Monday Books: Staying Alive through the Power of Poetry

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Staying Alive - Real Poems for Unreal Times. Edited by Neil Astley. Published by Bloodaxe Books. Price pounds 10.95

DID school put you off poetry for life? Do you think it is strictly for arty-farty types, or people with special gifts?

There is a doctor in Australia who has begun prescribing poetry for his patients and, in some cases, he has actually composed verses specifically to help them.

From what I've heard of them, they are no threat to any established scribbler: but what is interesting is that the doctor discovered the healing power of poetry through his own illness and decided to spread the good news.

Healing, of course, is only one aspect of the power of poetry: but you can really only discover its value for yourself, and usually only by reading it aloud, sometimes over and over, even if the 'meaning' possibly eludes you, at least for a while.

By reading it aloud, you can hear the rhythm, the music, savour the full resonance of the words and gain a sense of the person who wrote it.

Sometimes, I read poetry just for the beauty of it; but more often, these days, I lift down a volume or two to read in order to restore some quality to my mind after too much news, too much noise, and to enable me to see and to hear for myself what is going on in the real world, instead of in the media-invented, sham-celebrity environment in which we are progressively being smothered.

Usually, I dip into familiar territory - Heaney, Longley, McNeice, Yeats, Hewitt, Mahon - and sometimes go backwards to Wordsworth or Coleridge or the Bard himself. …