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Medicine Bag

For over two years now I’ve been learning some of my favourite poems off by heart. My efforts were galvanised by David Whyte, who tours the world speaking poetry (which seemed like a rather nice job), and by my own desire to get to know poems I love from the inside out. Then I stumbled across Kim Rosen, who actually teaches courses around taking poems to heart (my occupational envy grows).

Kim’s book, Saved by a Poem, spoke to many of the things I had been learning on my own. Spending quality time with poems that we love is a healing force, a kind of medicine for what ails us. Good poetry has the power to surprise, to disrupt conventional habits of thought and feeling, as recent brain research has demonstrated (see my post on poetry and the brain).

Long before brain scanners were dreamed of, poetry lovers have known how powerful poems rouse us from the trance of day-to-day living, triggering deeper feeling and reflective states. A strong draught of poetry opens us to our emotions, like music does, and speaks an inner language that awakens us to our own experience, renewing our senses, our compassion, our love of life and of language.

Poetry, both modern and ancient, offers a wide range of prescriptions in a huge variety of doses: poems to stir us up, poems to calm us down, poems for grief and longing, love and break-ups, alienation and homecoming, poems for fear, courage, depression, elation, letting go, starting over, being quiet and speaking out. Neil Astley in the UK and Roger Housden in the US have been energetically rejuvenating the panacea of poetry in recent years through editing many collections of life-giving poems.

As a poet I’m especially interested in how the anatomy of a poem (rhythm, sound, breath, image) gets under our skin to weave a subtle medicine that takes us on a journey beyond our conscious minds. In this series of blog posts I intend to share some of my favourite poems and why they have earned a place in my medicine bag, infusing my life or my writing in a myriad of ways.