The Transformative Power of Poetry

Transform Your Mood – and Your Children’s!

By Rachel Kelly – Bestselling App Creator, author, journalist and mother of 5 children!

If: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every PossibilityFor me, the best thing about having created the app iF Poems with my friend Allie Esiri around our kitchen tables, has been that it’s put me in touch with poetry-lovers round the world. They say what I have long believed: poetry can transform lives.

Here’s how it has helped mine. The love-affair began as a child when I relished poetry’s rhythm and rhyme and the sheer fun of words. Later, I discovered another side of poetry. When I split up with my first boyfriend, my poetry-loving mother gave me the poem “Apple Blossom” by Louis MacNeice, with its first lines:

“The first blossom was the best blossom/
For the child who had never seen an orchard”.

I took it to mean that I, too, would one day see that orchard, or fall in love again.

My mother thereby planted the seed that there was a poem for every possibility (the title of our book). As I grew up, I got in the habit myself of giving poems to friends in need. Then I became a journalist, got married, worked hard and basically had less time for poetry. Then I became very ill with depression after our second child was born (I’ve got five now) and that’s when I discovered poetry again.

Actually to be more accurate, I didn’t really discover “poetry” so much as find various “poets” whose voices I loved. These were the people I felt able to have a conversation with. Their words comforted me. This was transformational at the time, as I felt completely alone and I couldn’t think of anyone in my life I could talk to. But certain poets spoke to me, in particular George Herbert, a religious poet of the seventeenth century.

My mother would read Herbert’s poetry aloud, especially his poem “Love” which became a particular favourite with its first line “Love bade me welcome”. I interpreted it as Herbert making me welcome. His words dissolved the feeling of solitude: I wasn’t alone, others had suffered and made something of their suffering. They had reordered the seemingly random cruelty of the illness into some kind of sense. Poetry proved my friend in a time of great need.

I think there’s a second important reason why poetry can be transformational. I found it absorbed me utterly. Its condensed nature and sophisticated vocabulary, required a concentration which shocked me into the moment in an almost physical way, thereby freeing me from worries past and future. The rhythm and rhyme made the words speak with the necessary weight to command my attention. Images had to be unpacked and savoured, meaning discovered, the specificity of each word and phrase enjoyed. Research last week from Liverpool University used neuro-imaging to show that the intense and personal involvement required in the reading of poetry in turn requires the brain to create new neural pathways.

Now I use poetry to help my five children through difficult moments, following in an honourable tradition of those such as Primo Levi, who recited Dante in a concentration camp, to Nelson Mandela turning to W.E. Henley when he was imprisoned on
Robben Island (though my children clearly are more likely to need help with failing an exam or not being chosen for the team!).

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”, after which we named the book, is full of wonderful inspiring words, lines such as the importance of “Meeting with triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same”. I used the phrase only this weekend when my eldest child failed to get into a debating team (it’s also written about the player’s changing room at Wimbledon).

Finally, poetry is transforming in my view as a poem can say something in words we would struggle to express ourselves. I remember a friend who always related his experience to films. He would say, ‘That’s just like the bit in x film where y’. I think it was about him finding an indirect way of talking – a way of putting something in between himself and the person he was talking to, when it was either too hard or too painful for him to be direct.

This finally, is why I think poetry can be transformational. Poetry can be the ultimate way of communicating, a way of saying something that we find hard to say ourselves, or which we feel has been said better by someone else.  I leave you with this proof: compare the magic of a formal marriage service which allows two people to say “I love you and I’ll be committed to you” in a poetic way, compared to the embarrassment of some of the services in which people have written their own vows.

iF Poems is available for download on the iPhone/iPad £1.99/ £2.99 “If: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility” Edited by Allie Esiri and Rachel Kelly, Canongate, £20.00.

Karen Meets…Rachel Kelly

In this video I talk to my good friend, Rachel Kelly, about the success of her bestselling iF Poems app. She discusses the scientific evidence that poetry is good for the mind and reveals how poetry has transformed her life and how it can transform yours and your children’s.

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