Literary wanderings: Getting a prescription at the poetry pharmacy

Drawing of the 'The Poetry Pharmacy' book next to some prescription vials.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

Voices pouring out when you hit the room; catching wisps of conversation as the murmur settles to an expectant silence. People sinking into overstuffed couches or low-slung armchairs or thick rugs, incandescent light falling across the room — and the rest is poetry. 

The Agave Review event last week was, for me, a particularly beautiful evening in a semester unexpectedly filled with poetry. The evening marked the release of Agave Review’s latest collection of pieces from the pandemic, as well as a time for students to share what they have been working on this fall. Listening to fellow students share their carefully crafted art during the open mic at the end of the night was especially inspiring. 

The reading was a poignant reminder of the power of poetry. It unites us; it reminds us that someone else has felt the same way. It brings richness to our everyday experiences; sometimes it’s pure, indescribable magic. 

While I have always read, poetry has never figured prominently — its only space in my life previously being the Shakespearean sonnets I was made to memorize in middle school. Between then and the beginning of this semester, I could probably have counted on one hand how many times I’d sat down and read a poem. The last two months, however, have been bursting with them. 

This happened by way of a series of serendipitous events in the early days of the semester — perhaps the most prominent being my chance discovery of “The Poetry Pharmacy.”

“The Poetry Pharmacy,” a small, unassuming, red clothbound book, is an anthology of poems ranging from the 14th century to the present. The poems are not arranged chronologically or in specific categories; instead, the sections are organized by broader themes and then “prescribed” by more specific contexts or emotions like “loss of zest for life,” “fear of the unknown” or “unrequited love.” 

The book was borne out of a literary movement in the United Kingdom that began when the first concept of the poetry pharmacy was experimented with at a literary festival in Cornwall. William Sieghart, the anthologist of the collection, sat for a one hour event that ballooned into several hours of listening and prescribing poems.

The poetry pharmacy as an in-person appointment has existed ever since, and after thousands of such physical appointments, the book, published in 2017, is a collection of the most often prescribed poems. For me, the book was an exploration, presenting poets and poems that I otherwise would likely not have found. 

While not every poem hit me, that is the beauty in it. This isn’t a book made to be read cover-to-cover, but one to be returned to again and again over the years. Some resonate deeply with me now, and others don’t, but poems are read in an entirely new light in different chapters of life and under different circumstances. 

They give us words when we have none. They show us that we are not alone in the difficult or exciting situations we find ourselves in during the many seasons of our lives. There is something truly stunning about the human experience when we discover that over 700 years ago, someone put down on paper a thought, emotion or feeling that we are feeling today.

This, however, is not an isolated development. The draw of books in times of personal or societal crisis is something we’ve seen become increasingly prevalent in the past several years. The field of bibliotherapy, or encouraging reading — and the reading of specific books or poems under specific circumstances — for its therapeutic effect, is one that has continued to grow in popularity, either through an established organization or through one’s own research. Just in the past two years, people turned to books in record numbers during the isolation of the pandemic.

Even in an age where literature seems to be increasingly crowded out, people still seem to have an instinctive understanding of its vital importance in our lives. 

As I’ve slowly read “The Poetry Pharmacy” over the course of this semester, I’ve discovered the poems I love now as a junior in college. I’ve typed many of them up on my typewriter and hung them on my bedroom wall to be read and reread, memorizing some so I have them close at hand while walking to class or sitting at the dining hall. But I’ll keep “The Poetry Pharmacy” on my shelf to be returned to in the months and years to come, to find the ones I will one day come to love. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. He is currently memorizing “Having a Coke With You,” “The Peace of Wild Things,” “A Supermarket in California” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Facebook Comments