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Poetry, the Brain and Staying Sane

“Only one thing is necessary to write poetry: everything.”

— spoken by the character Atillio in the film The Tiger and the Snow (Roberto Benigni, 2005)

April is Poetry Month in the U.S., a time to celebrate the timeless art form that uncannily transcends cultural restraints and physical boundaries to reach deeply into our minds and bodies. The Balinese believe the four virtues a person needs to be safe and happy in life are intelligence, friendship, strength, and poetry*. Why and how poems affect human beings so profoundly is the subject of countless books and discussions; it’s the subject I explored on returning to college a few years ago.

Yet far beyond the reasons live the poems themselves. Composed of artfully crafted language that invokes people, places, experiences and images, a memorable poem is capable of eliciting the full gamut of human emotions. Poetry connects us to insights, memories, and myriad truths that can inform and open up our world if we are receptive and ready to hear its message.

Poetic language, with its metaphors, rhythms, and condensed form can soothe the human limbic system. When my brain is reacting, out of control with thoughts as prickly as the cactus spines in the photo above, the soothing sway of a poetic phrase can calm me—restoring mindfulness, responsiveness and a healthy perspective. Repeating those few words or few lines helps the sharpness of a situation recede, much like a mantra is used in meditation. When clarity returns, science tells me that the agitated area of my brain is being bathed with GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), one of the key neurotransmitters that calms my upset amygdala, a main component of the limbic system**.

Here are links to four poems that have come my way recently, surprising me with their beauty and relevance: Mameen, by David Whyte on Return, his newest recording of poems set to music; Q and A, by Linda Pastan, third of three poems posted on 2.8.11 @ ; Taiji, by Mark Nepo, posted on 3.22.11 @; and Sara in Her Father’s Arms, by George Oppen, found in poet Nick Flynn’s essay in O Magazine, April 2011 issue.

Perhaps in these poems you will find a word, a phrase, or a line that brings sanity to a crazy day. Listen to the poems floating on the April breezes. They are messages from fellow travelers. May your step be lighter, your thoughts more like blossoms than spines, and your heart a bit wild with wonder.

“Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.” —Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine

* Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, Love. 2006


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