POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE

Poetry_Will_Save_Your_Life_Cover

“Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought.” ~ Jill Bialosky

I just finished reading a wonderful new book that I picked up solely because of its intriguing title: Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books 2017). The  Kirkus Review sums it up well: “An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.” 

This short memoir is centered on specific poems that have brought the author comfort, meaning, inspiration, or understanding during pivotal moments in her life. Bialosky organizes the book by themes such as Shame, Memory, Escape, Passion, First Love, and Mortality. A brief bio for each poet is included which deepens our awareness of the poem’s meaning. Each poignant chapter could stand alone. 

Throughout the book, Bialosky reflects on the profound lessons and meaning poetry can offer us. “Poems are composed of our own language disordered, reconfigured, reimagined, and compressed in ways that offer a heightened sense of reality and embrace a common humanity.”

Whether you are a poetry lover or haven’t read a poem since high school, there is something in this book for everyone. 

Ms. Bialosky, an award-winning poet, novelist, and book editor, never veers off into English professor mode when reflecting on the poems. Rather, she selects key phrases or themes that connect with her experience. Here she examines a stanza of E.E. Cummings poem, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.                

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
                 

Bialosky explains that the “use of the word voice as a modifier for eyes allows the reader to experience how much the speaker of this poem “sees” into his subject. Then she intuits the poet’s question:  How is it that one person can unlock something private within us? Or awaken things in us we fear?” 

Bialosky writes about the death of her first child shortly after birth. She shares the never-ending pain of her beloved young sister’s suicide.  In the chapter of grief, Bialosky comments on Auden’s poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts. 

“W.H. Auden documents the otherworldly state of grief and tragedy; how it strikes families while others are doing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Even dogs continue on their doggy life.” 

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can connect to this paradoxical state of being: How can everyone else just go about their business when my beloved is gone? 

Bialosky says, “I will spend years trying to capture the experience of suicide in a prose work…Poems remain a sustaining source of comfort.

Like Jill Bialowsky, words, too, have been an integral part of my healing after losing my father—words shared with a therapist, words of comfort from family and friends, words I have written, and words of those who have crawled through the tunnel of trauma and grief and come out the other side.

It has been exactly two years since my father’s tragic death. In some ways, this is unfathomable.  How could two years have passed?  This disbelief has me thinking more about the elusive nature of time. If time is constant, why do our brains perceive it so differently? Why does time slow down when we grieve and speed up when we are happy?  Why when we are waiting excitedly for a special event, do the days not move fast enough?          

passing-the-time

For centuries, poets have pondered time’s mystery. Consider Henry Van Dyke’s poem, Time Is.

Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is eternity.

Emily Dickinson expresses this idea of expectation and waiting in her poem, If You Were Coming In The Fall.  Although the agoraphobic poet spent most of her life inside her Amherst, MA home, Dickinson enjoyed her share of romantic interests. The following poem is thought to be attributed to a family friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, who died 2 years before Emily.

                          EmilyDickinsonSmall

If you were coming in the Fall,

I’d brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,

As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,

I’d wind the months in balls—

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,

I’d count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, till my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman’s Land,

If certain, when this life was out—

That yours and mine, should be

I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,

And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—

That will not state— its sting.

                                            ~

Jill Bialowsy concludes that “poetry gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”  

Do you have a favorite poem or one that holds special meaning?

14 responses

  1. Interesting review. Haven’t read any poetry in quite some while. I think I’m still digesting the stuff that was force fed in highschool. But your post intrigues me. I’ll have to check out this book. By the way, your lovely photograph could inspire some poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First of all I would like to offer my condolences on your father’s passing. May he rest in peace.
    Secondly, what a lovely review. It does sound like an interesting book.
    I myself prefer to create poetry, rather than consume it, as I believe in its healing properties. Not only is it a creative outlet to express yourself, but many times it offers us self-insight that we could not have obtained otherwise.

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    • I have not heard of that book. Thank you for mentioning it here. Maybe the two authors should promote their book in tandem! I just read Death Fugue–wow–such powerful imagery and heartache. “Black milk of morning we drink you at night.” I like Mary Howe’s,”What The Living Do”: M.S. Merwin’s “Youth”, Mary Oliver’s “The Journey”, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s What My Lips Have Kissed.

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  3. Favorite poems, oh man.
    Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong is an old favorite inspiration and just tonight I fell in love with Olivia Gatwood’s Ode to the Women of Long Island. I love the review and look forward to reading it!

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  4. Thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful post. Poetry has been on my periphery – I have quite a few books of poetry and find myself flicking through them when I am seeking a particular kind of expression, if that makes any sense. There is a succinctness and an intensity in some poetry which transcends prose. One of my favorite memories is my Dad reciting ‘The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes – it was one of several poems he could recite from memory. There is a comfort in poetry, and whilst I don’t have a favorite as such, it remains a source of pleasurable discovery.

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  5. I really like Wallace Steven’s poem ” Large Red Man Reading” – we just read it in my poetry class and I feel like it reminds the reader to appreciate life even with all its pain:
    Large Red Man Reading

    There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
    As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
    They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.
    There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
    Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
    They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
    That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
    And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
    And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly
    And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
    The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
    Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,
    Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
    Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
    And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.

    Also, this poem by Tyehimba Jess. It has such an amazing rhythm:

    Blind Boone’s Pianola Blues

    They said I wasn’t smooth enough
    to beat their sharp machine.
    That my style was obsolete,
    that old rags had lost their gleam
    and lunge. That all I had
    left was a sucker punch
    that couldn’t touch
    their invisible piano man
    with his wind up gut-
    less guts of paper rolls…

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    • Thanks, Talia! I also like Steven’s poem, and many of his others. Its message resonates with me today. I wasn’t familiar with Blind Boone’s Pianola Blues. (I included only the first stanza as it is quite long. My readers can look the rest up online.) I hope your studies are going well and that you are continuing to create and color with words.

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