This event, organised by Blackwells and crowd-sourcing publisher Unbound, timed to coincide with national poetry day (who knew?!), sought to answer the question 'Can poetry make you happier?'. Unsurprisingly the panel was biased in favour - Jonathan Bate, Sophie Ratcliffe and Andrew Schuman were all co-editors of 'Stressed Unstressed', an anthology of poems "designed to ease the mind".
Beforehand I have to admit I was cynical - in his book 'Happiness by Design' renowned behavioural economist Paul Dolan's suggests that pleasure and purpose are needed for happiness. Could poetry give pleasure? Could it give purpose?
The panel started by talking about their own need poetry, Jonathan told the story of being in hospital with his child close to death and wishing for something comforting to read and Sarah talked about a John Donne poem giving her comfort after her father's death. There was no doubt that poetry really had eased the panelists' minds. But could it work for non specialists?
Hearing Sarah Ratcliffe say that poems were a puzzle to be unlocked suggested that there might be something enduringly comforting in poetry. Poems, like any art, can give pleasure. But seeing poems also as a puzzle suggests there is on-going comfort and purpose in reading and re-reading them. I experienced this myself in the first poem in Stressed Unstressed - 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' by Robert Frost. On the second or third reading I noticed a hidden rhyming pattern and felt the surge of satisfaction that comes with 'making sense' of something.
So maybe poetry speaks to the part of us that wants comfort but also wants to make sense of things (which is perhaps why I feel so frustrated when reading a poem that makes no sense to me!) On this note it was enlightening to hear the other panelists say that they might never fully understand some of their favourite poems. The event succeeded in convincing me there was power and comfort in reading and making sense of poems. Can poetry make you happier? If you're ok with never fully understanding it then yes!