Christina Patterson: Is poetry the new Prozac?
Friday 27 January 2006
Poetry is good for your health. That, at least, is the premise of studies currently under way for the Arts Council and the Department of Health. One study, published a couple of years ago in the journal Psychological Reports, suggested that writing poetry boosted levels of secretory immunoglobin A. Another, undertaken by a consultant at Bristol Royal Infirmary, concluded that poetry enabled seven per cent of mental health patients to be weaned off their anti-depressants. Poetry, it seems, is not the new rock'n'roll, but the new Prozac.
This was not instantly evident at the ceremony for the TS Eliot poetry prize last week. Perhaps it was the strip-lighting, but the assembled throng of pasty faces and panda-shadowed eyes did little to foster a sense of radiant health. As feel-good events go, it ranked just above a tussle with your online tax return, but probably below a Thai takeaway in front of Celebrity Big Brother. It was, of course, not fair of Cyril Connolly to describe poets as "jackals fighting over an empty well", but it is true that £10,000 prizes do not, on the whole, boost the health and happiness of those who don't win.
The prize, in any case, went to a paean to psychosis. Carol Ann Duffy's collection of love poems, Rapture, is a moving and, at times, skin-crawlingly accurate portrayal of a process that psychologists have recently identified as a form of madness. We have all been there: tending the mobile "like an injured bird", repeating the name "like a charm, like a spell". For most of us, falling in love is a season in what Duffy calls "glamorous hell", and not a sojourn. We might suffer a few sleepless nights, or even eat a bit less than usual, but we can't sustain life at this pitch. And, luckily for us, our minds comply.
Many poets - a higher proportion, apparently, than of the average population - are not so lucky. John Clare, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and, most famously, Sylvia Plath, all knew the torments of a mind that would, on occasion, burst out of the crucible of what Freud called "normal human misery" into the nameless horrors of mania. The mad poet may be a cliché, but it is not a myth. Poets continue to write of their experiences of mental illness. If poetry is some kind of wonder-drug, it sure ain't working for them.
So who is making these headline-hitting assertions, and why? The answer, of course, is arts administrators, and they're doing it for money. And kindness, and the philanthropic impulse, and passion and a desire to help the lost and the lonely and the miserable and the mad. But, to do all this, you need money, and to get money you need to go to funders, and to go to funders you need studies, evidence, and results.
A current project is a good example. Poems in the Waiting Room was set up by an enthusiastic social worker eight years ago. Run, like most of these things, on a shoestring, it has had little pots of funds from trusts and foundations as well as the Arts Council, the Poetry Society and the Foreign Office. It aims are, you'd have thought, worthy and modest: to cheer up miserable places (hospital waiting rooms) at an anxious time with a little injection of art.
Their online "evaluation", however, tells a different story. Amongst a dizzying range of aims and objectives listed in its executive summary are "to gauge the external consequences of displaying poems in waiting rooms", to see "what new behaviour follows" and "what new activities". An extensive discussion of the "methodology" follows, with tables of facts and figures. The one thing, in fact, that the project doesn't allow for is for someone to read a poem and keep quiet about it. This is poetry as life-coaching. You must read and act and reach your goal. And you must do this in an act of self-improvement in which most poets, critics and readers have failed.
In a brave moment of honesty and bathos, the project's organisers assert that "the precise impact of the poems displayed... was always going to be hard to measure". The final report consists, as these things always do, of pages of anecdote masquerading as science, and ends with the hope that further funding be found. My heart went out to the organisers. Like most of us, they're simply doing their best in a league-table culture where everything is judged by results.
There is, in the right hands, a fine role for poetry as social work, but let's not pretend that it's the same as poetry as art. Poetry, like all art, is not a panacea. Perhaps it's more like homeopathy. A great placebo - some people swear by it - but the studies are inconclusive.
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