When the doctor prescribes poetry

Psychologist, poet and author Diana Raab writes that “poetry can help us feel as if we’re part of a larger picture and not just living in our isolated little world. Writing and reading poetry can be a springboard for growth, healing and transformation. Poets help us see a slice of the world in a way we might not have in the past.” Gracia Lam/The New York Times
Psychologist, poet and author Diana Raab writes that “poetry can help us feel as if we’re part of a larger picture and not just living in our isolated little world. Writing and reading poetry can be a springboard for growth, healing and transformation. Poets help us see a slice of the world in a way we might not have in the past.” Gracia Lam/The New York Times

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

Many, perhaps most, of us have spent this past year struggling to find ways to mourn the losses, weather the stresses and revive the pleasures stolen by the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve monitored Zoom funerals, weddings, graduations, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, alternately laughing and weeping at inanimate screens as we tried to make sense of a world turned upside down.

But I wonder how many have turned to poetry as a source of comfort, release, connection, understanding, inspiration and acceptance.

One person who has long valued poetry as both a personal and professional aid is Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist in Rockville, Md., who pioneered the use of light therapy for seasonal affective disorder. A clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, Dr. Rosenthal said he has used poems as a therapeutic assistant, with rewarding results among his patients.

“I have loved poetry ever since I was able to read, and it has been a personal source of comfort and solace to me at different times in my life,” he told me. “As a therapist, I have collected poems along the way that I thought had the power to heal, inspire or, at the very least, bring joy.”

Now anyone can access and benefit from the short poems he has found to be so therapeutic and the soul-restoring messages he has gleaned from them. Dr. Rosenthal has compiled them in a new book, “PoetryRx: How 50 Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life,” complete with helpful takeaways and discussions of the circumstances under which they were written.

ExplorePoetryRx: How 50 Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life

While we herald vaccines as potential saviors from the threat of a devastating virus, Dr. Rosenthal said, “Poetry can serve as a vaccine for the soul.” In a world that is so marred by loss and deprived of pleasure, he believes poetry can help fill in the gaps, offering a brief retreat from a troubled world and hope for a better future.

For Margaret Shryer, a Minnesota great-grandmother, poetry has been like a good friend, a reliable source of inspiration and consolation that has helped her remain sane during the many Covid months mostly confined to her apartment in a senior residence.

“Poetry generally picks me up,” she told me. “There’s a nugget of truth in every poem, and I flip through them to find ones that resonate with me and will get me going. I read them aloud. Every time you go back to a poem, you read it with a different set of ears. To people who think they don’t like poetry or understand it, I say ‘What about lyrics? That song you love? That’s poetry.’ Some of the most moving poetry can be found in lyrics.”

I used to believe that poetry did not “speak” to me, but I now see how wrong I was. I lived for 44 years with a husband, a lyricist, whose beautifully crafted, heartfelt lyrics touched my every fiber and continue to uplift and inspire me a decade after his death. The special beauty of Dr. Rosenthal’s book for me is his discussion of what each poem is saying, what the poet was likely feeling and often how the poems helped him personally, as when he left his birth family in South Africa for a rewarding career in the United States.

Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb inspired and inspiring poem that stole the show at President Biden’s inauguration in January has shown millions of Americans the emotional and social power of poetry and, I hope, prompted them to use it themselves.

Dr. Rafael Campo, a poet and physician at Harvard Medical School, believes poetry can also help doctors become better providers, fostering empathy with their patients and bearing witness to our common humanity, which he considers essential to healing. As he put it in a TEDxCambridge talk in June 2019, “When we hear rhythmic language and recite poetry, our bodies translate crude sensory data into nuanced knowing — feeling becomes meaning.”

According to Dr. Robert S. Carroll, a psychiatrist affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, poetry can give people a way to talk about subjects that are taboo, like death and dying, and provide healing, growth and transformation.

Referring to the pandemic, Dr. Rosenthal said, “This crisis affects more or less everyone, and poetry can help us process difficult feelings like loss, sadness, anger, lack of hope. Although not everyone has a gift for writing poetry, all of us can benefit from the thoughts so many poets have beautifully expressed.”

Indeed, the book’s first section features the poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, about loss that can comfort those who are suffering. She wrote:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

“When people are devastated by loss they should be allowed to feel and express their pain,” Dr. Rosenthal said in an interview. “They should be offered support and compassion, not urged to move on. You can’t force closure. If people want closure, they’ll do it in their own time.”

Closure was not a state cherished by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote that

“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!”

However, Dr. Rosenthal pointed out that for most people, time does bring relief, despite what his friend Kay Redfield Jamison wrote in her memoir “An Unquiet Mind.” For her, relief “took its own, and not terribly sweet, time in doing so.”

Poems, I now realize, thanks to Dr. Rosenthal, can be a literary panacea for the pandemic. They let us know that we are not alone, that others before us have survived devastating loss and desolation and that we can be uplifted by the imagery and cadence of the written and spoken word.

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