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Instead of opioids, cannabis or any other mind-altering substance, a personally chosen selection of poetry or poetic prose, committed to memory, can have great therapeutic value. It’s not a quick fix. It’s much better than that. It has staying power. The great poets and philosophers are among the best company I can imagine, offering solace and comfort that can at times be greater even than the words of your best friend.
I’ve always thought that in memorizing a poem and reciting it aloud, you are tracing, in your own brain, the same neural pathways that the writer experienced in the finished creation. While there’s not enough space here to share entire masterpieces of surprise and delight, I can offer snippets from them, and I think you’ll get my point.
The poetic prose of ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, for example, is a stunning piece of compressed thought and meaning with a deft touch of humour: ”The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a word with him?”
Whatever assails or assaults you, counter it with a drugless sally. Cannabis can’t compete with the contained emotions of a great poet. Once you’ve decided what the poem says to you, commit it to memory and say it aloud. That’s the best way to make it yours. The important thing is to select the poems that speak to your heart, that strike a chord.
Take this epitaph found in Boothill Cemetery in Tombstone, Ariz. Cowboy country. It speaks to living an authentic life: “Be what you is, cuz if you be what you ain’t, then you ain’t what you is.”
Or this compassionate line translated from the Croatian poet Tin Ujevic’s Brotherhood of Faces in the Universe: “Do not be afraid! You are not alone.”
Often, we may think that a pressing, terrible situation is ours and ours alone, not to be shared. It may be dire and suicidal in nature, perhaps without hope, until a line or two, a word or two, saves us from ourselves and links us with others, in a common humanity. Tucked away in a cozy corner of Saskatchewan or in a polished boardroom on Bay Street, the advantage is yours. A few lines of memorized poetry will enhance and enliven your day.
The lines that have stayed with me the longest are oddly the ones from my high-school literature class. They stuck. They’ve been more helpful to me in the long run than money in my pocket. Shakespeare’s take on doubt in Measure for Measure, for example: “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”
Or consider Tennyson’s Ulysses, and a last line from the poem of beguiling beauty: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Both the line and the poem underscore the toughness it takes to persevere in a cause or a course of action. When under duress or if you simply need to give yourself staying power, it’s great to have it at the tip of your tongue.
Admiral Takijiro Onishi of the Imperial Japanese Navy recruited young “divine wind” kamikaze pilots with a haiku that still resonates today: “In blossom today, then scattered: Life is so like a delicate flower. How can one expect the fragrance to last forever.” Onishi’s poem can grace and gird us in times of mortal peril and give us courage when most needed. Or it could simply be an appreciation of the wonderful, temporal nature of life – a reminder of life’s evanescence. Whatever it is, a poem such as this can have great therapeutic value second to none.
When I have been in tough, stressful situations, I could be transported as I whisper Auden’s: “Altogether elsewhere, vast herds of reindeer move across miles and miles of golden moss, silently and very fast.”
The best poetry acts as a compass for life’s priorities. Poetry can offer intuitive insights that eclipse rational thought, even when it comes to business opportunity and timing. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
A fine poem can be a blessing, too, such as this Navajo people’s prayer: “May beauty be before you, may beauty be behind you, may beauty be above you, may beauty be below you, may beauty be all around you.”
A memorized line or two makes any experience more memorable. Poetry humanizes. It offers a ready dispensary that can cure all kinds of ills. It beats cannabis any day.
Frank Buchar lives in Hamilton.