Christy Porter spends her days hefting crates and picking cantaloupe to feed migrant farmworker families in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. It’s hard work, and it shows. The 48-year-old nonprofit director walks with a seesaw gait on arthritic and overtaxed knees. Her arms are dotted with spider bites, her legs often splashed with oil from do-it-yourself attempts to fix the forklift.
Yet despite the dings, Porter seems to glide on a cushion of air. Like one of those airboats skimming over crocodile-infested waters in the Everglades, she rides a little higher than those around her. Her cushion? Not a daily meditation practice or a stress-busting supplement, but poetry. In her mind’s eye, its images and rhythms transform her everyday surroundings into something new and fresh.
Sure, it’s 120 degrees outside, but isn’t that brutal glare simply the world blazing, “like shining from shook foil,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins said?
And yes, she occasionally runs into sidewinders lurking under the warehouse stairs. But it’s hard to be spooked when she thinks of Emily Dickinson’s “narrow fellow in the grass.” “You know that starburst filter that photographers use to make everything sparkle?” Porter asks, shaking her blonde hair out of a big straw hat. “Poetry is like that to me.”
Indeed, healers through the ages have turned to poetry for its remarkable ability to soothe and console, much like prayer and song. The Iroquois fought off depression after the loss of a loved one by chanting a condolence incantation. In ancient Egypt, healing verses were written on papyrus which was then dissolved into a brew to be sipped.
Today, poetry is actually making its way into some doctors’ offices. Harvard poet-physician Rafael Campo, author of The Healing Art: A Doctor’s Black Bag of Poetry, is convinced that reading, writing, or reciting poetry can be therapeutic. In his own internal medicine practice, he likes to slip sheets of poetry among the prescriptions and brochures he hands out to patients.
Campo believes poetry can let people see illness differently (the starburst lens theory), as well as help them stay on an even keel amid life’s spider bites and forklift breakdowns.
While he’s certain that poetry is good for people, he can’t tell you quite why. “We’re just at the early stages of understanding the possible mechanisms of action,” Campo says. “But poetry probably affects people beginning on the level of the neurons in the brain stem. When patients read or recite poetry, the rhythms have been shown to improve the regularity of their heart and breathing rates.” Indeed, a study published in the International Journal of Cardiology showed that when volunteers read poetry aloud for 30 minutes, their pulse rates were slower than those of people in a control group who engaged in conversation.
Getting Acquainted with Poetry
For most of us, poems are something we left behind in high school or college. Here are a few simple ways to bring them back into your life.
• Go back to the beginning Try to remember something, anything, you liked that was read to you as a child: Mother Goose, Shel Silverstein, hymns or lullabies. The rhythms that moved you as a child can reach you now, and serve as your entrée to more adult fare.
• Read with your ears Poetry reaches us through our ears even more than our eyes. To experience this aural impact, go to a poetry reading or listen to tapes or CDs of poets reading their work. Or, as Denise Levertov once suggested, go into the bathroom and read poems out loud to yourself.
• Find your match “There’s a poem for everybody just like there’s music for everybody,” Christy Porter says. Don’t give up because you hate Hopkins or loathe Levertov. If intricate language is not your thing, try a plain-speaking poet like Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate.
• Learn one by heart There’s nothing as handy as a great poem that’s filed in your brain, always accessible. Use relaxed moments when you’re walking or hiking to memorize a poem or lines from a poem. Poems learned by heart are “secret talismans,” Rafael Campo says. They can “ward off panic attacks while you’re flying on a plane—or be recited aloud while you’re doing yoga in the living room.”
• Write your own You don’t have to write poetry to benefit from the art form, but if you’re moved to try your hand at it, Campo recommends these guides: John Fox’s Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making (J.P. Tarcher, 1997) and Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing (Beacon Press, 2000).
adapted from Natural Solutions, by Anna Japenga, January 2004
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