LOCAL ANTHOLOGIST ANA SAMPSON EXPLAINS WHY POETRY IS GOOD FOR YOU
We live our lives at a pace that would have seemed alarmingly frenetic to any previous generation. The advent of the smartphone means that each moment can be crammed with activity, from ordering the week’s shopping on the train to answering work emails from the bath. Many of us report, with regret, that we don’t have time to read – though we are up to date on the latest binge-watched television sensation, other people’s holiday snaps and the latest chat among our family and friends.
Reading ﬁction can be hugely beneﬁcial, providing fresh experiences and perspectives, a break from the daily grind and emotional nourishment, but novels are long. Who can honestly say, though, that they can’t squeeze ﬁve minutes out of their day to read a poem? If you can reach for a beautiful book instead of reading the words from a screen, the activity also functions as a mini digital detox (of course, as an anthologist I might not be entirely unbiased on this point)!
Many of us were put off poetry by how it was taught to us, though I was lucky enough to have inspiring teachers during my school days at Walthamstow Hall.
When I compiled my ﬁrst anthology I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and Other Poems you Half-Remember from School, I asked everyone I knew what their favourite poems were. Many people claimed they knew nothing about poetry, and found it difﬁcult, boring, intimidating or all three. But when I reminded them of lines from some of the poems I intended to include, a smile spread across their faces. “The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea”, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough”, “They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace”…
We absorb poetry from our earliest days – the books we read to toddlers usually rhyme – and it can whisk us happily back to our childhood in an instant. Poetry has also been used with enormous success treating patients with dementia, since the rhymes we learn early in life are often retained even when other memories are hard to access.
Poetry has educational advantages, of course: An enhanced vocabulary, improved retention of knowledge and familiarity with the canon of our shared culture. It has emotional beneﬁts, too. As readers we take comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggles, and thrill to ﬁnd words that express – more clearly and beautifully than we ever could – our joys. Somebody has felt this way before! If you’re anxious, melancholy or grieving, you are not alone – the poet’s words can reduce feelings of isolation, and give hope for the future.
Learning poetry is a practice currently being revived in schools, and by competitions such as Poetry by Heart. To store up a memory bank of poems is to build up your own unique library for life, an armoury against the cruelty of lovers, the trauma of illness – or even just an irritatingly delayed train. A poem becomes an incantation to transport you from the humdrum daily world, an escape hatch from the commute, the queue and the waiting room.
Choose verses about dancing daffodils, dappled things or stopping by woods on a snowy evening to provide yourself with a mental gulp of healthy fresh air, a magical ﬁve minute trip to the countryside while you pace crowded urban streets. In moments of anger and frustration, few things are as cheering as reciting a silly poem in your head – the poems from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland are my go-to for these times. It’s impossible to grit your teeth while The Lobster Quadrille’s perky stanzas unfold in your mind.
Poetry is a fantastic way to communicate, too. Many of us already read rhyming books with our children – my four year old is word perfect on everything from A A Milne’s books to The Gruffalo, and woe betide me if I try to skip a verse to get to bedtime quicker!
Poems can also say something we might ﬁnd difﬁcult to, especially in challenging times. Candlestick Press publish a range of beautiful pamphlets covering all manner of subjects from knitting through aunts to revenge, which can
be sent instead of a disposable greetings card and enjoyed over and over again. I received their Ten Poems about Babies when my youngest child was born, and it was such a pleasure to enjoy a poem during a night feed – instead of poring over my phone, fruitlessly asking Google when I could expect to sleep again.
Poetry isn’t difﬁcult, and it doesn’t have to be ‘understood’, just enjoyed. Resolving to read a poem a day guarantees you a few minutes of quiet reﬂection – and how many of us nowadays can say that we enjoy even that? It has the power to enhance our mood, better connect us with friends and family, improve our memory and stay with us forever. It’s never too late to dive into an anthology and begin reaping the rewards!
Best-Loved Poems is Ana Sampson’s ﬁfth anthology of well-known poems, and is published by Michael O’Mara Books in September.