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'Could Blake make us less bleak, or Auden less maudlin?' CAROLYN HITT COLUMNIST

THE extravaganza of linen, loftiness and literature that is the Hay Festival is upon us once more.

And though we may get irritated by people called Jocasta in Hunter wellies describing their journey from Hampstead to Mid Wales as if they have circumnavigated the globe twice, the festival never fails to work its alchemy.

Every time I go I am reminded of the sheer transformative magic of great writing.

But can literature literally heal? Should we have poetry on prescription? Can Blake make us less bleak, Auden less maudlin? ose who believe in Poetry erapy point out that soothing the head and heart with the power of words can be traced back to primitive man. Shamans and witch doctors chanted poetry for the well-being of the tribe or individual. In ancient Egypt, meanwhile, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the script could be physically ingested by the patient.

While modern medics thankfully haven't suggested we eat Keats, they do recognise that we could be treated with Keats. A recent medical study which observed 196 people with emotional problems found that two thirds of them felt better after reading or listening to poetry.

If you are interested in a more detailed account of how words can heal, I recommend a new book called Black Rainbow. is moving memoir by Rachel Kelly charts her dramatic descent in depression and how she managed to climb out of the darkness through the power of poetry.

In 1997, this Oxford graduate, working mother and Times journalist went from feeling mildly anxious to being completely unable to function within the space of just three days. Prescribed antidepressants by her doctor, and supported by her husband and her family, Rachel gradually began to get better, but her anxiety levels remained high and six years later, as a stay-at-home mother, she su'ered a second collapse even worse than the 'rst.

roughout both of Rachel's periods of severe depression, the healing power of poetry became an integral part of her recovery. Introduced to the joys of verse by her mother as a child, it became the one constant she clung to as her adult life unravelled.

From repeating short mantras to learning and reciting entire poems, these words and verses became a formidable force for change in her life. In Black Rainbow, Rachel analyses why poetry can be one answer to depression. e book contains 40 of the poems that provided her with solace and comfort during her break-break down and recovery.

ey vary hugely - Roger McGough, Wordsworth, Siegfried Sassoon, Stevie Smith, Yeats, Louis McNiece, Auden, Dorothy Parker. ere are religious meditations from St eresa and Cardinal Newman and lyrics from Oscar Hammerstein's You'll Never Walk Alone. ere are reections on the majesty of nature from Gerard Manley Hopkins and RS omas and expressions of love from George Herbert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

ere's dark stu'too, none more so than Anne Sexton's e Sickness Unto Death. But there's the hope of Raymond Carver's Happiness and Blake's Infant Joy.

And there's the fabulous letter written by Sir Sydney Smith almost 200 years ago to Lady Georgiana Morpeth entitled: "Advice Concerning Low Spirits." Sir Sydney's tips include: "Be as busy as you can. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you and of those acquaintances who amuse you. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely - they are always worse for digni'ed concealment. Attend to the e'ects tea and co'ee produce upon you. Keep good blazing 'res. Compare your lot with other people. Don't expect too much from human life - a sorry business at the best."

What a great line the latter is. Sir Sydney would be a self-help guru were he alive today.

While I am fortunate enough not to have experienced the kind of debilitating clinical depression Rachel Kelly endured, like most of us, I am familiar with moderate misery.

Particularly 'rst thing. In fact, the phrase "I am not a morning person" is a personal understatement on a par with King Herod saying he doesn't like kids.

But there is a poetic antidote to morning melancholy in Rachel's book that is so e'ective I've cut it out and stuck it to the bedside table. It's written by Susan Coolidge, the children's author who gave us What Katy Did, and is called New Every Morning: Every day is a fresh beginning Listen my soul to the glad refrain And, spite of old sorrows And older sinning, Troubles forecasted And possible pain, Take heart with the day and begin again.

Inspired by Rachel's example, I've been digging out favourite poems and prescribing them for emotional problems. Here are a few poetic treatments for romantic trauma, for example: Unrequited love: Try Emily Dick-Dick enson. However forlorn you feel about an object of a'ection who does not return the favour, you will never reach the depths of Dickenson's misery. And she never had the option of lying in a darkened room, listening to Joni Mitchell and eating chocolate. Proud of my broken heart since thou didst break it/Proud of the pain I did not feel till thee.

Communication breakdown: Byron sussed that men are from Mars and women are from Venus 150 years before self help books with the brutal truth of this line: Man's love is of man's life a thing apart/'Tis woman's whole existence.

He's a b****** but I love him: Time for an emergency dose of Dorothy Parker. By the time you say you're his/ Shivering and sighing/And he vows his passion is/Innite, undying - / Lady make a note of this: One of you is lying.

But my favourite line in the entire history of British verse comes from the 18th poet Christopher Smart and can be applied to the general anxieties of the human condition. I love Smart because in addition to grappling with the big questions of existence and religion, he wrote wonderful poems about his cat.

His story is also very poignant - he su'ered pretty severe mental illness. And there's a hint of his struggle in the quote that has always touched me: For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God hath sent me to sea for pearls.

My interpretation is when you're weighed down by introspection and looking inward, look outward and embrace the beauty of the world around you.

You could also embrace the beauty of the words around you. Poetry is free, has no side-e'ects and, as Rachel Kelly demonstrates, "prescribing words instead of pills" can be an incredibly powerful remedy.


Crowds at the Hay Festival yesterday. The annual festival of literature and arts is due to run until June 1
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 26, 2014
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