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The Power of Poetry

William Sieghart and Jeanette Winterson explored poetry’s ability to calm, console and connect us to the minds and feelings of others. Helena Bonham Carter, Sue Perkins, Jason Isaacs and Tom Burke brought the poems to life.

For 15 years, the power of the spoken word has been at the heart of Intelligence Squared’s mission. Argument and debate, we believe, can move, persuade and create real change. Now, in these anxious and divided times, we held a special event that celebrated the positive, transformative force of another kind of spoken word – poetry.

William Sieghart told the extraordinary story of his bestselling book, The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul. This is no conventional collection but one created from Sieghart’s own, personal experience of prescribing real poems to real people in need. Every poem is matched to a specific condition: fear of the unknown, unrequited love, stagnation, purposelessness, convalescence, oppression

Joining him in conversation were novelist and poetry devotee Jeanette Winterson. Together they explored poetry’s uncanny ability to calm, console and, above all, connect us to the minds and feelings of others. Finding the right poem at the right moment is not just a problem shared, Sieghart says, but a problem transformed. It is ‘to discover a powerful sense of complicity, and that precious realisation: I’m not the only one who feels like this.’ It is to forge a connection with ‘this stranger who understands – and what results is a sort of peace.’

Bringing the poems to dramatic life were a cast of star actors including Helena Bonham Carter, Sue Perkins, Jason Isaacs and Tom Burke.



Sarah Montague

BBC journalist and broadcaster

Presenter of the World At One on BBC Radio 4, and HARDtalk on BBC World television. In 2018, she stepped down as one of the main anchors on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme after eighteen years.

William Sieghart

Publisher and philanthropist

Publisher and philanthropist. He established the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 1992 and founded National Poetry Day in 1994. He is chairman of both the Somerset House Trust and Forward Thinking, a charity seeking peace in the Middle East and acceptance of British Muslims. For over 20 years he has been running the poetry pharmacy at literary festivals, where he prescribes poems to members of the public to help them address their problems. His anthology, The Poetry Pharmacy, was published in 2017 and The Poetry Pharmacy Returns: More Prescriptions for Courage, Healing and Hope will be published this September.

Jeanette Winterson

Award-winning author

Award-winning author whose first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, won the 1985 Whitbread Prize for a First Novel, and was adapted by Winterson for a television series in 1990, which in turn won the BAFTA Award for Best Drama. Winterson’s subsequent novels explore the boundaries of physicality and the imagination, gender polarities, and sexual identities. She also writes for many prominent publications including the Guardian, Times, Daily Mail, Observer, New York Times, and Harpers Bazaar, and has featured on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

Tom Burke

Film and television actor

Actor who is currently playing the lead role of Cormoran Strike in JK Rowling’s The Strike Series for the BBC. He has recently finished filming the lead role in Joanna Hogg’s next feature, The Souvenir, alongside Tilda Swinton, Ariane Labed and Robert Pattinson, and also played Dolokhov in the BBC mini-series War and Peace.

Helena Bonham Carter

One of Britain's most successful actors

One of Britain’s most successful actors, who has appeared in numerous low-budget independent films as well as Hollywood blockbusters. She first shot to fame when she played Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View, and was nominated for an Oscar and won the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech. Other notable film roles include Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables, and the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland.

Jason Isaacs

Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy nominated actor

Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy nominated actor whose 30 year career spans theatre, film and television. Possibly best known for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, and currently to be seen in the Netflix shows The OA and Star Trek: Discovery and Armando Iannucci’s satirical film The Death of Stalin.

Sue Perkins

Presenter, writer and comedian

Presenter, writer and comedian. Originally coming to prominence through her comedy partnership with Mel Giedroyc in ‘Mel and Sue’, she is now best known for her role co-hosting seven series of the BAFTA award-winning show ‘The Great British Bake Off’. She has also hosted Sky One’s family game show ‘The Big Spell’ and Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones fan-show ‘Thronecast’, and co-presented the BBC’s charity talent show ‘Let’s Sing and Dance for Comic Relief’.