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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 March, 2005, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Does poetry have the power to heal?
Waiting room
Absorbing the feel good factor
A scheme to promote the healing powers of poetry has found its way into thousands of GPs' surgeries. But can rhyming couplets really help the sick?

Michael Lee, the man behind Poems in the Waiting Room, believes so. In seven years his "retirement project" to promote poetry to the sick and ailing has become a "full-time hobby", with his quarterly poetry pamphlets reaching more than 3,000 GPs' waiting rooms.

Patients might be more used to dog-eared editions of Take a Break magazine and well-thumbed copies of the free local newspapers, but Mr Lee is a firm believer in poetry's inherent feel-good factor.

"Poetry is the most potent medium of the written word - you can't express yourself better. It talks to the emotions, the heart as well as the mind."

The idea that art can have a rejuvenating effect for those who are under the weather is nothing new. Hospital walls are sometimes adorned with paintings and frescos and doctors have even started prescribing drama therapy for patients.

The more involving the imagery of the poetry, the more it could act as a distraction.
Dr Elaine Duncan
Mr Lee, 72, a consultant economist by trade, came up with the idea for Poems in the Waiting Room nine years ago, having enjoyed poetry all his life. He drew up the guidelines with the help of a consultant psychiatrist.

Each edition runs to eight pages and includes a combination of traditional and new verse, passed by a psychologist. The themes of poems are consciously positive, says Mr Lee.

"They're poems of wellbeing. They tend to focus on themes about sewing, harvest, home, arrival. They have to be accessible, easy to read."

He has ploughed 30,000 of his own money into the project and although he now receives Arts Council to cover half his costs, he continues to pay the rest out of his own pocket. He prints 40,000 copies per edition, sending about 30 to each subscribing surgery. Patients are encouraged to take the booklets home.

Referring to recent feedback, Mr Lee said 83% of surgeries said it "enhanced patients' visits".

The belief in poetry's healing powers has many supporters in the US, where there is a National Association for Poetry Therapy. A UK specialist in therapeutic writing says its ability to distract patients is the key.

"Poetry is simply taking people's mind away from their concern over health issues," says Dr Elaine Duncan, a chartered psychologist at Caledonian University, Glasgow.

"Depending on the type of poetry, it may help to ward off distressing thoughts. The more involving the imagery of the poetry, the more it could act as a distraction."

The choice of poets favoured by Mr Lee - Spike Milligan, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Wordsworth and Ted Hughes reflected the idea that patients would use verse to escape from their worries, she says.

"People may not notice the time going by, or the worries they had when they were going into surgery."

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