Doc, Prescribe Me a Poem

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, “Melancholy”

I just have odds and ends today: three articles I found on the internet about literature and everyday life. The articles are not momentous enough to merit individual blog posts, but I thought you’d get a kick out of them.

Sadie Stein in The Paris Review Daily gives us an advice column where literature is dispensed as though by a therapist. Here’s a letter she received:

I am currently suffering from a major depression, which has caused me to lose my job and my relationship. I see a therapist and a psychiatrist, and I believe and hope I’m beginning to recover. I have been a major reader all my life, but the depression has made it difficult for me to concentrate, so I haven’t been able to read much lately. I’ve been reading bits and pieces of books I’ve read before many times (Darkness Visible, Diving Into the Wreck), trying to get something from them.

I suppose I’m looking for two different types of book as I recover: books that will show me why to live and how, and books that will allow me to escape my present torture. Both need to be pretty easy to follow—for instance, I recently bought The Myth of Sisyphus after reading William Styron’s reference too it, but it’s too difficult for my slow brain right now.

In her reply, Stein cautions against reading literature that deals directly with depressive episodes, noting that “at its best, it’s hideously evocative, at worst it risks romanticizing the subject, and neither is remotely helpful.” She then searches for “life-affirming” suggestions, noting that what she finds life-affirming is “inspirational sentiments and sheer beauty of language”:

 War and Peace, Huckleberry Finn, The Dead, Middlemarch, Disgrace, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, A Sentimental Education, The Brothers Karamazov—all these are books that reaffirm, for me, something essentially optimistic. Others—Children of Gebelawi, In Search of Lost Time, One Hundred Years of Solitude, most any Faulkner, The Magic Mountain, Things Fall Apart, The Tale of Genji, Moby-Dick, The Orchard, Pedro Páramo—will simply awe you. If those all seem too daunting, what about poetry? One woman I know says Wordsworth is what got her through the toughest time of her life.

In the comments section, readers write in with their own suggestions.

Along the same lines, there’s “poetry evangelist” William Sieghart celebrating National Poetry Week by dispensing poetic prescriptions in the English newspaper The Guardian. The article calls his project “a poetry pharmacy” and talks about how it came to be:

The idea of poetry on prescription was born at the Port Eliot festival in July, where Sieghart was presenting a new anthology, Winning Words: Inspiring Poems for Everyday Life, which aims to take poetry out of the bookcase and place it firmly at the centre of everyday life.

I’m not sure, as I read his prescriptions, whether they are straight or tongue-in-cheek (or, probably, a bit of both). Judge some of the examples for yourself:

Reader: I would like a poem to help me cope with social anxiety please.

Dr. Sieghart’s remedy: I sometimes recite this Marianne Moore poem to myself, beneath my breath. It helps.

If you will tell me why the fen

Appears impassable, I then

will tell you why I think that I

can get across it if I try.

Reader: I would love a poem for getting over a break up – not a long marriage, but a short-lived passionate affair (that could have been so perfect)

Dr. Sieghart’s remedy: 
You are in the mood to write poetry, I suspect. I prescribe Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, which begins:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

So many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

It’s too long for me to tap out here – the patients are shuffling in the corridor – but do look the whole poem up. It’s a poem which gives me emotional courage. I hope it does the same for you.

Reader: Please can I have something to help cope with awful mid-life depression and anxiety and no-good landlord? I’d like to see some light at the end of the tunnel and to be able to keep things in perspective.

Dr. Sieghart’s remedy: This, by Denise Levertov, will remind you what it is to be fully alive, “a bell awakened’. I hope the darkness lifts.

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

A certain hour became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me – a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.

Finally, in a New Statesman article, Jenny Diski manages to shoehorn Kim Kardashian into a discussion of Oedipus and other Greek tragedies. The article wonders whether soap opera and reality TV are our version of the Greek tragedies, and while Diski’s article could have used a good editor—it’s a bit long and rambling—it offers up some stimulating comparisons.

For instance, the author notes that, while our television stars are not kings, queens, and generals, they are prominent figures in their own right and perhaps easier to relate to. Individuality was downplayed in Greek tragedy whereas it seems to be celebrated today—but even today television tends to emphasize types over individuals. Fretting over cellulite or wrinkles is not the same thing as fretting over a plague devastating your kingdom, but, then again, these little worries point toward the fact of human mortality. We experience Schadenfreude, not catharsis, as we watch television—but then (this is an argument I would make) there’s an element of Schadenfreude in watching Oedipus in agony. (Part of tragedy’s emotional punch may lie in how, by watching someone else suffer, we feel that we ourselves are inoculated from tragedy.)

Here’s a passage from the article:

Maybe with gossip we have settled for Schadenfreude in place of catharsis: thank heavens the pointlessly fortunate Kim has cellulite, and that we can watch her more-than-human status crumble on her thighs. Yet, on the other hand, there is a case to be made for such domestically scaled disasters – as being a commonplace version of tragedy writ small, and more suitable for the home-based intimacy of television, newspapers, magazines and internet-linked iPads on the breakfast table, rather than the grander scale of the Theatre of Dionysus. The loss of youth and beauty, from whichever social stratum you view it, is a universal experience, pointing to entropy and our common end. Just being young and becoming old was not tragic enough in itself for the Greeks, but death was, and in observing the decaying body that is what we must at some level become aware of.

In present, less reverential times, when we can look at the great and the good and imagine ourselves more directly, perhaps we understand better the power and implications of apparently smaller sadnesses more generally suffered. The death of kings and the appearance of cellulite in young women might not be so incommensurate if the critics are right that part of the function of Greek tragedy was to display the misfortune of the great as catharsis for the populace. Most people won’t accidentally marry their mothers but we are all going to get older. Knowing that Kim Kardashian (rich, deluded, narcissistic, attention-seeking and -receiving) has cellulite speaks truth to more of us than the fall of Oedipus (unless you bring Freud’s wacky interpretation of the myth rather than the tragic drama into the equation). While gossip seems to belittle tragedy, it also (for better or worse) democratizes it –who’s to say that the shiver of inevitable ageing and death felt at the first sign of cellulite is too trivial a signifier of mortality?

Convinced? Of course, I would still argue (as would Diski) that we are better served by reading Sophocles. Then again, if I can use Kardashian to pull my students into the classics, I’ll do it. Teachers are shameless in that way.

This entry was posted in Bishop (Elizabeth), Levertov (Denise), Moore (Marianne), Sophocles and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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