Lifesaving Poems Saved the Day

My month off seems like a far away country, yet it’s only been 12 days since I’ve been back at lifesavingwork.  Thank goodness my job involves reading poetry, and thank goodness for Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems series on his wonderful blog (soon to be made into a book by one of the UK’s leading poetry publishers, Bloodaxe).

Catching up on emails and phone calls after one month away takes up a lot of time, so I was grateful to be able to turn to Anthony’s blog to find poems for my read aloud, reading groups for people with memory loss conditions, and their carers.  The Lifesaving Poems saved the day.

Two of the poems I took in to read provoked much discussion and contemplation.  They were Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’, and UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas‘.  As always, I was struck by how much a poem comes to life when it’s read aloud (several times, each time by a different person; and each time we seem to learn something new about the poem, or our own feelings) and discussed in a group.

In Mary Oliver’s poem, there was much debate about who “.. the voices around you / (kept) shouting / their bad advice../” belong to: is it other people in our lives, making their demands on us? or our own, internal voices? or the wind itself, which “..pried / with its stiff fingers / at the very foundations” ?  The final lines of the poem also got us talking: ” as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do – / determined to save / the only life you could save.”  Some of the group related strongly to these lines, saying that however hard you try to help someone else, you must look after yourself, even, sometimes, putting yourself first, in order to stay strong for others – in order to ‘stay alive’.  Other people felt strongly that it was wrong to think that you could only save yourself, that you must never give up, that you can always help others.

It was often moving to be among people who are, or who have been, for the most part, in long-term relationships, and who have endured difficult times, including living with serious illnesses.  At times, it felt that some group members were talking to each other through the discussion of the poem, and certainly the poem lent an opportunity to all of us to make our voices heard.

Oliver’s poem was a good choice to read in tandem with UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’ which begins “There is a kind of love called maintenance / Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;” and continues, later, “And maintenance is the sensible side of love,”.  This poem elicited talk about what ‘love’ is, especially in long relationships, especially at times when one partner falls ill, and all the mundane tasks of daily living fall to one person.  The two poems, read together, made us think about the generosity of giving time to make sure the, often boring but usually necessary, jobs get done, and how these gifts are often unacknowledged.


I’m in a privileged position to be able to read poems for a living, even though I’m not above moaning about the amount of admin I have to do (the downside of working for an organisation which continues to grow because of its huge success).   However, I forget about all the moaning when I’m reading poems with my groups.  I’m so looking forward to buying the Lifesaving Poems anthology when it’s published next year, but, in the meantime, do make the most of the poems on Anthony’s blog, especially if you feel you’re in need of some lifesaving.

You might also enjoy my post about reading Seamus Heaney’s ‘Clearances’ with people who have dementia.

2 thoughts on “Lifesaving Poems Saved the Day”

  1. ‘The Journey’ is a poem I use with people affected by addiction. I was interested to hear that you encourage the group to read the poem several times. I shall try that next time! One young woman (addicted to heroin) said that listening to the poem being read ‘was better than acupuncture’. Another poem that resonates is Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’.

    Liked by 1 person

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