October is a popular month for birthdays in our family, with my grandson’s at the start of the month, mine in the middle and my elder daughter’s at the end.
One of my birthday presents was a pair of poetry books entitled The Poetry Pharmacy, and The Poetry Pharmacy Returns – tried and true prescriptions for the heart, mind and soul. The poems are compiled by William Sieghart, who first discovered the solace that poetry can provide when he was an unhappy and lonely little eight-year-old boy at boarding school.
But why a pharmacy? This idea originated from a session at a literary festival in Cornwall focusing on a traditional anthology of poetry which William had compiled. A friend, Jenny Dyson suggested he “prescribe” poems to audience members after the session, and this was a resounding success. He then brought the Poetry Pharmacy to BBC Radio Four, then to BBC Television and then to the Guardian.
The Poetry Pharmacy attempts to answer real problems, faced by real people, and has at its heart the idea that poetry can be a therapeutic power. It also highlights how comforting it can be to find a line or verse of poetry which can beautifully and eloquently describe a feeling, or situation which you have experienced.
When these feelings are emotionally charged and linked to sadness or grief, it is heartening to realise that someone else has experienced similar situations, and poetry can diminish the sense of isolation which often accompany difficult times in life.
Similarly, funny or happy poems will make you smile and laugh and brighten your day, and I still can’t make rice pudding without thinking of A A Milne’s "Rice Pudding"...
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She's crying with all her might and main,
And she won't eat her dinner - rice pudding again -
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
A A Milne
I have always loved poetry, and like William Sieghart, I also won prizes for recitation as a child. I have a very well-thumbed and slightly dog-eared copy of a Child’s Garden of Verse which was the source of much reading and learning for my daughters when they were young.
I also have childhood copies of A A Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six. When they were three, both girls could recite Vespers ("little boy kneels at the foot of the bed…”). And as for walking on the lines on the pavement...well "just look how I'm walking in all the squares!"
Being a parent and grandparent, I was drawn to a poem by William Martin in The Poetry Pharmacy Returns entitled “Do Not Ask Your Children To Strive.”
“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself."
This deceptively simple poem helps us realise how extraordinary the ordinary can become if we are able to put aside our own wishes and desires for our children, avoid pressurising them, and allow them to be what they want to be. But it also recognises that this is hard to do, and is almost counter-intuitive. I've discovered too, that it is still relevant for parenting grown-up children!
The same sentiment is echoed in the beautiful poem “On Children” by Khalil Gibran – another one in The Poetry Pharmacy Returns. This is a poem I learned years ago when my girls were small, and it never fails to move me to tears. It has a piercing poignancy in its message that your role as a parent is to be the “bow from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”
Albeit with responsible social distancing, social media and no candles to blow out, our October celebrations of three generations of birthdays were happy occasions and markers in our respective journeys. They also brought a level of constancy and stability to the ongoing strangeness and unpredictability of 2020.
My final browse in the Poetry Pharmacy books brought me to a short Emily Dickinson poem “They Might Not Need Me” – interestingly chosen as a prescription for shyness. However, this poem immediately struck me as an ideal approach for a parent or grandparent, trying to balance providing just the right amount of reassurance, whilst avoiding being over-protective.
“They might not need me; but they might.
I’ll let my head be just in sight;
A smile as small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity.”
Stay safe, take care