Sleeper Hit

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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Can poetry cure insomnia? I’m having a terrible time sleeping lately.

— Alex M.

Hmm, I’m not sure. Whenever I can’t sleep and I think about poetry, I get too excited. I either have to get up and write for hours or sketch several poetry-inspired tattoos that later my husband will beg me not to affix to my bicep. Reading is always an excellent way to cope with insomnia, and I think that the best poems to read when you can’t sleep are epics. If you’ve already read the classics, let me direct you to a couple of contemporary poems that may do the trick:  Derek Walcott’s Omeros — which is truly an epic at more than 300 pages across seven books — revisits Greek myth and branches out to explore the slave trade and Caribbean history. If you want try a smaller bite first, I recommend Peter Jay Shippy’s How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic, which is only about 75 pages and is so wild that I can’t precisely say what it’s about (it opens with the narrator masturbating to his favorite comic book when a cow crashes through the roof). I love it.

I don’t believe there’s anything on this Earth more powerful than poetry, so it probably can cure insomnia simply by existing. Here’s a somewhat drastic measure that I’d take: Find an old pillowcase on which to transcribe lines from your favorite poems. Choose lines that will lull you into sleep or inspire you to dream. Because I don’t know you nor your taste, I’ll only list three excerpts here:

I sit with my hands lapped

and my eyes shut

and imagine a white sun melting

a white fog.”

— Shippy, “5” How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic

Night was fanning its coalpot

from one catching star. The No Pain lit its doors.

— Walcott, “Chapter LXIV,” Oneros

But every night I go abroad

Afar into the land of Nod.

— Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Land of Nod”

Accompany these lines with whatever doodles you’d like, and I recommend writing them in a soothing color such as blue, rather than orange or red. Be aware that no matter what kind of ink you use, washable or permanent, the ink will invariably rub off and leave a poem print on your cheek. You probably won’t be able to get it off before work the next morning, so make sure you have an interesting story to tell your coworkers. You might even want to transcribe a line backward so others can read it easily. Be careful with Shippy’s How to, though. In your sleep-deprived delirium, you might end up with this line on your cheek: “My genitals are small, relative to overall body size.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures, Alex!  I love sleep, and empathize with your lack, so I hope this works for you. • 23 April 2010

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.

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