To see if poetry works as a form of stress relief for you, try this simple exercise in bibliotherapy - the art of mental healing through the power of words.
This Toolkit is also available as an audio file - you can find it at the bottom of the page, after STEP 2, and download it onto your mobile or other device.
When you are feeling stressed or anxious, worried or sleepless, panicky or unable to cope, sit yourself down with a poem. Then:
- try to clear your head of all your worries
- breathe slowly and regularly
- listen to your own breathing
- already you will feel slightly calmer
- now imagine yourself in a quiet place. It might be in a wood or by a lake. Or it might be a place that is usually full of noise and stress, but that is silent and peaceful because it is the first light of dawn and you are the only person awake in the sleeping city.
- now read the poem that you have chosen. In this toolkit we will try the exercise with the poem that you can find on the video at the top of this page (or you can right click this link to open it in a new tab)
- that was Sir Ian McKellen reading William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Upon Westminster Bridge.”
- now read the poem yourself, once through in your head and then once aloud.
Upon Westminster Bridge
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
- now look back over the poem line by line. Imagine yourself in Wordsworth shoes in the quiet city, observing each element of the silent scene.
- you may be helped by the journal entry that his sister Dorothy wrote at the time: Left London between five and six o'clock of the morning outside the Dover coach. A beautiful morning. The city, St Paul's, with the river – a multitude of little boats, made a beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge; the houses not overhung by their clouds of smoke, and were spread out endlessly; yet the sun shone so brightly, with such a pure light, that there was something like the purity of one of Nature's own grand spectacles.
- now, having focused down on the component parts of the scene, hold the entire cityscape in your mind’s eye, like a picture: “all that mighty heart is lying still.”
- you are in this picture, in this peaceful, harmonious world. You have come out of your own world of stress and worry.
- now you can slowly return to yourself, in the knowledge that there are times and places of harmony and beauty, that you can find an oasis of calm, of peace, of beauty, and of belonging in the world.
- then step back and ask yourself if you feel different from how you did before.
- If the poem has worked for you, you can say with Wordsworth “Never saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!”
But what if you feel stressed or anxious or on the brink of a panic attack when you are not able to reach for a poem and read it slowly, mindfully, attentively? Suppose you are on a crowded train or bus or in a queue or late for a plane or a meeting? What you could do then is repeat to yourself the following poem (“In a station of the metro” by Ezra Pound), which is very easy to learn because it only has two lines, each of them divided into simple phrases:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
You might find it easier to learn by breaking it down into those component phrases (this is how it was laid out when first published):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough .
- as you repeat the poem to yourself, look at the stressed, busy, anxious faces of all the people around you in the crowd. Tell yourself that you are not alone: others are probably more stressed than you are!
- then imagine the faces dissolving into white or pale pink cherry blossom petals
- the smooth petals rest on a black bough, shimmering after rain
- it is an image of calm, of peace, of harmony
- you are in this picture, this peaceful, harmonious world. You have come out of your own world of stress and worry
- now you can slowly return to yourself, in the knowledge that there are times and places of harmony and beauty, that you can find an oasis of calm, of peace, of beauty, and of belonging in the world
- now step back and ask yourself if you feel different from how you did before.