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101 Poems That Could Save Your Life by Daisy Goodwin

Overview: Prozac has side effects, drinking gives you hangovers, therapy's expensive. For quick and effective relief -- or at least some literary comfort -- from everyday and exceptional problems, try a poem. Over the ages, people have turned to poets as ambassadors of the emotions, because they give voice and definition to our troubles, and by so doing, ease them. No matter how bad things get, poets have been there, too, and they can help you get over the rough spots.

This is the first poetry anthology designed expressly for the self-help generation. The poems listed include classics by Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron, Ogden Nash, and Lucretius, to name just a few, along with newer works by such current practitioners as Seamus Heaney and Wendy Cope. This book has a cure or consolation for nearly every affliction, ancient or modern. And no side effects-except pleasure.


101 Poems That Could Save Your Life by Daisy Goodwin Book Chapter One



Problems can make you lonely. They hurtle around your head refusing to be pinned down. Problems are possessive, they belong to you and nobody else, no way. Most over the counter solutions to life’s ills come with problems of their own: Prozac shrivels your sex life, Viagra gives you headaches, drink ruins your looks, therapy is expensive and self-help books are by and large unreadable, printed on the sort of paper that leaves ink on your hands, and impossible to read in public. It’s bad enough being a woman who loves too much without all the other passengers on the Central Line knowing as well. There are friends, of course, but how many of them can listen to your problems without a grain of smugness? But there is an alternative: for quick and effective relief for all your emotional ailments without harmful side effects, try a poem – for however bad it is, however low you have sunk you can be sure that some poet has been there too.

The right poem at the right time, the right words in the right order can put all those whirling thoughts to rest. It can show you a way through or it can give you a shield to hide behind. It can turn the light back on in a place you thought was permanently disconnected. It can be a talisman to be worn in the head, proof against modern miseries. It can lie for years dusty with neglect until one day its meaning becomes clear, recognition blows away the cobwebs. The right poem at the right time can change your life.

I decided to put this book together because that happened to me. Once I was struggling with one of those decisions that seemed terrifying whichever way I looked at it. Should I jump or turn back the way I had come? Finally a wise friend, exasperated with my endlessly circular arguments, found me a poem, ‘The Big Decision’ by Cavafy. She shoved it in my hand and walked off. It goes:

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him: and saying it

he goes from honour to honour, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no – the right no-
drags him down all his life.

As I read it I felt all the barriers in my head falling away. Afterwards it seemed such an easy choice, but it wasn’t until I collided with that poem that I found the energy to go ahead. There have been plenty of other occasions where the right poem has taken the edge off a pain, sanded down a disappointment, put a percentage point on happiness. There may not be a cure but there is always a consolation.

To use this book for self-help purposes, first turn to the emotional index to find the condition from which you are currently suffering. If you don’t know exactly what the problem is, but the future seems hopeless, then I suggest you go straight to the ‘Instant Moral Fibre’ section. Just the process of reading them is a step towards clarifying your own thoughts. These are the rugged poems with lots of handholds to pull you out of your misery. If you feel that everyone is out to get you then turn straight to the ‘Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down’ pages which might give you some ammunition, or maybe just the strength to turn away. If your problems are love related then there are entries for every swoop of the emotional rollercoaster from ‘First Date’ to ‘Is This Relationship Going Anywhere?’ and ‘When Your Lover Has Gone’. And if you’ve just said good-bye to love, there is a whole section on being ‘Successfully Single’. There are poems here to console you as you pass the bleaker milestones: discovering the first wrinkle, those accumulating birthdays, the death of someone close, and poems to make you smile through lighter skirmishes with misfortune: bad hair days, insomnia, Monday mornings, babies that won’t stop crying, Christmas.

As with any powerful remedy, anyone reading this book should read the instructions carefully. Chronic procrastinators should NOT put off turning to the ‘Just Do It’ entry, but these poems will only make things worse for the ‘Stressed Out’ who have their own section (which in turn the procrastinators should avoid at all costs). Of course you could just read the book straight through, but you can hear the right poem much more clearly if it’s not muffled by layers of other voices. Using the index might help you make that direct connection which could just save your life. Poems are potent things, they should be taken in small doses.

Many of the poems in this book have found their place through personal recommendation: I have had suggestions from harassed working mothers, prisoners serving life for murder, happily married couples and chronic philanderers. Some poems are here because they worked for me, some just because they are good. Some poems are well-known, others are published here for the first time. I have tried, where possible, to include less well-known poems so that the reader has a good chance of encountering a poem that is completely new to them, with no classroom memories to dilute its strength.

After having the idea for this book I did nothing about it for months and then another friend showed me ‘The Slow Starter’ by Louis MacNeice, which contains the lines:

Do not press me so, she said;
Leave me alone and I will write
But not just yet, I am sure you know
The problem.

Reading it was enough to make me sit down at my desk immediately, in fact I taped it to the side of my computer with the last two lines highlighted in red pen, ‘He turned and saw the accusing clock/ Race like a torrent round a rock.’ It may not be MacNeice’s greatest poem but it works.

I hope this will be a book to keep handy, next door to the medical encyclopedia, the telephone directories and the road maps. There are poems here for weddings, funerals, weeping friends, children leaving home, significant birthdays. On all those occasions when you don’t know what to say, turn to this book and you may find that someone in this book has said it for you.

Finally a huge thankyou to all the people who suggested poems for this book: Joanna Coles, Peter Godwin, Nellie Hadzianesti, Ned Williams, Chloe Thomas and especially Wendy Cope. Special thanks to my sister Tabitha Potts for helping me put it together and Mary Enright and all the staff at the Poetry Library, the South Bank Centre, London, for their help and patience.

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