I have been accused (by my wife) of buying countless numbers of books, many left unread.  Some were expensive.  The Japanese have a word for my condition, a word without an English equivalent which is  “tsundoku.”  Although I often read parts of books I buy, I still qualify for that title.  All of my past sins have been expiated this past week when I finished reading Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s new book, entitled "Poetry Rx." It has rapidly become on my favorites.  I have written about poetry before, but Rosenthal’s work has brought new context, understanding and greater appreciation for this artform.  The format is unique and each of the fifty gemlike poems in this collection have all 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.

According to Dr. Rosenthal, “poetry can serve as a vaccine for the sole.”  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 fourteenth century Italian poet Francesco Petrarch.  It contains fourteen 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.  That is most unfortunate and there is much modern woman or man can learn from this famous poem.

"Poem Rx" contains what Rosenthal calls “Takeaways”,  where he brings everyday experiences people have had with the poems, and how the poems have changed lives of the readers.  For Browning’s poem, he suggests developing a gratitude checklist to increase the awareness of the good things we have and how it improves your sense of well-being.  Each poem also includes a brief biography of the poet and circumstances surrounding the history behind how and why the poem was written.  In Barret’s case she had exchanged hundreds of letters with fellow poet Robert Browning and subsequently married him. Unfortunately, her father disapproved of the relationship.  He disinherited her and never spoke to her again.

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 reread parts of the book each day.