How listening to poetry soothes my insomnia.
Insomnia has its uses, and those of us acquainted with the night are not alone. A friend posts austere, beautiful photographs of the moon with the hashtag #insomniamoon. Looking out at the sky in the dark hours, I think of others beside other windows. We keep company with mugs of chamomile tea, alone together. The moon casts her cool, impartial radiance, light years distant, unconcerned by whatever in the present moment wakes earthlings up.
Or perhaps the moon is not oblivious. It’s just she’s seen it all before. Go back to bed, she says. Though you can’t see me, I’ll still be here in the morning.
Moonlight, herbal tea, a few pages of whatever book I’ve got going — sometimes it works, but not on moonless nights too cold to put bare feet on the floor and go to the kitchen. I have another spell for those times: listening to poetry.
I wish I could claim the ability to recite memorized pages of verse like my grandfather’s farming family, who entertained each other thusly every Saturday night. I can still summon up “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson and recall the shivering shame in front of my third-grade class upon forgetting the last verse.
Sometimes, fragments of poems saved in my commonplace book float across my mind’s eye, like this by Richard Shelton: “the world is ruined no doubt/but even its bones are beautiful.” I clipped his poem “Choose from Among Them” from the New Yorker 50 years ago.
Yes, listening to poetry is a fine consolation for sleeplessness — like becoming a fortunate child being read to past bedtime. My husband’s a good sport, but waking him at 3 a.m. to read aloud would not go well, although we both love poetry readings.
One unforgettable night in 2006, we heard Jack Gilbert read at the Library of Congress. Frail, struggling physically and cognitively at the podium, Gilbert’s precarity gripped us as he began “A Brief for the Defense.” He faltered; the rapt audience silently rooted for him. He continued, quavered this line:
“If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,/we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.”
He paused for breath; we heard the moan of an Amtrak locomotive pulling past from Union Station blocks away. The goosebumps moment was a fusion of poetry and life.
We were also there on a memorable night in 2017 for the reading by Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith to begin her term. Amanda Gorman, first National Youth Poet Laureate, opened the event — almost dancing an original poem.
No readings at the Library of Congress recently, and even before the pandemic there were fewer as arts funding has changed. I’ve missed them. Happily, I discovered the New Yorker’s Poetry Archive podcast. When insomnia strikes, I put on my headphones and listen.
Each episode, a poet published in the magazine chooses a poem by another archived poet to read and then reads one of her own and discusses both with the poetry editor (now Kevin Young, previously Paul Muldoon). The podcast loops infinitely through years of episodes. Good stuff read by good voices is habit-forming; with this archive under my pillow, I almost welcome insomnia and may even wake up to listen. From time to time, I try to abstain but soon roll off the wagon and back into verse.
The other night, Tom Sleigh read Seamus Heaney’s “In the Attic” and then his own poem “The Fox.” As Sleigh and Muldoon reminisced about Heaney, I barely resisted waking my husband so he could listen, too; his first gift to me was Heaney’s Field Work, hot off the press in 1979.
This was all more than 40 years ago. We lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Heaney was visiting at Harvard; his readings were open to the community. His warm voice added resonance to the poems of family and nature, past and present strife in Ireland. On March 17th, I walked home north along Massachusetts Avenue (the one in MA, not DC) and came upon Heaney, bulky, leonine, gazing into a liquor store. I stopped and thanked him for his work.
Smiling, he said, “I was just considering what I might buy for a wee dram in honor of St. Paddy’s Day.”
I last heard him read in 2013, not long before he died. I was grateful for the experience the way we treasure a final visit with a friend. His death struck like a personal loss.
So, consider this my toast as I lift a virtual wee dram: To the uses of insomnia! To the music of poetry read aloud!
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was published last May. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.