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