In my continual effort to become cultured and refined I began viewing poetry classes presented by Joy Harjo, the 23rd U.S. poet laureate on Masterclass.  

She is the first Native American to hold that position. According to Wikipedia, the position was modeled on the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Begun in 1937, and formerly known as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, the present title was devised and authorized by an Act of Congress in 1985.

Ms. Harjo classifies poetry as the language of prophets and of truth telling and not words that live in ivory towers or in closed rooms or untouchable. In one of her books, “Poet Warrior: A Memoir,” Ms. Harjo tells how poetry affects her. She finds “The spirit is much like imagining the shape and size of the knowing. It is a kind of resurrection light; it is the tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear or a hummingbird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a woman undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything.”

Her description is poetry classically defined. Ms. Harjo’s favorite book is the “Golden Treasury of Poetry” compiled and written by Louis Untermeyer who was appointed poet laureate in 1961.

My previous column about poetry described my impression and appreciation for Norman Rosenthal’s book “Poetry Rx.” His work brought new context, understanding and greater appreciation for this artform. The format is unique and each of the 50 gemlike poems in this collection have stood the test of time and appear in published anthologies. They are all relatively short, most fitting on a single page. In their conciseness they deliver their messages in the most efficient, effective and beautiful way possible.

The idea of this book is that poetry can not only inspire and delight, but can actually help you feel better, soothe your pain and heal psychological wounds. In short, as the book’s title suggests, poetry can act as a kind of medicine. Try it some time.

According to Dr. Rosenthal, “poetry can serve as a vaccine for the soul.” In a world so marred by loss and deprived of pleasure, he believes poetry can help fill in the gaps, and offer a brief retreat from a troubled world and hope for a better future. His book offers a number of suggestions.

For example, the reader should remember to first enjoy the poem, it should be fun and not work. You can do this by giving it your full attention and actively engaging in it. Then read it aloud and try to detect the music in the words. Vocalizing involves different sets of nerves and muscles and different parts of the brain compared to reading it silently.

Most important is that reading a poem out loud deepens its therapeutic potential. Read the poem more than once as successive readings reveal new layers of meaning. Try to read the poem with all of your senses and as the reader complete the poem based on your past experiences.

If possible, listen to other people reading the poem. Rosenthal suggests that you tolerate – even savor ambiguity and thought – by being intrigued by what you may not immediately understand. It is important to pay attention to details in punctuation, separation of lines and their placement on the page, form, rhythm and rhyme. When reading a poem, it is the reader’s interpretation that is most important. Most of all, have fun engaging with the poet.

Chapter two of the book features Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, “How do I love thee? Let me count the Ways” — perhaps the best known in English literature. The phrase that follows, “Let me count the ways,” is as famous as the first, and has provided titles for songs, books and TV episodes. The poem is written in the tradition of the 14th century Italian poet Francesco Petrarch. It contains 14 lines, and a miniature story beginning with a beginning, middle and end.

The poem is divided into an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octet raises a question or problem, the comes the middle or volta and a shift in topic. The sestet provides a resolution and the meter is typically iambic pentameter.

For those who have forgotten the meaning, iambic pentameter describes the construction of a line of poetry with five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables. Rosenthal explains each of the lines of the poem. One major point I learned comes from the last two lines of the octet, where the poet expresses two qualities she has observes in the men she admires: They “strive for right” and “turn from praise.” My interpretation is a man of integrity and humility. Unfortunately, again according to Rosenthal, these qualities today may seem quaint or out-of-date.

Final Thoughts

One of the book’s endorsements noted that reading “Poetry Rx” allowed the endorser to not only enjoy poetry for the first time, but to be transformed by it.  I agree and read and re-read parts of the book each day.

April is National Poetry Month.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@gmail.com.