The links between Poetry and Mindfulness

Jeanette Winterson, speaking in the Guardian about Carol Ann Duffy, called poetry ‘one continuous mantra of mental health.’ It is, she says, ‘… a way of thinking without losing the feeling… a way of feeling without being too overwhelmed by feeling to think straight.’

Bryan Walpert’s book, Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a Journey, could be said to be making the same point. Walpert is one of the finalists in the Ashton Wylie Mind Body Spirit Literary Awards, the winner of which will be announced at Hopetoun Alpha on Friday 17 August 2018.

Sarah Wilson has written on poetry and mindfulness this week for The Read, interviewing Seraph Press poet and publisher Helen Rickerby, Unity Books buyer Marcus Greville, VOLUME  co-owner Thomas Koed and VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman. She also draws on the work of Jeffrey Davis and of course Bryan Walpert, in her quest to find out what a poem does to the mind that no other form of writing quite achieves. 

The significance of poetry
In his book, Walpert, a Massey University professor, poet and author, explores links between literature, science and spirituality to present a defence for the study and writing of poetry today.

Mindfulness, he says in Poetry and Mindfulness, has a fundamental importance in developing an awareness of the present moment – an awareness that poetry encourages.

'In an age where we are encouraged always to focus on the next destination, poetry offers an interruption,’ he writes.

'Poetry, a very old and ultraportable piece of technology, can help to stave off tendencies to mindlessness, can cultivate empathy—can even help us to think ecologically at a time when we most desperately need to think in systems but instead are encouraged to think in bits and bytes.’

In discussing the declining enrolment in the arts, he suggests a solution in the rising popularity of mindfulness as a means for managing the stressors of modern life.

’Poetry teaches us the value of the journey,’ he writes. ’A poem isn’t just about experience; it is one.’

solo reader poetry
 Reading poetry for mindfulness (Pixabay) 

What this means is that we best enjoy the product when we are also aware of the process – and poetry can be a mode of teaching the concept, as well as a vehicle for meaning in its own right.  Through it we become attuned to the significance in every step.

The book is named for the Norman MacCaig poem Interruption to a Journey, in which the narrator hits and kills a hare on the road. The journey the vehicle through the countryside, and of the hare through life, is interrupted, causing the present moment to become suddenly vivid and unavoidable. As the narrator is compelled to pay attention; so is the reader.

We made that place, for a moment,

The most important place there was

Mindfulness of course teaches this attention, even if the moment feels too sharp to endure, the desire to get back in the car overwhelming – and equally if the moment is seemingly mundane. To refer back to Winterson, here is it is – our way of thinking without losing the feeling, of feeling without being too overwhelmed to think straight. We can make use of this both as writers, and as readers of poetry.

Walpert argues that poetic attention to sensual detail trains us to be mindful rather than resort to habit, and can offer training in finding beauty and meaning in what might seem at first glance unpleasant, in sympathy with the nonjudgmental approach of mindfulness.

But should poetry justify itself?
Publisher (Seraph Press), and poet, Helen Rickerby says though she is opposed to the idea that poetry should have to justify itself, either economically or as useful – an odd view, she agrees, for a publisher – she recognises its effect on her mind.

‘There is something about poetry that tells us to slow down, to pay attention, look for meaning; the same way the gravel road told you to take your time, breathe more deeply.’  (excerpt from her upcoming manuscript How to Live).

That slowing, she told Pantograph Punch, is part of what makes a poem a poem.

‘... my grand unifying theory of what poetry is: that a poem is something that says it is a poem, and that we read as a poem – we read it more slowly, more richly, that we are alert to the surface and the depth of the language, to subtext and metatext. We expect it to mean something more than its literal meaning. It’s a bit like putting an object in art gallery: it makes you consider it more closely.'

Having a meditative cup of tea 

The slowing down can spark a lot of thoughts, she says, and so be both calming and enlivening.

’I'm just comparing it to surfing the internet, which instead makes me both jumpy and dull.’

Of course, the arts have always had to defend themselves – the dichotomous horror of a child choosing to study a BA over a BCom. It’s cliched rebellion at its finest, with the usual threat of poverty hanging in the wings.

‘Startling the heart’
Poet Jeffrey Davis describes in  Give Us This Day Our Daily Disruptions, his choice to study the humanities as “veering left” while others took ’the right roads to pre-law, pre-med, pre-MBA.... To my friends at the time, the highest good seemed to be to make money. I simply wanted to make meaning.’

Davis compares life to a book, where days can become ‘incoherent run-on sentence(s)’.

’If we’re fortunate,’ he says ’something surprising startles our heart long enough to arrest the bustle and disrupt our rut.’ This, of course, is the 'interruption' suggested by Walpert.

In poetry, Davis found ’a way to open my eyes and pay attention‘ and describes it as being more about self-expansion than self-expression.

He draws a comparison between music and poetry, which, according to some neuroscientists, awaken the brain in the same way. ‘Poetry,’ he says, ‘helps us find the music in monotone days.’

That neuroscience goes further. Using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) to compare the reading of poetry and prose, a team at the University of Exeter found that poetry activates areas like the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection.

Another view
Of course, like any art, not everyone is going to experience it in the same way.

Marcus Greville with Tammy Ruffell, several years ago at the Book Industry Awards 

Marcus Greville, International Buyer for Wellington’s Unity Books, says he finds poetry to be ’the inverse‘ of mindful, and that ’low attention and mental drift are absolutely key for allowing me to enjoy the reach and beauty of it.’

’It’s a deeply relaxing process for me, but not mindful at all,’ he says. ‘I find mindfulness in non-fiction, in detail driven history or the wild sciences; the attention they require from me keeps me deeply present and engaged with the moment and information, leaving tangential wanderings at a minimum.’

Thomas Koed, co-owner of VOLUME in Nelson, describes himself as ‘somewhat allergic‘ to the word mindfulness, but expounds that ’the writing and reading of poetry is a way of accessing other states of mind and achieving vicarious experience, not so much of content as of form.’

’Poetry has the capacity to provide the heightened awareness usually associated with panic or the associative fugues usually achieved only with fear, as well as the ‘contemplative peace’ induced by the various forms of so-called ‘mindfulness’.’

VUP publisher, Fergus Barrowman

Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman said that while reading was his best way of calming his mind, he couldn’t honestly say poetry was better for this than other forms of writing.

’Surely Bryan’s point – it’s more about the quality of our engagement with poems than qualities of the poems or poets – should be extended to whether it’s a poem or not. Which I half believe and half don't – I think it’s better to read better writing, and everyone should read more poetry, which no doubt is what Bryan is trying to achieve.’

Walpert concludes that the benefits of poetry are challenging to quantify, but taking a larger view to explore what it offers is worthwhile – and, he challenges, that this could begin with a ’mindful journey through the strange and surprising ecosystem of a single poem.’ To do so, of course, requires dedicated attention.

’Like all great experiences,’ he says, ‘you had to be there.’


Article by Sarah Lin Wilson

Sarah Lin Wilson is a writer from Nelson. Her hobbies include co-running a feminist book club, trying to work out her cat's star sign, and using too many em-dashes.