Vol. 113 (2022) 

Five Questions for Pioneering Psychiatrist
Norman Rosenthal, MD



Norman E. Rosenthal is the New York Times bestselling author of Transcendence: Healing and Transformation through Transcendental Meditation. A world-renowned psychiatrist, motivational speaker and scientific researcher, he is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and is listed as one of the Best Doctors in America by U.S. News & World Report. Dr. Rosenthal has practiced psychiatry for over three decades and is also a personal and professional coach, working with people from all walks of life, including CEOs, top athletes and performing artists.


Born and raised in South Africa, he did his medical training at the University of Witwatersrand, and his psychiatric residency at Columbia in NYC before going to do research at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. His first major scientific breakthrough was to describe and name Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and to develop light therapy as a treatment for this psychiatric condition. SAD – and its milder variant, the Winter Blues – are now known to affect millions of people worldwide, many of whom have benefited from the light therapy that Dr. Rosenthal pioneered.


Dr. Rosenthal is a highly cited researcher who has written over 200 scholarly articles and authored or co-authored eight popular books. He has been featured on such national programs as Good Morning AmericaThe Today Show and NPR.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was privileged to visit with Dr. Rosenthal in New York City for a second time, specifically for these Five Questions about his latest book, Poetry RX, that he believes can heal and bring joy to people's lives.



STAY THIRSTY: You write at the end of your book, Poetry RX, that, "I believe that these poems have the power to heal, transform, and enliven." To that end, you organized your book in five parts. How did you decide on the principles in Part One – Loving and Losing, and how did you choose the poems used?


DR. NORMAN ROSENTHAL: Part One begins with Tennyson's famous quote: "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Here Tennyson links together the concepts of loving and losing. To love is to risk losing. Most people who love, experience the sorrow and grief of loss at one point or another. One of the great functions of poetry is as an instrument that plumbs the depths of the human heart and provides a balm that can soothe it in the pain of grief. This dual capacity is present in one way or another in all the poems in this section. 

In the first poem, "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, the poet seeks to provide a lesson on losing. She assures us that the art of losing is not hard to master. Yet, at the end of the poem, we realize that it is written not just to the reader, but to the poet's lost love, and that the process of losing is not as easy as the poet makes it out to be. So, is the poet deceiving herself or just putting on a brave face, or maybe both? As in much of poetry, the poet leaves it for readers to make of the poem what they will. But despite these ambiguities – or perhaps because of them – the poet leaves the reader with the comforting sense that one can get over the loss of a loved one, even though it is difficult. 


A few of the poems in this section are frank declarations of love, notably Browning's "How Do I Love Thee" and Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" Yet even in these poems, loss is never very far away. Barrett Browning, for example, refers to her lost saints and her childhood griefs, which her adult love has soothed and remedied. Likewise, in my discussion of three Shakespeare sonnets, I explain how these declarations of love fit into a narrative that ends in the heartbreaking silence that sometimes comes when a relationship is over.


In other poems in this section, sonneteer Edna St. Vincent Millay pleads with the reader to:


     Pity me that the heart is slow to learn

     What the swift mind beholds at every turn.


In two very different sonnets, Millay further chronicles the pains and consequences of lost love.


Nobel prize-winning poet Derek Walcott instructs the reader how to recover from a breakup. He advises us to be kind to ourselves and reclaim the identity that we have ignored and neglected while in love.


W.H. Auden displays his poetic virtuosity in poems that illustrate love and loss in different contexts. In the first, "Lullaby," he describes the feelings of loving and losing inherent in a night of passion. In the second, he depicts the devastating consequences of losing a profound love that encompasses your whole life. 


In a poignant poem, Jack Gilbert recollects the Mediterranean summer during which he recognizes that his wife is falling out of love with him: 


Like being there by that summer ocean

On the other side of the island while

Love was fading out of her, the stars 

Burning so extravagantly those nights that

Anyone could tell you they would never last.


Yet, he hesitates to call the marriage a failure. It's just the end of an exhilarating flight, he insists. The poem captures the changing qualities of love and the poet's amazing capacity to hang in there even when he sees it is fading away. 


In "Remember," the far-sighted Christina Rossetti asks her beloved to retain the memory of their love even after she dies, but not to the extent that it prevents her loved one from carrying on. 


The first section of the book is one of my favorites and I was honored recently when the Cornell Psychiatry Department invited me to talk to them about the use of poetry for helping people manage grief. The many and varied questions that followed my presentation confirmed for me the interest on the part of therapists in the possible value of poetry for helping people through hard times. 



STAY THIRSTY: Your Part Two – That Inward Eye focuses on nature and mind/body transcendence. What was your overarching purpose in creating this section and which poem meant the most to you?


DR. NORMAN ROSENTHAL: In Part Two – That Inward Eye I've chosen ten poems that highlight different aspects of nature. Through each poem the poet uses the gift of the "inward eye" to capture some remarkable aspect of nature and help the readers experience a scene through their own inward eyes. In the process, profound realizations often emerge. 


Norman E. Rosenthal, MD

In his famous poem "Daffodils," William Wordsworth presents a gorgeous natural spectacle – a belt of yellow daffodils and, at the same time, describes the transcendent state of mind that he experiences. In so doing, Wordsworth enables the reader to share in that experience with a combination of imagery and sound that evoke in the reader "the bliss of solitude." Wordsworth continues his exploration of transcendence in his famous "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." In "Miracle on St. David's Day," Welsh poet Gillian Clarke pays homage to Wordsworth's poem and helps the reader experience daffodils in unexpected ways. 


Emily Dickinson draws attention to the psychological effects of light in her famous "There's a Certain Slant of Light." This poem gave me inspiration in my research in the early days of my description of seasonal affective disorder. 


This section includes two poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In "Pied Beauty," the poet praises diversity in nature, while in "Inversnaid," he pleads for the protection of the natural environment. How prescient it was of him to flag two such critical areas of life, more important now even than when he first described them. 


In two extremely popular poems by Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken," I offer psychologically novel interpretations of these classic works and show how the poems can help us in our regular lives.  


Finally, in John Masefield's "Sea Fever" and Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush," I point out the power of poetry to elucidate two other themes: the force of longing (in this case for the sea); and the capacity of a solitary bird to elicit feelings of hope in the breast of a despairing poet. 



STAY THIRSTY: In Part Three – The Human Experience you bring out the importance of emotions, faith and discovery. You have poems by Emily Dickinson, John Milton, William Blake and Jalaluddin Rumi, to name a few. Of all the poets in this section, which one best communicates the depth of emotions that you equate with "the human experience?"


DR. NORMAN ROSENTHAL: Part Three – The Human Experience encompasses many important aspects of experience.


We are encouraged by Rumi, for example, to welcome our emotions in "The Guest House." Rumi also urges us to prioritize connections with others over being right in "Out Beyond Ideas." 


In a message especially relevant to those immigrants among us, poet Antonio Machado reminds us that there is often no turning back. Other experiences that are highlighted in this section include the importance of hope, the power of faith and the thrill of discovery. In "The Sentence," Russian poet Anna Akhmatova dramatizes a painful and prominent feature of trauma – dissociation. We see this in people with PTSD and recognize it as a response that strips life of its sense of joy and meaning. Finally, in "A Poison Tree," William Blake constructs an image that fascinates us and gives us a lesson in the dangers of anger.



STAY THIRSTY: Part Four – A Design for Living and the Search for Meaning brings William Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling and Langston Hughes, among others, to the party. In search for meaning in your own life, which poem has been the most helpful to you?


DR. NORMAN ROSENTHAL: One curious therapeutic value of poetry is that it helps us design our lives and survive and even thrive under various conditions. For the fourth section, I chose seven poems that feature such a variety. 


I start the section with the famous lines from Hamlet in which Palonius advises his son Laertes on how to lead a successful life. Shakespeare leaves the father's most important words for last:


This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.


Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, "If," borrows from both Western and Eastern traditions to depict how to succeed at a high level and balance the countervailing winds that sweep us one way or another, as shown in the following lines: 


If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same


"Invictus" by William Ernest Henley teaches us how to hang in and survive even under the harshest of circumstances. This famous poem inspired Nelson Mandela to persist and endure during his 18 years of imprisonment in a South African island fortress. 


A very different type of survival is depicted in Theodore Roethke's, "The Waking," which describes how for some people even getting up in the morning and getting through the day is a great challenge. Not coincidentally, Roethke himself suffered from manic depression and wrote presumably from his own deep challenges. 


Perhaps surprisingly, I include two poems by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who lived and wrote for much of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. "Waiting for the Barbarians" describes an absurd theatrical scene in which the citizens of a town wait expectantly for barbarians who never arrive. The poem has value in highlighting the importance of living proactively rather than in response to external fears that may never materialize. In the second poem, "Ithaka," the poet uses The Odyssey to teach how best to set about on a long journey and forge a life that is both rewarding and successful. 


The final short poem in this section, "Dreams" by Langston Hughes, advocates the importance of holding fast to dreams by emphasizing the sad consequences of dreams that are allowed to disappear and die.



STAY THIRSTY: Your final section, Part Five – Into the Night speaks to the transitory nature of life and the assurance that death will follow. For this section, you call on such poets as Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats and Gwendolyn Brooks. As a psychiatrist, how do you explain how life, death and going "into the night" changed during the COVID pandemic?


DR. NORMAN ROSENTHAL: In the final section of the book, I draw on diverse poets to help us consider different aspects of aging and dying. In William Yates' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," the eponymous airman balances the thrill of flying against its extreme dangers and shockingly comes out in favor of the latter. In contrast, W.H. Auden, in "Musée Des Beaux Arts," uses his reaction to a work of art to warn about the unexpected and potentially fatal dangers that lurk behind every corner. It is a cautionary poem that I used on one occasion to dramatize such dangers for my son. In "We Real Cool," Gwendolyn Brooks reflects on young men who skip school to hang out in a pool hall, thereby putting themselves at risk. She charts a rapid progression from such misguided behavior to the early death that afflicts so many of our young people nowadays. In "Not Waving but Drowning," Stevie Smith raises the issue of social alienation in a different context. In this poem, Smith compares drowning at sea with being too isolated during your life and feeling as though you are dying even during your life.


The process of aging is beautifully communicated in Wendell Berry's, "I know I Am Getting Old." This section contains two of the most beautiful poems on the subject of dying: "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" by Dylan Thomas; and, "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" by Emily Dickinson. The last poem in the book is one that has offered so much comfort that it is the poem most frequently read at funerals. "Do not Stand at my Grave and Weep" was written by Mary Elizabeth Frye to comfort a refugee from Nazi Germany who could not be with her mother, who was dying back home, because as a Jew, she would be in mortal danger if she returned to Germany. Frye, a Baltimore housewife, scribbled this poem on a brown paper shopping bag and it has comforted and inspired countless people. As such it embodies the spirit of the book, which is that poetry can heal, inspire and bring joy to our lives. 




Norman E. Rosenthal, MD   

Stay Thirsty Magazine: One Hundred Words from Norman Rosenthal, MD 




All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.