The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Portrait of William Seighart

The History of the Poetry Pharmacy

I’ve always believed in the power of poetry to explain people to themselves. The Price, by Stuart Henson, is the kind of poem that has enormous impact and power, especially when encountered unexpectedly.

Sometimes it catches when the fumes rise up among the throbbing lights of cars, or as you look away to dodge eye-contact with your own reflection in the carriage-glass; or in a waiting-room a face reminds you that the colour supplements have lied and some have pleasure and some pay the price.

Then all the small securities you built about your house, your desk, your calendar are blown like straws; and momentarily, as if a scent of ivy or the earth had opened up a childhood door, you pause, to take the measure of what might have been against the kind of life you settled for.

More than 20 years ago now, I used to fly post Stuart Henson’s The Price around London at the height of the windows in the double decker buses. I’d put it underneath bridges, where I knew buses would have to come to halt at traffic. It was almost a guerilla tactic confronting people with a poem that I knew would startle them, but that I was also confident might help them in some way.

Although I didn’t think of it that way at the time, that may well have been the first incarnation of the Poetry Pharmacy. The Pharmacy proper began much later, while I was being interviewed at a literary festival in Cornwall, England, about a more traditional anthology I’d just brought out. A friend of mine, Jenny Dyson, had the idea of allowing me to prescribe poems from that book to audience members after the talk. She set me up in a tent, with two armchairs and a prescription pad. It turned out to be all I needed. The hour we had originally planned for came and went, and then a second, and a third, until, many hours later, I was still in there, with queues of people still waiting for their appointments.

I realised that we were on to something. Suffering is the access point to poetry for a lot of people: that’s when they open their ears, hearts and minds. Being there with the right words for someone in that moment – when something’s happened, when they’re in need – is a great comfort, and sometimes creates a love of poetry that can last a lifetime.

After Cornwall, I brought the Poetry Pharmacy to BBC Radio Four. I was asked back to do it again at Christmas – one of the most stressful times of year, as we all know – and then onto BBC television, and into the pages of The Guardian newspaper. Meanwhile, I never stopped doing my personal consultations. I toured the country, offering poetry pharmacies in libraries and festivals. I’m all of this, I learned how much most people’s heartaches have in common. The objects and their circumstances might change, but there’s nothing like listening to people’s problems in leafy Kensington and then a council estate in Liverpool for making you realise the basic spiritual sameness that runs throughout humanity.

I must have listened, over the last few years, to nearly a thousand people’s problems. This book, this project, is therefore a compilation of the prescriptions that work, for 56 of the problems that really matter. I’ve found that some of my prescriptions, such as the Hafez poem:

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.

So inspire people that they seem to leave their chair a foot taller than when they sat down. Seeing the difference the right poem can make written on that many faces has given me confidence in poetry’s power to change lives.