I came to my love of books through both my father, who is a former poet laureate of Connecticut, and my mother, who credits a childhood love of reading for helping her resist a family cycle of violence and substance abuse. I realized the value of my inheritance — of reaching for words to express feelings and handle difficult times — when I entered Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan as a teenager being treated for depression.
When I was in the hospital and rewriting my own story, however, I wasn't able to focus on anything that took more than a few minutes to read.
What did help was a poem that my father brought me. Molly Peacock's "The Distance Up Close" begins,
All my life I've had goals to go after, goals
in a molten distance. And just the way snows
in the distance, dense and white among groves
of bare trees ...
It ends with long ago goals "emerging among trees ... as the world comes up close."
The metaphors allowed me to safely think of my own goal to get well and out of the hospital. I glimpsed the end of my illness at the edge of a snow-filled wood.
I liked the soothing "oh" sounds, as in "snow" and "goals" and "molten." I liked the way the words moved together carefully, unlike the jagged jumping and plunging motions of my own thoughts. The voice in the poem was calmer, more like my inner voice sounds now. I'm in my mid-40s, happily married, with a healthy son. I have a full-time library job, good friends and a blog about contemporary poetry. I credit therapy, medication, exercise and diet for my ongoing recovery. I also credit this poem and others for the way they help me rein in my thoughts.
Another poem that I often think of is Peacock's "Anger Sweetened," in which she compares repressing anger to choking on chocolate-covered grasshoppers. This jarring image helped convince me to stop swallowing my temper. After the Newtown massacre, my father, Dick Allen, wrote a poem called "Solace." It helped me process that tragedy. When friends of mine committed suicide, Emily Dickinson's words "After great pain, a formal feeling comes —" reminded me that the resulting pain would eventually be bearable.
In the daily news searches I do for my blog, I've found that I'm not the only one who uses poetry for medicine. In a "Modern Love" essay at The New York Times, for instance, Betsy MacWhinney tells of how she helped pull her daughter out of depression by leaving poems by Theodore Roethke and others in such places as her shoes. Jay Griffiths, who suffers from manic depression, writes at The Guardian, an English newspaper, that "poetry is the kindest companion when one is keening to be comprehended." Last year, a teenager won the Library of Congress Letters About Literature contest by telling how Mary Oliver's "When Death Comes" convinced her not to kill herself. The poem ends "When it's over ... I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."
I've found other comforting poems in anthologies like Kevin Young's "The Art of Losing," Deborah Alma's "The Emergency Poet" and Neil Astley's series "Staying Alive." Sometimes, I also find them by typing words like "anger" and "grief" into the search boxes of The Poetry Foundation and Poets.org. The "Poetry 180" website of the Library of Congress is helpful too. I recommend these books and websites to others looking for aid.
The Guardian reports that British psychotherapists are embracing bibliotherapy. Doctors in England have begun prescribing novels and nonfiction to mentally ill teenagers. Titles range from "My Anxious Mind: A Teen's Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic" to "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and "The Perils of Being a Wallflower." They should consider prescribing poetry too, as it can produce fast, long-lasting medicine. For me, it was the only type of literature that helped.
Carefully picked poems can do much good, as can the self-help books and novels that doctors are prescribing in Britain. As a recovering depressive who benefited from books while a psychiatric patient, I hope American doctors follow suit by exploring these forms of literature for use in therapy. What they find could help their patients figure out how to truly live in this world — instead of just visiting it.
Tanya Angell Allen lives in Wallingford.