When I was in elementary school, one of the regular lessons in language class was poetry. The expectation for a student was that you would memorize the poem to recite back and then learn about the poem and its place in literature. This article in The Atlantic, written by an English teacher suggests that teaching poetry has fallen out of favour. He laments this, since learning poetry helped students to learn to read and write more effectively.
As a psychiatrist, I hope we will reprise the teaching of poetry because it has a calming impact upon anxiety and, in the next few months as we all accommodate to a return to school in the pandemic era, anything that helps us to feel less anxious is welcome. To be clear, even if children and youth do not physically return to class, they will be anxious. The teachers I know will want to be able to help their anxious students in any way they can.
Why does poetry help with anxiety? To answer this question, let’s think about grounding exercises. Grounding exercises are practices that help us manage our most severe anxieties and can even bring us through a panic attack. This is a short article about grounding exercises that includes a few of those practices for you to try if you are anxious.
However, if you can be whimsical for a moment and stick with me, let me show you how poetry can be grounding. Grounding exercises often tell you to focus on your breathing, and the recitation of a poem also considers natural rhythms. Sometimes, when you’re anxious, it’s hard to focus on your breathing or your beating heart. If you are in touch with either, you may find your breath too ragged to be helpful and your beating heart may be racing. Neither is calming.
But think of a poem’s words – take William Butler Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Say it out loud. Can you feel how the cadence slows your breathing and calms you?
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
As well as calming, poetry can also be uplifting and, as I’ve learned from my patients and remember from my own adolescence, most teenagers like poetry – reading and writing it. Poetry, like art, is a way to explore deep feelings in a form of writing that gives the comfort of structure. If you’re worried that there might be too much sadness or anger in youthful poems, I recommend the poetry of Erin Hanson, a young Australian poet. With a Facebook page of slam poetry to work from, Hansen is inspiring – even the most cynical adolescent will be impressed by a twenty-five year old poet who was publishing in her teens.
These are the words of her best-known poem:
“There is freedom waiting for you,
on the breezes of the sky.
And you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh, but my darling, “What if you fly?”
What if, indeed!
(This is a photographic image from the Barcelonan Xavi Bou, who turns photographs of birds into images like this.)