Rachel Kelly is the author of “Black Rainbow”, a powerful and best-selling memoir on how she survived profound depression.

The book describes how poetry gave Rachel hope in the darkest of times, an idea which led to us working with her on a new project called Postcards of Hope. Here Rachel follows up her blog on how she discovered poetry with her thoughts on why poetry can console.

For me, poetry helps by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take George Herbert, for example – the Holy Mr Herbert who in my view almost certainly suffered from depression, though it would have been undiagnosed in the seventeenth-century when he wrote. His poem ‘Love’ begins:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin’.

The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ described exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty of ‘dust and sin’. What a perfect capturing! But Herbert quickly gives us a second, more compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. Herbert knew exactly how to balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation, which leads me further to believe he was a fellow sufferer. I’ve shared this poem over the years with many others who are depressed and it seems to work its magic on them too.

A powerful poetic line can diminish your loneliness, one of the worst characteristics of clinical depression. This was especially striking when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which described a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. It was very reassuring to realise that through the ages others had suffered.

Then there is the way poetry encourages your mind to focus on the present moment. Depression cripples your sense of time: your involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past. But the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate in the present. In this way, reading poetry has a similar effect to practicing mindfulness, which its proponent Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” Indeed, some therapists are now routinely using poetry as part of their mindfulness courses.

Robert Frost, demonstrating my point perfectly, put it far better when he said that a poem can be a ‘momentary stay against confusion.’ That’s what happened all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and spoke the words aloud. Now I know those lines and many more besides: a golden store, learnt by heart, to be used as and when. Everyone collects their own store of gems: the wonder of poetry is that we all find different words comforting. One friend introduced me to ‘To a Friend in Search of Rural Seclusion’:from the late lamented Christopher Logue: it never fails to cheer her up.

When all else fails,

Try Wales’.

Since my memoir came out in April, more and more friends and colleagues have shared healing words that have helped them. This has led to the Postcards of Hope campaign, which I am proud to have launched with one of the charities I support, United Response. We invited others to suggest the healing lines, be it from a poem or a saying or mantra that they turn to for hope and encouragement when finding life hard, and to incorporate them on a postcard with an image if so desired.

The results can be found on the Postcards of Hope website and are testament to the consoling power of words: I defy anyone not to be uplifted by what they will discover and to in turn to be inspired to create their own postcard.

By Rachel Kelly