This crusading column's urging of the powers that be to create for Canberra a position of City Poet or Poet Laureate (every self-respecting city in the United States and UK has one of those) is a tragically becalmed crusade.
The crusade seems to be going nowhere, even though this federal capital city, its citizens so famously well-educated and cerebral and seemingly attuned to the Finer Things of Life, seems to be the perfect Australian city to be a pace-setter in such things.
You'd think it would be enough in a sophisticated city like this to simply trill to the powers that be the famous truism "We all need more poetry in our lives" for them, the powers, to leap to create the position of City Poet. But no.
If this particular crusade by this column, prosecuted for a long time now, is going nowhere, why is it becalmed? Where is the column, and its poetry-loving and usually uncannily persuasive columnist, going wrong? What new angles of persuasion might the crusade attempt?
Now an exciting new angle is suggested to me by a new piece "Feeling Stressed? Read a Poem" in the popular science journal Nautilus.
On to this essay in just a moment but first I make the point that a good and effective City Poet does more than just write and publicly warble his or her poems (not that writing and warbling poetry is a thing to be sneezed at). He or she helps to create a civic atmosphere (for example visiting schools and cropping up everywhere where there are people to lend their ears) in which poetry is in the air.
Perhaps my crusade's mistake has been to harp on the idea that fine poetry is so bleedin' obviously a fine and vital thing (my own heartfelt belief) that its virtues are so self-evident that surely we should all leap to have a City Poet warbling poetry and evangelising about it.
But that has been naive of me. I overestimated the sensitivity of Canberrans and their governments, and underestimated the levels of arts-resistant philistinism in their bourgeois genomes. The sentiment "We all need more poetry in our lives" has not been enough. It has been an idea that has ricocheted off the roofs of the tragically poetryless bubbles in which Canberrans live.
A better way, a new way suggested to us by author and researcher Marissa Grunes in her Nautilus piece, is to think of poetry as an important ingredient of public health. Grunes is a literary scholar and science writer with the Centre for Public Humanities at Arizona State University.
Here is a glimpse of Ms Grunes's essay, although I hope and expect ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith will painstakingly read the whole piece and the many scholarly papers pointed to in its footnotes.
"Those of us who love literature have perhaps felt its capacity for healing. But what does the science say?" Ms Grunes asks.
"Can reading poems relieve the physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety? That's what videographer Steven Allardi and I set out to investigate in the videos [linked to in the piece]. They feature interviews with Inna Khazan, a biofeedback researcher and clinician at Harvard Medical School.
"Biofeedback uses sensitive medical instruments to test how techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness affect physiological indicators of stress such as blood pressure. Two of the most powerful indicators are impossible to measure without high-tech instruments: heart rate variability and cardio-respiratory synchronisation.
"Within a given minute, your heart rate is not perfectly stable. In fact, it varies from beat to beat, moving from (say) 60 beats per minute to 80 beats per minute and then back down - all within a few seconds. It turns out high heart rate variability (HRV) in a resting state directly correlates with mental health, wellbeing, and even long-term resilience to stressors and trauma. Meanwhile, when you're relaxed and enjoying high HRV, another strange phenomenon takes place in your body: Your heartbeats synchronise with your breath. This happens unconsciously and beyond your control. But it, too, correlates with mental wellbeing. And that's where poetry comes in.
"A series of studies have shown that reading rhythmic poetry can increase both your resting HRV and cardio-respiratory synchronisation. It turns out this is especially true for poetry in long six-beat lines, such as the ancient Greek poetry that Plato described as sending its reciters into a trance-like or 'rhapsodic' state. High HRV and cardio-respiratory synchronisation can help induce that 'flow state' in which mental focus becomes effortless and enjoyable."
Ms Grunes gives a famous example of someone who allowed poetry to work this magic calming of his savage breast.
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"The philosopher J.S. Mill found solace from depression in reading William Wordsworth. Mill called Wordsworth's poetry 'medicine for my state of mind'. The poems expressed 'states of feeling ... under the excitement of beauty' that gave Mill 'a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings'," she writes.
So there we have it, thou powers that be, and especially Ms Stephen-Smith. The bringing of poetry into the lives of Canberrans, with a designated City Poet active in that bringing-in, is best thought of as an essential public health/mental health measure.
What government can dare to deny its people a medicine, poetry, that as well as inducing in them a highly-desirable trance-like, rhapsodic state enables their mental focus to become effortless and enjoyable?
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Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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