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Pause with a Poem: A Break for Well-being

July 11, 2022

On May 11, 2022, Penn State kicked off a university-wide health and well-being program headed by benefits strategist, Rita Foley, with a mission to cultivate “a thriving workforce that is engaged in health and well-being and is a role model for the communities in which we live and work.”

One of the program’s initial steps – taken up by well-being ambassadors across university locations, colleges, and departments – was to invite colleagues to the wellness webinar “Depression, Anxiety, Burnout: Moving Toward Hope and Health,” presented by Health Advocate Employee Assistance Program manager, Karen Rech, on May 20.

One definition of burnout Rech provided was: “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress [that occurs] when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.”

To prevent burnout, Rech presented tips that included (among others):

  • Consider alternative mindsets.
  • Relax your body.
  • Calm your mind.
  • Take 10-15 minutes to reflect.

Researchers and sisters, Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, write in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (Ballantine Books, 2019) that “the ultimate moral of the story” is:

Wellness is not a state of being but a state of action.

— Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

Amid churning out work at your computer, pausing with a poem can satisfy all four actions above to stave off burnout, and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book (PACFTB) at Penn State University Libraries provides a ready resource with digital content from its poetry initiatives.

The PACFTB, an affiliate of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress and sponsored by Penn State University Libraries, supports its mission to encourage Pennsylvanians to study, honor, celebrate, and promote books, reading, libraries, and literacy with multiple initiatives, including the Public Poetry Project, a project that features work by Pennsylvania poets on print/digital posters to be distributed freely, and Poems from Life with Juniper Village, a collaboration with Juniper Village Senior Living at Brookline that celebrates its residents with original, individualized poems generated and presented by local poets.

A poem intentionally leads readers into an alternative mindset, a state Rech recommends pursuing as a first step to avoiding burnout.

“Somewhere, a child pretends to sleep—,” begins “Vow” by Erin Murphy, selected for the Public Poetry Project in 2020. What follows is a cadence of “fluttering” imagery with potential to both relax the body and calm the mind, checking off the next two tips for deflecting burnout.

“Poetry can provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma and grief,” science writer Richard J. Sima, PhD, states in his overview of recent studies, “More Than Words: Why Poetry is Good for Our Health,” for The International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University. “Its powerful combination of words, metaphor and meter help us better express ourselves and make sense of the world and our place in it.”

“Vow,” designed in a poster for the 2020 Public Poetry Project, is from Distant Glitter by Erin Murphy. Copyright © 2013 by Erin Murphy.

If several readthroughs of the poem only occupy part of the forth recommendation of 10-15 minutes of reflection, a video of Murphy reading “Vow” is available on the PACFTB’s YouTube channel, which houses a variety of craft talks and presentations that document awards and programs.

The River Bathers” by Elaine Terranova, from the 2003 Public Poetry Project, is another piece that pauses the busy mind and “[takes] in breath enough / to get me through” with kinetic language that sooths and transports readers into a current of mythology and the resiliency of nature.

Carolyne Meehan’s “Wedding Photo” reads, “…her bobby pin … how she must have / rolled and then slipped / pin after pin, / row upon row,” and likewise carries readers with sensory-rich momentum through a scene dedicated to and informed by her shared conversation with Juniper resident Harriet O’Brien as part of the 2020 Poems from Life program. A video of Meehan reading “Wedding Photo” is also available.

In Psychology Today, Deborah Serani, PsyD, cites the positive outcomes of reading poetry and other forms of literature in her article “Bibliotherapy for Depression,” and these include, but are not limited to: “reduction of negative emotions, deepening insight, increased empathy and compassion, [and] greater social connection.

Buzzing with the flow of community and “the rhythmic sound / of straight razor on leather strop…,” Sarah Russell’s “Fred Harris, American Small Town Barber,” reflects on the life of a Poems from Life 2017 Juniper resident and provides alternative perspectives on the values of staying rooted verses traveling the map.

The added hint of a warm audience captured in the video of Russell reading her poem encourages sharing in community and conjures the power of “collective care,” a term discussed in a presentation and conversation with Dr. Abigail (Abby) Phillips on May 16 during this year’s Staff Diversity Week at Penn State University Libraries, organized by Maggie Mahoney, James McCready, Alex Harrington, and Jackie Dillon-Fast.

Poet Sarah Russell reads “Fred Harris, American Small Town Barber” for Harris during the 2017 Poems from Life Reading & Celebration at Juniper Village Brookline on April 11.

Collective care was discussed as “part of self-care with a connection to community” and reminds us to reach out to neighbors, loved ones, and resources in those times when we need more than a poem.

For more information about PACFTB poetry initiatives and other literary programming, awards, and resources, please visit the PACFTB website.

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