Professor Philip Davis is Head of the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems, at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society
“You are troubled by some loss – maybe a death or redundancy or separation – and need to think seriously about your life. What do you do? Go to a friend or a priest, a counsellor or a doctor? Or no one?
This May has seen the publication of DSM 5 – the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the psychiatrists’ dictionary for the diagnosis of mental illness. And there it says that if the symptoms of depression continue for more than two weeks following the loss of a loved one, this grief in bereavement is to be newly categorized as a depressive disorder. Just two weeks, and you are deemed ill. It is the most extreme version of the medicalization of human nature to date. Perhaps we do not know where else to turn save towards medicine.
Unconscious use of our own powers
Yet increasingly it is being argued that a placebo – a sugared pill – may be every bit as effective as a prescription drug: people are relieved to be given something, almost anything. If only we could bottle the placebo effect: if only the unconscious use of our own powers could be transformed into something less like a trick.
Of course there are self-help books and there are therapies that take you step-by-step and stage-by-stage along a prescribed route to try to stop you feeling bad, thinking negative thoughts, going round in mental circles. But if this is an alternative to medication, it is still another form of prescription: the set language that targets ‘how to’ treat your own ‘case’.
But what if we should not think of ourselves as cases, our sorrows as illnesses, at all? Some of us think there is another way: a different form of counsel, an honest type of placebo, offering a genuine place for personal thinking and feeling, for seeking meaning in the modern world. It is called reading: reading serious literature. Because a poem does not know or care if its reader is ill or well, educated or inarticulate: it is a human cry which may be heard anywhere by anyone, echoing and answering the reader’s own hidden one. We have not many such places for emotional meaning in the cold world we too often inhabit. But writers create those spaces, out of their own needs and for the needs of others.
For example, here is part of a poem by the Australian poet Les Murray, called ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’. It is about a man who is mysteriously found crying in a public street in Sydney. The word goes round: ‘There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.’ A crowd of amazed onlookers gathers around him:
The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, but like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly – yet the dignity of his weeping
holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light . . .
The man simply offers the crowd what the poet calls ‘the gift of weeping’. This is what a poem does offer: a form of the private made public through a book in a way that the normal public world of the street can barely tolerate. And though it occupies the very territory of depression, this is not a depressing poem. It is rather, as Wordsworth puts it, sorrow that is not sorrow to hear of. That inter-stanza space between the ‘dignity of his weeping’ and ‘holds us back’ is something I keep coming back to, every time I read the poem. And this is like Les Murray himself describes when he remembers a conversation he had about a particular poem, not his own, with a serious but everyday reader whom he knew well:
‘I came to that place in the poem,’ as a friend said to me once, ‘and clunk! my mind turned inside out, quite painlessly. “Huh?” I said, and read that bit again, and it happened again, precisely there, and I couldn’t explain it to myself.’
It is a great experiment to find that the key place in the poem is still there, feeling the same, the next time Murray’s friend returns to it. There it is again, momentary and yet repeatable, physical and yet other than physical. Murray calls it a poetic place that is not just for poets.
The Reading Revolution we propose seeks to make this place that literature creates more known, more accessible, more available in the outside world, on the streets– not for art’s sake but for the sake of our very selves. Find out how to join this revolution.”
Students interested in studying the MA Reading in Practice should visit: http://www.liv.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/taught/faculty-of-humanities-and-social-sciences/school-of-the-arts/english/taught/reading-in-practice-ma/overview/