Could Valium be replaced by verses? Hester Lacey reports
To be or not to be, that is the question. So far so good. But what comes next? Hamlet's soliloquy has 33 lines and few can do more than stumble lamely through the first few couplets. Learning poetry by heart is a declining art; Nicholas Albery, t he editor of a new anthology, Poem for the Day, hopes to revive it.

Albery regards learning poetry as not simply as a memory drill, but a therapeutic exercise. A qualified psychotherapist, he has been getting through a poem a day since 1991. "I lead a pretty stressful life. To give myself time to learn a poem puts me in the state of mind that some people get through meditation - I feel refreshed for the rest of the day."

In Poem for the Day Albery has gathered together "366 poems, old and new, worth learning by heart". He believes declaiming Keats in the shower or Wordsworth in the bus queue is a highly cathartic experience. "I tell my friend who takes Ecstasy 'you don'tneed pills, ecstasy comes in the form of poetry, ink on paper, you're linking in with these peak experiences that poets have had down the ages'. It's like having a kinship with all these spirits that have lived in the past."

A burst of Kipling may not send everyone into a state of altered consciousness, but, points out Albery, there is evidence that patients being treated with anti-depressants have been able to abandon drugs by learning and writing poems.

Research into poetry as therapy is being pioneered by Dr Robin Philipp, consultant senior lecturer in Public Health Medicine and Occupational Medicine at Bristol University, and Director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Promotion and Ecology.

"A lot of guys wang on all the time about a scientific viewpoint," says Dr Philipp, a genial New Zealander, "but I began to wonder if arts could have more of a role. After all, we have music therapy, dance therapy - why not poetry therapy? I found quite a bit on it in medical literature, mostly anecdotal, so I wrote to the British Medical Journal asking for examples and I've been getting letters on the subject all year. A number of people with depressive disorders and anxiety have been able to wean themselves off benzodiazepine tranquillisers such as Valium.

"There is a difference between the effects of reading and writing poetry. With reading or reciting, the cadence and rhythm of sounds that rhyme are soothing in the same way that the foetus in the womb is soothed by the rhythm of the mother's heartbeat. Writing is a way for people who are anxious or bereaved or upset to articulate turbulent emotions - a form of catharsis. I originally thought this was very wacky and felt it would apply only to a very narrow sector of the middle class, but in fact the range of people who are interested in the evocation of words is enormous." In conjunction with the Poetry Society, Dr Philipp is drafting a research paper on the subject.

Poem for the Day's 366 examples can look rather daunting - particularly those which run over several pages. But, explains Nicholas Albery, this is a lifetime's worth. "You can go back and do a new verse each year if you want. My own memory is abominable.I've done them all once, but it's like painting the Forth Bridge - I'm starting again at the beginning, and enjoying meeting all my old friends on the way through. If I can do it, anyone can."

The poems he has picked are a delight - every classic poem that everyone knows the first two lines of is included, plus a selection of modern poets, some of whom have never been anthologised before.

Albery is also organising the first London Poetry Marathon, to be held on 8 October. Participants, sponsored per line of poetry, will recite on stage to raise money for charity. "Each person should try to raise at least £100. I think it could grow to be a really important London event, similar to the running Marathon, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity," he says.

All royalties from Poem for the Day will go to the Natural Death Centre, a society for supporting the critically ill, those who are caring for someone dying at home, and those who want to arrange their own funeral. Nicholas Albery is the director.

"Poetry is one way of coming to terms with growing old and one's mortality," he explains. "There are lots of poems about facing death with equanimity and courage. It helps one to grow old in a spiritual and graceful way - at least, I hope so."

6 Poem for the Day, Sinclair-Stevenson, £9.99 from bookshops or £11.49 (inc p&p) direct from the Natural Death Centre, tel 0181-208 2853.

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