The Healing Power of Poetry

The Healing Power of Poetry


Regard a poem as a talisman, a locket that contains a secret.

Poetry has always made perfect sense to me. It holds all the answers—if you’re curious and patient enough to find them. Poetry stimulates the brain and sharpens skills as it opens windows into entirely new worlds. Poetry is as constant and true as a beloved companion, and, done well, it can be the perfect remedy for whatever may ail you.

Perhaps I feel that way because my father was a jazz aficionado and my mother an abstract painter, and our house was filled with rhythm and art. In my family, poetry was worthy of devotion and led to my BFA in college. Those who didn’t see poetry the way we did were thought to suffer an affective disorder that seemed somehow sad.

Poetry Rx: What the Doctor’s Ordered

And now Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, the pioneering psychiatrist and researcher known for defining SAD (seasonal affective disorder), has published Poetry Rx: How Fifty Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life.

The doctor’s prescription spans four centuries of verse, and is not only a real treat for poetry lovers but the perfect bridge for those wanting to learn more and explore. There’s pretty much a poem for every part of being human—from love to loss to the search for meaning to one’s final days. Poetry Rx is a wonderful reminder that we’re all in this human condition together.

Why the guy who discovered SAD ended up writing a book on poetry also turns out to be a very good story. Seems his second-grade teacher bestowed on him the special “capacity” to read poetry. In high school, upon breaking a rule, another teacher made Rosenthal memorize Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?). That so-called punishment proved to be one of his biggest aha moments: “It’s novelty was a shock to my system, like eating ice cream for the first time.”

[Read: “Pay Attention Like a Poet.”]

Fast forward to his time as a junior psychiatric associate at the National Institute of Mental Health, before SAD had been recognized. Rosenthal had put out a newspaper ad, searching for those who suffered from winter depression. Thousands of letters arrived, but one would have a lasting impression, for it contained Emily Dickinson’s poem “There’s A Certain Slant of Light,” beginning with these lines:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

Of course, at the time of Dickinson’s writing, “nobody knew about SAD; therefore, none could teach it,” explains Rosenthal. “But to someone who was in tune with her own feelings, including the effects of light on mood, like the poet herself, anybody could teach it.”

Poetry Rx began with a late-night call from a close friend who had just lost someone dear to him. He had turned to Rosenthal with the simple question: How can I go on? Not wanting to spout clichés, Rosenthal thought long and hard before answering. “There is an art to losing, and like all art, it can be developed,” he replied.

That comforted his friend, who asked Rosenthal if he knew the poem, “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop. The striking poem begins with the line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Rosenthal was not familiar with the poem, so the friend recited it to him—and thus the book was born.

A Treasure Chest of Jewels

From there, Rosenthal began asking his patients and clients for their favorite poems, and the book began to “grow organically, like crystals,” he says. Rosenthal, who often during our conversation referred to poems as jewels, worked on the book during the pandemic when “the world was depleted, it was very quiet, it was dangerous. At home, I had a treasure chest of jewels to play with.”

He knew this had to be his next book, but despite his enthusiasm and his success as an author (he has written 10 books and has more than one bestseller under his belt), the book was turned down by four publishers. Two of them went so far as to tell him that “poetry is the kiss of death.” But that didn’t deter him. Rosenthal knew the quiet power that poetry held, and he was convinced that poetry could heal.

[Read: “Poetry as a Healing Balm.”]

A thoughtful man who sees the world through a poet’s eye, Rosenthal immigrated to the US from South Africa in 1976. “I felt a kinship with poetry, it spoke to me,” he shares. “I resonated with the sound of the words, the cadences of the rhythm, and the idea and the economy with which profound ideas were expressed in so few words.”

Those words, he explains, were like little talismans that he acquired at a very young age. He has lived with many of the poems in Poetry Rx for much of his life and has benefitted from them personally. Take, for example, “Letter to My Mother” by Salvatore Quasimodo, containing the lines:

Today it is I
who write to you… At last, you will say, a line
from the boy who ran away at night

Rosenthal says the poem “was like a medicine,” capturing his feelings on immigrating to the US and leaving family. “I didn’t realize how guilty I felt leaving my parents behind,” he recalls. “I realized at one point I wasn’t going to be able to take care of my mother, so I locked onto this poem. Here was a poet leaving his mother in the night.” Rosenthal turned to Quasimodo’s poem again and again, reciting it over and over. After reading it, he says he felt “a soothing along with sadness, like the mixture of pain and relief you feel when a sore muscle is pressed.”

And there’s the healing power of poetry. Rosenthal’s hope is that Poetry Rx will open the minds of people who wouldn’t normally gravitate toward the art form—and he’d love to integrate poetry into the educational system more. Imagine if poems were taught in health class.

As for the best way to get the most out of a poem? “Read it aloud,” he tells me, “Read it more than once, send it to a friend. Regard it as a talisman, a locket that contains a secret. What’s the secret? Well, you’ll find out for yourself.”

Why not try composing a poem of your own? “Write a Poem to Heal From Pain.”

Healing power of poetry

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