The calming effect of reading poetry before sleep
February 22, 2023
by Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D.
In 2016 Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President, and the Republican Party gained control of the Senate. For more than four years a large chunk of the public continuously wondered what egregious and embarrassing thing Trump and his supporters would say or do next. This insecurity was highlighted when the capital was attacked by Trump supporters in what is now referred as the January 6th insurrection.
In the midst of it all was the global pandemic that led to countless deaths, diminished health outcomes, economic collapse of some businesses, and high levels of stress for numerous people.
These events took a toll on our collective mental health. In particular, on our ability to get a good night’s sleep.
There are lots of ways to calm down before going to sleep. Some people like to drink a hot cup of milk, others a cup of tea. Still some take a bath, eat an edible, or read fiction.
But since the pandemic I’ve been reading poetry to my wife at bedtime.
Yes, it sounds corny, but it’s made a world of difference in our ability to fall asleep, and our sleep patterns and thus our lives have improved.
I started by reading a handful of poems from well-known authors like EE Cummings and Pablo Neruda. After exhausting this limited supply I scoured the shelves in our house, found about a half dozen books of poems, and started to selectively read them to my wife at bedtime. To my chagrin, I found a lot of the poems a little boring and pedantic.
I also discovered that many of the poems are downright depressing, and frequently discuss dark subjects, like blood, death, and depressive states, themes that are not conducive to relaxation, ones that neither my wife nor I want to hear in the final minutes before we attempt to nod off to sleep.
In an effort to expand our options, we pursued the poetry section of the few remaining book stores in Washington DC and bought a handful of poetry books from them.
But my biggest success in finding appropriate poems have been via surfing the web. Pretty soon I landed upon www.poetryfoundation.com and each night skim their poem of the day. Once I find a poem that I like, I start digging into other poems by the author.
Poets that have eased their way into our bed time ritual, not to mention the excel file that I have constructed, include: W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Nathalie Handal, Nikki Giovanni, Joy Harjo, and Marjorie Saiser, to name a few. They lean towards pleasant visual images of nature, love, and acceptance; of a snowy days, walking in a forest, or along a beach.
During this process I’ve discovered numerous poets who I never heard about, whose body of work I never read, and probably would never had been motivated to explore, had I not chosen to read a new poem or set of poems each night.
The process has forced me to slow down when reading out loud, pronounce every word correctly, and pay greater attention to punctuation.
I’ve learned to appreciate the rhythm and cadence of the words assembled together.
And yes, it has allowed my wife and I to more easily fall asleep.
The Parnassus (1511) by Raphael — atop Mount Parnassus, 18 ancient and modern poets recite in the company of the nine Muses.