Poetry to Heal, Inspire and Enjoy
Poetry Rx presents 50 great poems as seen through the eyes of a renowned psychiatrist and New York Times bestseller. In this book, you will find insights into love, sorrow, ecstasy and everything in between: Love in the moment or for a lifetime; love that is fulfilling or addictive; when to break up and how to survive when someone breaks up with you.
Separate sections deal with responses to the natural world, and the varieties of human experience (such as hope, reconciliation, leaving home, faith, self-actualization, trauma, anger, and the thrill of discovery). Other sections involve finding your way in the world and the search for meaning, as well as the final stages of life.
In describing this multitude of human experiences, using vignettes from his work and life, Rosenthal serves as a comforting guide to these poetic works of genius. Through his writing, the workings of the mind, as depicted by these gifted writers speak to us as intimately as our closest friends.
Rosenthal also delves into the science of mind and brain. Who would have thought, for example, that listening to poetry can cause people to have goosebumps by activating the reward centers of the brain? Yet research shows that to be true.
And who were these fascinating poets? In a short biosketch that accompanies each poem, Rosenthal draws connections between the poets and their poems that help us understand the enigmatic minds that gave birth to these masterworks. Altogether, a fulfilling and intriguing must-read for anyone interested in poetry, the mind, self-help and genius.
Loving and Losing
Is There an Art to Losing?
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
Can Love Transform You?
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The Heart versus the Mind
Pity me not because the light of dayby Edna St. Vincent Millay
Love in the Moment
Lullaby by W. H. Auden
When Love Fades
Failing and Flyingby Jack Gilbert
Getting Over a Breakup I: Acceptance
Why so pale and wan fond lover?by Sir John Suckling
Getting Over a Breakup II: Reclaiming Yourself
Love after Love by Derek Walcott,
Declaring Your Love
Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? by William Shakespeare
Consoled by Love
Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes by William Shakespeare
In Praise of the Marriage of True Minds
Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds by William Shakespeare
Loss of a Loved One
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone (Funeral Blues) by W. H. Auden
Will I Ever Feel Better?
Time Does Not Bring Relief by Edna St. Vincent Millay
When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats
Love after Death
Remember by Christina Rossetti,
That Inward Eye
Transcendence in Nature
Daffodils by William Wordsworth
The Memory of Daffodils
Miracle on St. David’s Day by Gillian Clarke
Transcendence in Body and Mind
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey (excerpt) by William Wordsworth
The Power of Dark and Light
There’s a certain Slant of light by Emily Dickinson
In Praise of Diversity
Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins
A Plea to Save the Natural World
Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Importance of Being Needed
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
The Choices We Make
The Road Not Takenby Robert Frost
The Force of Longing
Sea Feverby John Masefield
Finding Hope in Nature
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
The Human Experience
Chapter Twenty-Five The Power of Hope
“Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson
Welcoming Your Emotions
The Guest House by Jalaluddin Rumi Translated by Coleman Barks
The Healing Power of Reconciliation
Out beyond Ideas by Jalaluddin Rumi (Translated by Coleman Barks)
Traveler, there is no road by Antonio Machado Translated by Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney
And Those You Leave Behind
Letter to My Mother by Salvatore Quasimodo Translated by Jack Bevan
The Importance of Self-Actualization
On His Blindness by John Milton
The Power of Faith
Psalm 23A Psalm of David
The Thrill of Discovery
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats
The Enduring Thrill of the Moment
High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jr
The Long Reach of Trauma
The Sentence by Anna Akhmatova Translated by Judith Hemschemeyer
The Danger of Anger
A Poison Tree by William Blake
A Design for Living and the Search for Meaning
Principles for a Good Life
Polonius’ Advice to Laertesby William Shakespeare
Remaining Steady through Life’s Ups and Downs
If by Rudyard Kipling
Never Give Up
Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Putting One Foot in Front of the Other
The Waking by Theodore Roethke
Should You React or Proact?
Waiting for the Barbariansby Constantine CavafyTranslated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
It’s the Journey That Matters
Ithaka by Constantine Cavafy Translated by Edmund Keeley
Hold On to Your Dreams
Dreams by Langston Hughes
Into the Night
Should You Just Go for It?
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by William Butler Yeats
Or Should You Be Careful?
Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden
Dying Too Soon
We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks
Aging by Degrees
I Know I Am Getting Old by Wendell Berry
The Critical Importance of Communication
Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith
Should You Rage?
Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas
Or Is it Time to Go Gently?
Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson
I Did Not Die!
Do not stand at my grave and weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye
A Few Last Thoughts
Source Materials and Further Reading
About the Author
You may well wonder how I, a psychiatrist with no formal literary credentials, have chosen to write about the power of poetry to heal, inspire, and bring joy to people. It all started with a single phone call that came in late one night.
The caller was my friend David, and I knew immediately by the tone of his voice that something was wrong. He choked up as he told me that he had recently lost someone very dear to him. “How can I go on?” he mused. “How will I manage?”
Clichés and generalities readily come to mind in such situations, but I searched for something specific to say, something that might actually help. Recognizing that David is a person steeped in the arts, I said, “There is an art to losing, and like all art, it can be developed.”
He was silent for a while, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded more cheerful, as though he had tapped into some hidden source of hope.
. “Do you know the poem ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop?” he asked.
I told him no.
“Well, let me read it to you,” and he began: “‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master.’”
As he read on, his voice gathered strength and energy with each stanza. Afterwards his mood was lighter—and strangely, so was mine.
. “Can a poem really help a grieving person?” I wondered, “and if so, might other poems also have healing powers?” I marveled also at how David had reached into the depths of his grief and presented me with a gift—a poem that offered me a fresh perspective on how to help someone out of the darkness that can engulf you when you lose someone you love. I shared the poem with patients and friends, many of whom found comfort in its words, and looked for other poems that might have similar effects.
Once I started looking, I found such poems everywhere. One friend, a therapist, had been so moved by a poem about aging by Wendell Berry that she had given copies of it to patients (It’s in chapter 46 in this collection). I bolstered my promising findings with Internet reports of comfort and relief in response to particular poems.
The idea of this book is that poetry can not only inspire and delight, but can actually help you feel better, soothe your pain, and heal psychological wounds. In short, as the book’s title suggests, poetry can act as a kind of medicine.
Although all literature can console, there is something about great poetry—its rhythms and cadences, its conciseness and brilliance—that has a power and charm all its own. One way in which poetry exerts its effect is that it is easier to remember, recall, and reproduce at will. We can at a moment’s notice dip into our memory and conjure up Wordsworth’s daffodils or Keats’ nightingale.
The fifty gemlike poems in this collection have all stood the test of time and appear in published anthologies. They are all relatively short, most fitting on a single page. In their conciseness they deliver their messages in the most efficient, effective, and beautiful way possible.
Friends, patients, and I have all enjoyed and benefited from some or all of these verses. I hope you might find the same healing power and joy from them as we have.
The collection is divided into five sections, each covering an area important for a good and happy life: (1) loving and losing; (2) responses to nature; (3) aspects of the human experience; (4) a design for living and the search for meaning; and (5) the last phase of life.
How to Get the Most out of a Poem
Although reading a poem seems like a very straightforward activity, it can be greatly enriched by a few simple tricks.
Remember to enjoy the poem.
It should be fun, not work!
Actively engage with the poem.
Give it your full attention, and it will reward you.
Read it aloud. That way you can enjoy the music in the words. Also, vocalizing the words involves different sets of nerves and muscles and different parts of the brain compared to reading it silently. Therefore it will create a different experience. But most importantly, reading a poem aloud deepens its therapeutic potential.
Read the poem more than once. One mysterious aspect of a poem is how successive readings reveal new layers of meaning. How strange! After all, the lines are right there on the page. When you read them the first time, they may seem perfectly clear. How, then, can they still yield new insights and rewards when you revisit them? Try it and see for yourself.
Experience the poem with all of your senses. A poem is no more a purely intellectual experience than a song or a painting or a spoonful of ice cream. For an example of a poem that engages all your senses, look at “Sea Fever“ (chapter 23).
As the reader, you complete the poem, in the process bringing your past experiences into the collaboration between you and the poet. At the moment of completion, it may feel as if the pieces of a puzzle are falling together. You may delight in the aha! moment as you think, “So that’s what the poet meant!” Allow yourself to experience the wonder a poem provides when it opens up new spaces in which your mind can roam.
Listen to others reading the poem. Many of the poems in this collection are read aloud online by talented women and men, and can be found on the Internet. One outstanding example is the sonnet “Pity me not because the light of day” (chapter 3), which is beautifully read by its author, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Neuroscientist Eugen Wassiliwizky and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt have found that recited poetry can be a powerful stimulus for eliciting peak emotional responses such as chills and goosebumps, by activating the brain’s reward circuitry.
Tolerate—and even savor—ambiguity of feeling and thought. Be intrigued by what you don’t immediately understand. There is such a thing as creative reading as well as creative writing. Often in poems, circuits are not completed, ideas are left unfinished or equivocal. This is not accidental. The unfinished business may serve as a focus of continued puzzlement, a brain teaser lingering in the mind, begging for a solution. Some experimental data suggest that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed ones (the so-called Zeigarnik effect). So it may be that by presenting the reader with unfinished ideas, the poet creates a more memorable and indelible work.
Pay attention to details. Punctuation, the separation of lines, their placement on the page, form, rhythm, and rhyme, as well as the white space that helps give the poem its shape, may all be part of what the poet is trying to communicate.
Remember, when reading a poem, it is your interpretation rather than mine or anyone else’s that is most important. As Dee Snider from the band Twisted Sister said, “The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experiences, and dreams into the words.” So any interpretations I offer are mine alone; I encourage you to differ.
And most of all, have fun engaging with these beautiful and ingenious creations.
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About the Author
What People are Saying About This
"Norman Rosenthal, who first described seasonal affective disorder and pioneered the use of light therapy, and who has written eloquently on many psychological topics, now turns his attention in a new direction in his latest book Poetry Rx. The premise of this new book is that poems can not only inspire and enliven, but actually heal psychological wounds.
"Rosenthal supports his premise with 50 great poems that span four centuries and cover fundamental aspects of the human condition such as loving and losing, aging and dying, to name just a few.
"In discussing the psychological insights the poems offer and specific ways to implement them, Rosenthal draws on his decades-long career as a psychiatrist and researcher. For someone who does not come from an academic background in literature, he shows astonishing mastery of his subject. His discussion of the psychological insights and therapeutic implications of the poems offers novel perspectives even for someone thoroughly versed in the art.
"An especially enjoyable feature of the book is the recurring section connecting the poem and the poet. I predict that Poetry Rx will make good on the promise of its subtitle for a broad range of readers seeking renewal and inspiration through the art of poetry. It is also a great read, entertaining as it teaches. These are, after all, poems the doctor ordered. But what a doctor! And what poems! " - Peter Sacks, Harvard University.
"I have in my hands my prescription pad and am poised to write my first Poetry Rx. My patient is consumed with anxiety about an uncertain world. Instead of pills, potions or patches, I suggested a poem about hope from Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s Poetry Rx. Transfixed, she listened as I read Emily Dickinson’s powerful and comforting words. Whether you are a professional in the healing arts, or someone seeking the profound wisdom of the great poets, this book is nothing less than transformative." - Pamela M. Peeke MD, MPH, FACP, FACSM, Assistant Professor of Medicine, U of MD,New York Times bestselling author of Fit to LiveHost of the award winning HER women’s health podcast
"Dr. Rosenthal, a renowned psychiatric researcher and clinician, has given us a gift with Poetry Rx. He takes us on a journey through the varieties of human experience and shows us specifically how poetry has the power to help us understand ourselves and to heal. The wonderful effect of Rosenthal’s humanity and lucid analysis is to make us feel that our own experiences are universal and that we are not alone." - Richard A. Friedman, M.D.,Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Director of Psychopharmacology Clinic Weill Cornell Medical College
"Dr. Norm Rosenthal illuminates great poems in a most enlightening way. Poetry Rx is a must-read for all who want to learn more about themselves." - Arianna Huffington,Founder & CEO, Thrive Global
"Reading Poetry Rx allowed me not only to enjoy poetry for the first time, but to be transformed by it." - Katie Finneran, Two-time Tony Award winning actress
"This lyrical and learned book Is like a literary musical… the music is the poetry and Dr. Rosenthal the librettist." - Anthony R. Wood, Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer and author Snow, a History of the World's Most Fascinating Flake.