Sometimes, when you’re stretched to the limit and you think you can’t go on, all it takes to bring you back to a state of equilibrium is a calming voice — and a little poetry.
Arizona State University English Professor Mark Lussier knows this well. For several years he has been researching the use of literature as medicine, and what his work, and the work of colleagues he has collaborated with along the way, has shown is that there is real evidence behind its efficacy.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic, Lussier and others are taking what they’ve learned about the healing power words can have for patients and turning it toward front-line health care workers. “Equipment for Living” is a series of videos in which ASU professors slowly and purposefully read aloud one of their favorite poems as the words scroll across a backdrop of soothing imagery — think ASMR, but elevated.
The project came into being after a conversation between Lussier and longtime collaborator Alison Essary, a faculty associate at ASU who serves as the Scrivner Family Director of HonorHealth’s research, quality improvement and patient safety program.
“She reached out to me and just sort of said, ‘Mark, I'm here at the hospital, and I'm in charge of people coming off of these long, challenging shifts. Is there anything we can do to reduce their stress?’” Lussier recalled. “And I told her, ‘I feel like we need to get the band back together and figure out something that we can do.’”
Based on previous research they had conducted, including that which resulted in a 2014 white paper titled “The Necessity of Narrative: Linking Literature and Health Care in Higher Education Curricula,” the pair knew bibliotherapy could be an effective therapeutic tool. And based on research conducted by another of Lussier’s frequent collaborators, Sir Jonathan Bate, an ASU Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities and founder of ReLit: The Bibliotherapy Foundation, they knew he’d be the perfect addition to round out their “band.”
The trio drew on current and past work and personal experiences to come up with the idea for “Equipment for Living.”
In her role at HonorHealth, Essary has been entrenched in the thick of the pandemic for the past year, watching firsthand as health care and other essential workers come off 18 hours shifts with lines marking their faces and noses red from both personal protective equipment and tears.
“It’s the clinicians, it’s the people in environmental services, it’s the people in food services. It’s literally everybody across the system who is bearing the burden,” she said. “I don’t think any of us thought that it would take us this long to wrap our heads and arms around the pandemic.”
Lussier remembers working long, overnight shifts as a supervisor at a hospital in Houston during his days as a pre-med student. The stress of it all is why he switched to studying the humanities.
“My job was to go into rooms and tell people that their loved ones had just died,” Lussier said. “The humanities are much better for that.”
His work since then has been inspired by the ideas of American literary theorist Kenneth Burke, who posited in his essay “Literature as Equipment for Living” that “art forms (could) be treated as equipment for living.”
“His idea was that there is a use value to literature,” Lussier explained. “We tend to think it's more like a pleasure principle. We read novels because they take us away and we read poetry because it can inspire us. And all of that is true, but Kenneth Burke thought that one of the things that is underappreciated about literature is that it also has a type of medical component in that it can be used to ease stress in situations of suffering.”
Video: Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" read by Sir Jonathan Bate. Courtesy of ASU's Department of English.
Bate thought so too, strongly enough that the bibliotherapy foundation he founded with his wife and research partner Paula Byrne was uniquely devoted to the idea that poetry is “a great tool in the kit of a mental health practitioner.”
Together, Bate and Byrne conducted an experiment with students from the University of Oxford, where Bate was a professor at the time. One group of students were given mindfulness and meditation exercises to deal with stress and anxiety. Another group were asked to read a poem in response to stress and anxiety. And a third group were given nothing. Throughout the duration of the experiment, the students filled out mental health questionnaires to assess their sense of well-being.
“The results were very interesting,” Bate said. “It was quite clear that poetry and mindfulness were effective, but the placebo group did not record any improvements in their sense of mental health or well-being.”
Another experiment they conducted involved using a pulse oximeter to measure the heart rate of high-level offenders in response to having poetry read aloud to them.
“We saw these hardened criminals, many serving life sentences in a harsh prison environment, and as they listened to poetry, we could see their pulse slow down,” Bate said.
He was the first to record an installment for “Equipment for Living,” for which he chose to read the William Butler Yeats’ poem “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” In the recording, the words of the poem scroll slowly over an image of a boat softly rocking on the water as they describe absconding to a lakeside cabin for a bit of R&R.
“A poem can be a place where we go to de-stress,” Bate said. “Carefully, slowly and preferably aloud, reading a poem can do the same kind of work for us mentally as mindfulness and meditation. It takes you out of yourself, the same way looking at a beautiful landscape painting can transport you to another place. The imagery of poetry can work on the human imagination to displace negative thoughts caused by life stressors and transport us to a better, calmer, happier place.”
After watching the video, Essary shared it with her colleagues. She looks forward to sharing more as they are recorded, which Lussier and other ASU professors, including Alberto Rios and Sally Ball as well as Lussier’s wife and “permanent research partner” Marcia, are hard at work on.
“We really just wanted to help in any way we could, and also say thank you,” Lussier said of his hopes for how health care workers will respond. “Whether you like poetry or not, thanks for everything you do.”
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