“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.”Tom Schulman, “Dead Poets Society”, 1989
Like many people, I began writing poetry in my youth to deal with painful feelings I had no other way to manage. Through sharing my poetry, and reading what others have written, I found that I was not alone in my feelings. Throughout my life, poetry has been my refuge, my solace, my salvation, my inspiration.
In college, I took an introductory poetry class. Regularly, we recited poetry to each other in the courtyard. Standing closely, face-to-face, looking into the windows of the soul. Reciting poems to people we knew only superficially had a profound effect on all of us. If you haven’t experienced this, it may be difficult to imagine the bonds that developed. Who could imagine that you could learn everything you need to know about a person based on their choices of poems and on the beauty, elegance and, often, passion with which they were recited? The intimacy of attentively looking into another person’s eyes as they tell you the joys, pains, and meditations that we all relate to was a little uncomfortable at first but it became one of those indelible experiences that alter you irrevocably at the deepest, most fundamental level. You can take the measure of a human by their poetry, what they read and what they write. It informs about their morality, their truth, their vision, and their fortitude to be true to their artistic vision of truth and beauty.
Poetry can be many things to many people. The following passage from “Poem in October” resonates with me and speaks to my deep connection with nature, tending and feeding it. What does it speak to you?
These were the woods the river and sea Where a boy In the listening Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide. And the mystery Sang alive Still in the water and singingbirds (Dylan Thomas, 1934)
When my father was dying, too young, quite before he’d had a chance to live his own life rather than always sacrificing for his family, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” helped me express my unspeakable pain. How does it make you feel?
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas, 1951).
After a tumultuous relationship ended, I found myself again with the help of Derek Walcott’s Love after Love (1986). Can you relate?
Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life
“Poetry is the literary vehicle which is not only an aid to living but a means of living. For example, an encyclopedia can offer information on elephants. You can discover where they live, what they eat and how they breed. This information is for practical purposes only. You can grasp the ivory of the elephant, but not its soul. The encyclopedia will not touch on its majesty, wild grandeur, strength or power. The poem can turn the elephant from a museum specimen into the highest concrete visual image that comes alive in the mind of the reader. For the living elephant, we must turn to poetry.” IB Iskov, “Why Poetry is So Important”
From a young age, poetry has been a significant part of my life. From helping me deal with overwhelming emotions, singing my joy to the world, expressing the deep sorrow and anger at my father’s passing, to helping me learn to love myself again, poems have been a recognition and expression of my humanity. It connects us all to each other and anchors us to life. If you don’t already have a relationship with poetry, I hope this inspires you to develop one.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things. (Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”, 1993)