all the time.’

We discuss how our thoughts control the way we feel and conclude the worst prison is not a physical one, but the one we make for ourselves in our own mind.

You can find Inside Time on the web here: http://www.insidetime.org/index

Find out more about The Reader Organisation’s work in Criminal Justice settings, alongside Reader Stories from readers in various secure settings, on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/criminal-justice

Happy Poetry at Work Day!

dementia 1Did you know that today is the second annual Poetry at Work Day? Certainly a fact to cheer up a rather chilly Tuesday in January and make your day at work a little bit different by taking some time for a poem or two, or maybe even more.

Here at The Reader Organisation, you may not be surprised to know that poetry is part of every working day, not just for our Project Workers around the UK who share and read poems aloud in our weekly shared reading groups or on our courses where we are turning more people into shared reading practitioners, but in our offices too. Great literature truly is at the heart of all we do, and we make sure that we never lose sight of the power of poetry to bring some clarity, creativity and peace of mind within our busy working days as each team starts every one of their weekly team meetings with a poem. The most recent poem read in the Communications and Development Team meeting was Begin by Brendan Kennelly, appropriate for the still new beginning of the year and with an inspiring message to begin each of our days, working or otherwise:

Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.

Poetry at Work Day is spearheaded by Tweetspeak, who believe in the creative potential of poetry in the workplace – a key factor considering that a recent survey by IBM of 1,500 CEOs reported that creativity was the top quality they looked for in leadership and the ability to take businesses into the future.

There’s also the matter of poetry providing you with a new perspective, making you think differently about topics relating to work and life in general and giving you a chance to go to another place for a while throughout your working day. So for Poetry at Work Day 2014 why not swap your spreadsheets and emails for a poem instead, and share the benefits of a good poem with your work colleagues? We’ve got a wealth of material to get you started right here on The Reader Online with our bulging Featured Poem Archive.

Do you read poetry at work regularly? Have you got a favourite verse that gets you through the work day? Why not tweet us with your selection, or use the hashtag #PoetryatWork