Skip to 0 minutes and 12 secondsSo, why Carol Ann Duffy? I mean, I think she's a wonderful poet. Well, when you asked me to talk about poetry and stress, I knew immediately I wanted to talk about her. Or I wanted to do a poem of hers, because she's so accessible, and because her poetry is very real and very everyday. And I also felt as though now that she's got that funny role of being very popular and very accessible, and every day, but also the poet laureate, there was a kind of interesting place for her. And I don't know how much she gets viewed, now that she's become poet laureate, differently, because, in fact her, poetry is for every man and every woman.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 secondsIt's very real and very authentic. The other reason is that Duffy writes very much, I find, using sound. And I wanted to think in some ways about the way in which this poem is influenced by the use of sound. Let's talk a bit more about that, the sort of background noises. A lot of background noise going on in the poem, isn't there? Yeah, well there is.

Skip to 1 minute and 22 secondsThe reason I initially chose this poem was because I find it very calm and very calming and very soothing. And so I went back to it just with that memory in my mind of it being a soothing poem but not having any memory of specific sounds. And then having thought about wanting to choose one of hers, I looked at this one again. And I thought what's clever about this poem is that there's this relationship between the sounds that she uses as a poet and the sounds that are going on for the people within the poem, for these individuals who are experiencing sound. And so yeah, there's sort of background noise, but it's very gentle.

Skip to 2 minutes and 1 secondSo there's the chanting of the train. There's the minims sung by a tree, which I think are birds. And the sound of the birds. There's the child's name. And there's the shipping forecast at the end. So there are these different sort of sounds that are both background, but they're kind of central to each moment in the poem and the way that each moment uses sound to capture a kind of prayerfulness or a moment of peace or however you want to interpret it. What is it about? Because it's called "Prayer." I love that about it, and that's another reason I chose it. It's called "Prayer." I believe that Duffy doesn't believe in God.

Skip to 2 minutes and 47 secondsNot that necessarily needs to be relevant, but I am very interested in a word "prayer" and the sound of the word "prayer" and the place that that word has within our English language history as a kind of - both a call, it's kind of a verb, to pray, you know, and as a noun as a soft, kind of peaceful, abstract thing. That if you don't believe in God, the word still seems to invoke. And I don't know precisely what it's about, but my reading of it is that it's about moments of grace, to use another religious word in a non-religious context.

Skip to 3 minutes and 27 secondsIt's about moments of peace that kind of offer themselves to us, if we're alert to them, if we can hear them. And again it sort of comes back to sounds. Like a sort of modern prayer. Like a secular prayer. Like a secular prayer. I think that the poem is principally a secular prayer. It's about the ways in which individual people can receive moments of consolation, or peace, or kindness, or tenderness. Gift moments, a sudden gift, because of the sound of what I think is a bird in a tree. You know, these moments happen all the time, if we're alert to them and if we're listening to them.

Skip to 4 minutes and 10 secondsAnd although the poem seems a touch melancholy in that these people need these moments. They're being, it's not necessarily about people in stress so much as people in moments of difficulty of a variety of types. But what I think she's saying is, or what I think the poem is saying is that these moments are available at those times of difficulty. And so it's stopping. You know, that sense of stopping. And listening. And listening. And it's a sonnet. Does the sonnet form shape that? Yeah, do you know it took me, I'm embarrassed to say as an English teacher, it took me ages to realise it was a sonnet, even though it's right there in front of me, structured like that.

Skip to 4 minutes and 51 secondsI think the thing about it being a sonnet is interesting because sonnet's a very technical form, it's very strict and she abides by the sort of strict structure. You know, she's got this AB AB CD CD structured rhyme scheme. She's got the rhyming couplet at the end. She's even got the 10 beats per line, although it's not iambic as far as I can tell. It's not always iambic, which is the traditional sonnets. So I think there's a discipline to the way in which she's written it. Anybody who writes a sonnet sits down. It's like a crossword puzzle. They're kind of thinking very technically about how they're going to make their idea fit into that structure.

Skip to 5 minutes and 27 secondsSo that's interesting just from the writer's point of view. I think from the reader's point of view, sometimes those rhymes are very obvious, and sometimes they're not. I noticed when I read it this time that "lift" and "gift" in the first quatrain, which is what we call the four line chunks of a sonnet, just kind of held me for a moment. Sometimes those rhymes sort of make you pause and hear them, and hear the poem differently. And certainly that the rhyming couplet, which is very often in a sonnet the point at which you kind of either have a sort of ta-DA moment or a, A sort of closing. Yeah, a resolution of some type.

Skip to 6 minutes and 4 secondsThe rhyme between "prayer" and "Finisterre" is just very beautiful for the ear. So as compared to the other rhymes, which is very soft, very gentle, can kind of get sort of lost within a greater sense of what the poem's talking about, the final rhyme, the "prayer" and "Finisterre", is just so lovely to the ear. And it's very soft. It's very soothing. And for people who know the shipping forecast and the sound, not sailors, for whom the shipping forecast is quite critically important, but for those of us who don't understand what the shipping forecast is about, these words, "Rockall," "Malin," "Dogger," "Finisterre" played at night, They're very soothing aren't they?

Skip to 6 minutes and 43 secondslate on Radio 4 or on the World Service are incredibly soothing words. It's a really gentle poem, because I think of Carol Ann Duffy as sometimes quite angry in some of her poems, although she writes wonderful love poetry, which I'm very fond of her love poetry. But this seems to me so beautiful and soothing. And in week one, we're talking about stress and how poetry can comfort us. Can we talk a bit more about how this beautiful poem called "Prayer" could feel comforting to somebody who was feeling stressed? Or just relaxed, how reading it just makes me feel very relaxed. Me too. Or hearing it read. Me too. I mean, absolutely.

Skip to 7 minutes and 23 secondsI think one of the great things about Carol Ann Duffy, and this is why she is a kind of poet for every person, is that she writes a great deal. And she's got, this is I think this was written in '93, early '90s. And she's written multiple collections since. There is anger in a lot of her poetry. There's humour in a lot of her poetry she's a brilliant wit. I would urge your readers to go and seek out The World's Wife, which is a collection that plays with sound and humour. Oh I love that. It's brilliant. And although it's very serious at times and very moving, it's also hilarious. And laughter, as we know, is a great stress reliever.

Skip to 7 minutes and 57 secondsI did want to choose a funny poem, but because she's so clever with that and with the way she uses sound, and I think humour is one of our great stress relievers. But when I was thinking about this discussion and what else relieves stress. I was thinking about the way in which stress is so very physical. It manifests in your body as tension and fear sometimes. And I was thinking about what relieves that. And I think that for me the things that relieve that, in addition to humour, are pauses and sound.

Skip to 8 minutes and 36 secondsIn the same way that music can be very soothing, can be very relaxing, can relieve tension in sorts of ways, I feel that this poem plays into that category of sounds that relax you. At the same time as it is a prayer, and it's about prayer as moments of pause. And I'm very interested in the way in which, very personally interested, in the way in which we've kind of evolved culturally, those of us who aren't actively religious, out of habits of rest, out of habits of pause.

Skip to 9 minutes and 13 secondsSo for example traditionally in this country and indeed across the world in fact, religious traditions evolved which had moments of pause built into the day; grace before a meal, prayers at certain times of day. Still many, many people do this. Sunday as a day of rest. All of these things that were culturally kind of built in. As a consequence, Calming. A really calming moment. Which are incredibly calming. They're reflective. I believe they're sort of designed by humans to manage human difficulties as well as to worship gods or whatever. So I was really interested, And in this day and age, when we're all so stressed, we need it more than ever but, we don't have it.

Skip to 9 minutes and 56 secondsAnd people don't know how to do it for themselves anymore. Unless you have a meditative practise or a yoga practise or a faith that's very active and present in your daily life, I think a lot of people have lost that capacity. Now, reading can be that for people. And for me, reading this poem, because it's both in the form of a prayer and it makes you pause, and also the topic is prayerfulness of a particular type, and also the sounds are soft, opening sounds that both cause you to pause and relax but also evoke a degree of additional relaxation that happens because the word "minim" is just gorgeous, isn't it? Or the word "prayer" or the word "chanting."

Skip to 10 minutes and 45 secondsSo it was that relationship between these things, between the structure of the poem, between the words used, between the idea that she's exploring, between this idea of needing to take breaks, and what happens when we take breaks, what we notice, what happens to our body, what happens in relation to the physical manifestation of tension, and what sound does in those moments that I was interested in. And what would you say to some of our learners, who might find this quite a difficult poem and don't understand some of the words and how would, what would you say to them, to encourage them? I think, somebody once told me, which I think is brilliant advice, read with punctuation.

Skip to 11 minutes and 27 secondsSo first of all, one of the ways in which this poem opens itself out is if you read and stop at the full stops. Very often people think the poems have to be read over the line or something or the rhyme's got to kind of manage how they read it.

Skip to 11 minutes and 38 secondsSo I think, read with, read with full stops, particularly emphasising the pauses, because a) by doing that, it becomes a more restful and pleasurable physical experience, but also because then you hear how it's arranged in sentences, and that can often open up meaning, and that's a relief, I think, to a reader who approaches a poem thinking, oh it's, I don't know what it's going to mean, or it's arranged in a way that immediately kind of alienates me. So read with punctuation, I would say. And then you get that wonderful emphasis, for example, on that central sentence, that short sentence, "pray for us now. " Full stop. And it's not too difficult to understand what that particular sentence means.

Skip to 12 minutes and 17 secondsBut if there are words or references or aspects of the structure that are alienating, I would say don't worry about that in the least. The last line is very culturally specific. Yes If you have international readers, who've never heard the shipping forecast, though I urge you get your readers to listen to it online, because it's beautiful. That would mean nothing to them, but the sounds are beautiful. And it doesn't matter what the content of that line, for example, means. Or it doesn't matter if you don't know where the Midlands are. Yeah, we don't need to worry about that. It's just a town.

Skip to 12 minutes and 54 secondsI think, was it Somerset Maugham who said, the only thing that's important in a book is what the reader gets from it. And I think that's a really comforting thing that it's what I get from it or you get from it. So sometimes not knowing or comprehending isn't really a problem. It's what you get from it. And we might get something, that there's no right or wrong, really. That's right. I mean there are ways to-- I think when we're growing up, we get taught about poetry and often people say, there's no wrong. And it's like, well there is wrong. You can misunderstand a poem. It doesn't matter, but it can be misunderstood.

Skip to 13 minutes and 25 secondsBut what poem is like song, it's like music, it's in my view it's most closely related to music. So I think what's most important is a felt experience of a poem. And sonnet means song. It comes, the word sonnet derives from little song, sonetto, from the Italian. So you keep coming back to song, and I think that's really important because of the rhythm and because the sounds that you're talking about. It is a song. In a way, a prayer is a song. Yeah, absolutely. And I love this idea that you can - so rather than over intellectualise, which is easy to do for people like you and me, who are teachers.

Skip to 14 minutes and 2 secondsThat's something that we're kind of trained to do in a sense. A great deal of poetry responds to intellectual kind of analysis, but poetry is written, I think, to be heard, to be felt. It's a very emotionally expressive form. And I think it's about sort of, when we think about sound, we think about song. You know I'm one of those terrible people who doesn't ever listen to lyrics. And so when I'm listening to a song, I hardly hear the words. I'm just kind of in it. And I think that approaching poetry in that way can be very moving. It also takes you away from the idea that there's one fixed meaning.

Skip to 14 minutes and 40 secondsI think that, I personally think that this poem is in some senses more accessible than others, and certainly lots of Duffy's poems are written in a more conversational language that is accessible to readers. I've taught it to younger students, and they kind of get it because the words that she uses. But there are ways in which that is or isn't relevant to the reader's experience you know it's still about feeling those words. Minim, I'm obsessed with that word, minim. It's beautiful isn't it? It's absolutely beautiful. You know, you say it over and over again, and sounds are just so, But she's really a word craft, isn't she?

Skip to 15 minutes and 16 secondsAnd the thing about poetry, that sense of composition, composing ourselves, but composition, where really every word has been very carefully chosen in poetry. Yeah. It's there for a reason. And I think that attentiveness, that concentration, can also help with stress because you're focused on something, and it's mindful reading again. We keep coming to this idea that you're reading mindfully. It's nutritious. It's food for the soul. And I think poetry is food for the soul. Absolutely. And it requires a sort of discipline and a bit of hard work sometimes. But I think in focusing on that, that can take us away from the other stresses that we have. Yeah.

Skip to 15 minutes and 56 secondsYeah, thinking about poetry is a way of stopping, as an opportunity to pause in the way that just listening to a couple tracks on you iPod would be, or getting your kid to tickle you, or whatever, anything that stops you in your tracks is a thing that offers that opportunity. And I think this poem is both about that, and it offers us that in the reading of it. I think also we can think about the ways in which that nutrition is available to us, and I think it's multisensory One of the things about Duffy's poetry is because of the way she writes using normal speech.

Skip to 16 minutes and 37 secondsShe uses rhyme and structure, but not necessarily in ways that force you to puzzle over them. You can puzzle over them, or you can just feel them. The fact that she uses recognisable words, full stops in interesting places that again force a pause, all of these things are ways of encouraging a kind of multisensory response. And for me, it's mindfulness, which is a meditative tradition. It's something that people have done since ancient times. For thousands of years. For thousands and thousands of years, as is praying. As a way of kind of tuning in, feeling what's happening, et cetera. So I think mindful reading is both a way of escaping, but it's also a way of being in a multisensory experience.

Skip to 17 minutes and 33 secondsAnd I think sometimes when we're stressed, you know stress is very particular, as compared to some of the other topics for your course. It's very normal. It's daily, in fact, for lots of us. But it can escalate into being really problematic and verging on anxiety. If it's not managed. And a lot of us, anxiety too is normal. Fear is normal. These are all normal things, real daily things. But I think that what mindfulness offers us is not just a way of approaching reading or life in ways that give us a chance to escape those feelings, but in ways that give us a chance to kind of notice those feelings, and then notice how they ebb and flow and pass.

Skip to 18 minutes and 18 secondsAnd I think that this guy listening to the train. You know that train's going to go. It's passing by. This woman who looks up and sees the minims sung by the tree. It's these moments. It's a moment, and it will pass. So there's this emphasis on, I think with any mindful sort of multisensory experience, there's this emphasis on feeling it, being in it, and not wishing it away, not wishing the stress away, but just noticing as the stress passes, because it will. Or giving yourself a chance to notice what it's doing to your body, and then what reading this poem is doing to your body, and noticing the shift.

Skip to 18 minutes and 58 secondsBecause I'm a student as well as a teacher, and one of the lovely things about my life is that I get to sit around a lot and notice things. And it's fascinating noticing, when you live a slightly less stressfully intense work life, as I have been doing in the last few years, how your body responds then when you're rushing for a train or have to get somewhere on time or forced into a situation that is pretty every day for the average person. That's a privilege for me. But it obviously won't last as well. I'm aware that it's a prolonged moment in my life.

Skip to 19 minutes and 30 secondsBut what it offers me is a chance to be a bit more observant to these pulses of stress, and I think that - also to notice when they're getting out of hand, and notice what I can do to relieve them. And reading, sitting, noticing the sounds. Slowing down. Slowing down. Almost presenting myself with full stops. I'm obsessed with full stops. I think they're really important parts of writing and a really important part of poetry. They're under kind of explored in poetry often, I think. And it's a pause. It's a definitive pause is a full stop, and it's a chance to kind of sit for a minute, sit for a second, and just feel.

'Prayer' by Carol Ann Duffy

Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’, which we looked at together in the previous step, is a poem about stopping and listening to the noises around us, and in this video, we’ll be discussing another poem about the beauty and comfort offered by background sounds, with teacher Lucy Clarke.

The poem we look at together in this video is Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Prayer’. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reproduce the text of the poem here due to copyright restrictions. This BBC blog contains some background information about Carol Ann Duffy, as well as the text of the poem ‘Prayer’. You can listen to Duffy’s own reading here. You could also seek out Duffy’s poem for yourself; it features in the collection Mean Time, published by Anvil Press (1994).

With Lucy, we’ll think about the significance of the poem’s title, ‘Prayer’, and of the other religious language in the poem. We’ll also consider how the sounds described by Duffy – the ‘minims sung by a tree’, for instance, and the ‘distant Latin chanting of a train’ – become a source of consolation for the listeners in the poem, and how the poem itself, in turn, might offer its readers a moment of peace and reflection at times of anxiety of stress.

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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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