The Curious Power of Poetry
I began writing as a young child when my kindergarten teacher suggested it as a response to my extreme distress about having misplaced my very first pair of rain boots in the classroom's coat closet. My mother agreed to be my amanuensis. Back home at the kitchen table, she transcribed the words I said, and then handed them over, written in big block letters on construction paper which I folded into "books" and illustrated. I saw immediately how the painful stresses of everyday life could be affected merely by the act of writing them down. By the age of 8, I was writing my own stories and poems -- rhymes and jingles, really -- for school, for family celebrations, and for holidays that I had a strong urge to ritualize. Mostly, however, I wrote privately for myself, struggling with first drafts, but entranced with the drawn out, time-stopping process of revision. I had a fat pad of lined, newsprint paper where I laboriously copied my final versions. I loved the feel of pencil lead scratching into soft paper, and the way the gray scrawl of letters spread creamily just barely beyond the borders of each word I wrote. Underneath my mattress, I had a small, black patent leather covered diary with a tiny silver key. Although I found it uninteresting to record my daily life in its pages, I used it as what I would later call a process journal, jotting down phrases I plucked from the stream of language running continuously through my head, and transcribing other people's beautiful lines and sentences from the books I read. In other words, poetry was my first friend, my best friend. I loved to read it, and was thrilled to discover I could also write it. The flow of attraction felt mutual. I told it my secrets, and it never betrayed me.
Like so many writers, I was an introverted child, and shy. Very shy. Now that I am the age I am, my impulse, looking back, is to say that the family situation I came out of was "good enough" (to use D.W. Winnicott's iconic phrase from psychoanalysis), but truly, it wasn't. We lived on the constant edge of poverty in an atmosphere of economic instability, hidden alcoholism, and emotional violence. In the uncertainty of that environment, poetry was the place I escaped to, the reliable "person" that always welcomed me home, and loved to see me. In my head, I could walk into it as easily as walking into a room and shutting the door. I loved it
by reading and writing. It loved me by opening its special language -- obtuse to most people -- to my delighted consciousness. Decades later, a thrill of nostalgic body knowledge would course through me when I read about Emily Dickinson's daily habit of retreating to her bedroom to write her poems in privacy. I identified completely with the paradoxical feeling of liberation that seclusion gave her:
Her love of being alone up in her room [wrote her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi] was associated with her feeling for a key, which signified freedom from interruption and the social prevention that beset her downstairs. She would stand looking down, one hand raised, thumb and forefinger closed on an imaginary key, and say, with a quick turn of her wrist, "It's just a turn -- and freedom, Matty!"
I wouldn't have been able to say so at the time, but that's what poetry was to me when it first entered my life when I was just a child: not only a room to walk into, but a brand new room the size of a universe: an internal chamber of vast dimensions where I was free in a way that was inaccessible to me in the ordinary day to day world of prosaic realities. The Brain -- is wider than the Sky
-- Dickinson wrote, conjuring the perfect metaphor for my feelings about poetry that I could not yet articulate. And: I dwell in Possibility
-- presaging my thoughts about life with poetry, and life without it. A fairer house than Prose
Remarkably, I still
feel this way about poetry...
So it was a shock at 31 years old -- only a month after my first book of poetry had been published -- to discover that my oldest and best friend had lost its power over me, and that seemingly no matter what I did -- I could not make contact to regain the energy, the delight, the solace of our lifelong relationship.
The estrangement happened all at once, and traumatically. One moment, I was sitting at my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late night heat of a July evening, just beginning a year long post graduate fellowship that promised time and space to do nothing but read and write. The next moment, I was knocked down flat by the shocking notification that my five year old nephew had died earlier that evening -- drowned in his own backyard. Horrified, grieving, and disbelieving, I immediately returned home to be with my people, and to bury our darling.
Like everyone in the family, I was too traumatized to think clearly about anything. At some point, I recall tearing a page from my newly published book that contained a poem that had originated in an experience I had had with my nephew when he was still an infant. I folded it into quarters, and tucked it into the pocket of the jacket he wore in his coffin. But that was a different kind of use of poetry. It felt like putting part of me in there with him -- not poetry, itself, but an artifact that represented the aunt who was devastated by his death, and who, in certain ways, wanted to go into the grave with him. Because I could not, I sent the piece of paper with my poem in my stead.
For weeks afterward, my energies were completely used up by making the motions of daily life that moved me from one moment to the next. If I thought about poetry at all, I don't remember.
Like so many poets of my baby boomer generation, my ideas about poetry -- where it comes from, and the process of writing it -- were strongly influenced by my love of the British Romantic poets. I had consumed them as an undergraduate, and throughout my twenties. And although my own poetic predilections led me to write narrative poems, I love the Romantics' exquisite lyricism, and their parsed-out ideas about process: the notion of the Sublimity of the Imagination. I felt a kinship with the notion that poetry could not be forced, the conviction that it comes from a spontaneous up-surging of involuntary emotion. Recollected in tranquility, it finds its form by expressing itself linguistically in verse lines on a page. Like the Romantics, I thought that the gift of poetry was a mark of its essentially sacramental nature. To love poetry was an outward sign, announcing to the world that one was endowed with the divine gift of creative imagination -- that one was touched by the gods. I thought I knew exactly
what Keats meant when he wrote in 1818, "If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all." From its first appearance in my life at five years old, poetry had always been like that to me: as natural as breathing. Now, however, in the wake of grief, it had withdrawn from me entirely. I felt absolutely nothing, reading it. And I felt worse than nothing -- like ashes -- trying to write it.
Over the course of my life, I have eventually concluded that belief in anything is never constant and ongoing. Perhaps the price of belief is the necessity of keeping faith in moments of doubt. From the profound to the mundane, it seems to me that this is likely to be true. Like the desert places of a long marriage, like the plateau several weeks into a weight loss program when the scale stalls at a depressing number, irrational faith in the eventual goal is the only thing that can possibly gain the outcome one desired at the start of the journey. Faith of any kind just might be the ongoing performance of the rituals and practices that keep the shine on belief until it is somehow reenergized, filled with creative energy again, and inflates inside us once more, feeling as organic and natural as the leaves sprouting on a tree...
Eventually, when I had to get back to the business of life, I did what I had always done to sort myself, and to understand the world and my experience in it: I went to the page. Like Emily Dickinson, I retreated to my private chamber. I walked through the door, and turned the key in the lock of my familiar, beloved room of poetry. But to my shock, when I turned around, my beloved was not there with me.
For a very long time (more than two years, as it turned out), I sat in the room by myself, waiting. Many people, I suppose, would call this writers block. Donald Justice seemed to be suggesting something like that in "The Telephone Number of the Muse," wherein he imagines being deserted by a woman who is done with him (though he still loves her). After an unsuccessful coupling, she announces dispassionately, devastatingly, "I loved you once." And
"Sorry, I just have no desire, it seems.
Sighing. "For you, I mean."
To some extent, it felt like that. But poetry had always been more than a lover to me. It had been my best friend, my life saver, my bolt hole, my respite. Now that it was absent, I saw that it was even more than those things. It was my air tank: my oxygen: my very means of survival. Without it in my life, I was not just bereft, I was unbalanced. I could not understand what had happened to me, what was happening to me, or accept with any equanimity what might happen in the future. Without my lifelong companion, I had lost my means of understanding life and processing my experience. I felt like a dead woman walking.
Because I could not figure out anything else to do, I just kept returning to my desk, and to the rituals and practices of reading and writing that had structured my life and soothed my psyche and delighted my soul for as long as I could remember. Practice and repetition, practice and repetition,
I muttered to myself in my head as if I was an athlete in training. If nothing else, it gave me something to do. It structured the days that had lost their shape, and acted as a guard rail against the mental and spiritual abyss that stretched before me. To some small extent, it temporarily derailed the obsessive grieving that sometimes kept me in bed for days. Just going through the traces, it seemed, prevented me from tipping over the edge. I can't recall now if I had faith that poetry would come back to me, or not. But I was certain that if I did not keep the lights on, inviting it home, poetry would never come back.
That was the positive spin, I guess. The negative interpretation was that life without poetry was not worth living.
A few years later, teaching her in an American Literature survey, I became a serious reader of Emily Dickinson and discovered her numerous poems about mental dissolution. They zoomed me back in time to those years in Massachusetts when poetry had abandoned me, threatening my state of mind:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And then a Plank in Reason broke
And I dropped down, and down -.
And hit a World, at every plunge,.
And Finished knowing - then (#280)
I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before, ,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor. (#937)
Because Dickinson was a genius, she wrote these poems as she was living through her own years of crisis -- something I could not do. Nevertheless, I kept trying. I continued to read poetry, and repeatedly struggled to write it: dreadful, painful, embarrassing failures. Rilke -- the poet who spoke most compellingly to me of spiritual crisis -- turned his face away, and would not look at me or speak. Time and again, I threw my hardback copy of the magnificent, heart rending English translations that Stephen Mitchell gave to the world in the early 1980s across the floor of my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A year later, I was still throwing it in frustration across my office in Amherst...
For two years, I suffered. And although I was traveling around the country giving readings and workshops, and teaching talented young poets in an MFA program, I felt, most of the time, like a dry well. My life was populated with orderly rows of alphabetized books of poems -- something I had always loved. Now, however, those volumes became a taunting mean girl who flaunted herself from the many bookshelves in my life. She delighted in showing off her dalliances with so many other poets, and reminding me she no longer admitted me to her inner chamber. Justice's words often rattled in my head: "Sorry, I just have no desire, it seems./Sighing. "For you, I mean."
Nevertheless, I persisted...
Over the two years that poetry shut me out in the cold, I kept coming back to my practices and rituals. I don't know why I persisted, or why I continued to make regular time for writing -- or trying to write. I sat at the desk and did what I could -- as discouraging and embarrassing as it was, as dissimilar as it felt to what I had felt before when I sat at the desk. Because it seemed disrespectful to the memory of my nephew (the subject of much of what I was trying to write), I did not throw every
thing I wrote away. I expanded my definition of what I meant by "writing," roping in journal writing with its day to day recordings, as well as responses to what I was reading, hand written close readings and scansions of poems I loved, and endless ruminating on where poetry was hiding, and how I could find the door to enter it again. I gave myself exercises, assignments, prompts. I tried to stop judging, comparing, and panicking, and just be
. Once I managed to get to this point, I recalled an interview I had read with William Stafford -- a poet I loved for his simple faith in poetry and for the startling translucence he often achieved in his work. In it, he had said that he did not believe in writer's blocks. The interviewer with whom he was speaking seemed astonished and disbelieving. "You may not suffer from them," he said. "But surely other people do. Doesn't that person have to believe in them?" Stafford's answer (which I didn't understand fully at the time) encouraged me to go on as I had been.
I believe that the so-called writer's block is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance. ... The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now. ... It really doesn't make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you've done it. You should simply go ahead and do it. ... The correct attitude to take about anything you write is "Welcome! Welcome!" Once you get yourself into the position of feeling that something that occurs to you is unworthy, well, that's tough because that happens to be what has occurred to you. (Writing the Australian Crawl, 216-217)
In the way that these things sometimes happen, I found my way back partly by accident and partly by effort. A colleague at the university where I was teaching asked me if I would give a guest lecture to her Honors English class on metaphor. I was happy to do so, but I wanted to talk about a particular kind of metaphor: archetypes. During my MFA studies at Columbia University, I had studied with Stanley Kunitz who had lectured both semesters I studied with him about Jung, poetry, and the power of archetypes. I reviewed my notes from those workshop talks, and prepared my own comments. As part of my preparation, I dipped into Edith Hamilton's Mythology
while riding a bus northward through snowy Vermont to give a reading at Dartmouth College. The bus itself felt womblike, a sleek, nearly silent enclosure gliding almost soundlessly over the snowplowed highways, heavily fringed with white laden evergreens. The simultaneous feeling of aloneness and of comforting containment and companionship -- how I had always experienced the powerful pull of poetry must have nudged something inside me. Flicking through the pages of Hamilton, I came across the story of Niobe -- unfamiliar to me. Niobe was the mortal daughter of a king and the mother of fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters. She was a very proud woman. She was too
proud as it turned out. In her delight in her progeny, she slipped from maternal delight to mortal hubris, and began boasting about the superiority of her offspring as compared to those spawned by the goddess Leto. Predictably, Leto grew enraged, and took the lives of all fourteen of Niobe's children. In the myth, Niobe is so profoundly traumatized that she is unable to recover. Almost catatonic from in her bereavement, she is transformed into a boulder, and deposited in the midst of a wilderness. From her stony center, a stream leaks, symbolizing her eternal mourning.
As a new mother myself, and still grieving the death of my nephew, Niobe's story zoomed into me, and plucked me from the two years long doldrums of life without poetry, and placed me right back at the hot center of its powerful pulsing. In my head, I began writing the poems that would become my second book. As writers sometimes testify, those poems mostly wrote themselves, and I often felt as if I was taking dictation.
The book appeared. Poetry was once again my best friend, my faithful companion. Nevertheless, I am a slow writer, and what followed were busy years of raising children and professional advancement, and the dulling slog of marital longevity. As if waking from a dream one day, I looked up and realized I had not paid enough attention to poetry for a very long time. Like a spouse one takes for granted in the hurly burly of every day, I had allowed poetry to be crowded out by diapers and car pool and homework and well child checks, by the urgent, un-ignorable demands of keeping one's children alive and healthy. Well
. They were alive. They were healthy. Me and my relationship with poetry? Not so much...
This time, it was easier to reconnect. I had less anxiety than I had had a decade earlier, and I had the history of the earlier experience of estrangement that persuaded that if I just kept the faith
, and showed up at my desk, and read, and wrote what I could, my beloved would return. As she did...
Another crisis -- just five years ago -- was still to come. This time, it threatened total destruction of me, my family, and our life together. My grown child, seeking relief from bipolar disorder, had sought relief that led to heroin addiction. Shattered and shaking apart, I somehow still sensed the supportive presence of poetry. Though I could not touch it, I knew it was there. This time, instead of Practice and repetition
, I repeated Emily Dickinson's #1142 over and over inside my head: The Props assist the House/Until the House is built...
Without poetry, there was no hope for me to weather this crisis. For three years this time, the crisis lingered. I kept my faith with poetry, though it did not favor me with its presence. Trying to write about the crisis of addiction frightened me so much I would sometimes break into tears at my desk. Sometimes I howled. Sometimes I rushed outside and ran and ran, trying to extricate the feelings from my body. And then a Plank in Reason broke -- / And I dropped down, and down
Still -- and only because I couldn't figure out anything else to do, and because it helped me not focus on the fear that filled me -- I persisted. During this period, I came, finally, to understand that this was the lesson of my earliest life: that poetry's curious power which seems magical to many, is more paradoxical than anything else. Its powerful potion can be conjured (if those are even appropriate words) by practical actions in the actual world. Find a quiet place. Apply ass to chair. Persist. Read poems and ruminate upon them. Then try to write some of your own. Or, as William Stafford said in his limpid way, "You should simply go ahead and do
I no longer worry that poetry will desert me, or that I will somehow drive it away. I am buoyed up by stories of poet friends who have already gone to glory (or wherever they have gone) Stanley Kunitz's friends by his bedside, reading his great love, Yeats, aloud to him as he was passing over. The final days of beloved poets like Philip Levine and Galway Kinnell who kept the faith all the way to the end. Michelle Boisseau who reached poetic greatness in her last book, living through -- writing her way through
-- the cancer that killed her.
I don't know how other people come to poetry, or why, or how those who manage to do so keep it close to them throughout their lives. I don't even know the answers to these questions about myself, though I've been ruminating on them in this little essay. It is all something of a marvel. When I think about my accidental introduction to poetry, I am cast into a religious frame of mind. Why don't you write about it?
my kindergarten teacher asked. And so I did, setting my lifelong course and sealing my fate. But why did she say that? And what if she hadn't? These are questions to which I will never have an answer, and strive instead for gratitude for the early blessing of that mercy.
Two or three years after I first discovered the power of poetry at five years old, I had another experience that built on the first. Although it took almost half a century to make its way to the page, it says something (I hope) about the rewards of keeping the faith with poetry, and of the necessity for staying focused on the inward journey that poetry insists on, even as it reaches out beyond ourselves to connect so profoundly with others. At five, I was accidentally introduced to poetry, and fell in love. At eight, in another felicitous and accidental encounter with a caregiving adult -- in this case the family doctor who made a house call when I was sick with scarlet fever -- I discovered the power was not out there
, but in here
, in me, and that as long as I keep the faith with poetry, it will keep its faith with me.
Burning in our twin scarlet fevers,
we were laid out, feet to feet,
on the worn, gold sofa, my brother and me.
A doctor stood above us, his forehead
pleated into folds of mottled flesh.
Our young mother stood in her winter coat
smoking the butt of a cigarette in the cold
dank air of our home. Behind her, unheated
rooms flared with unmade beds and stale twists
of soiled laundry. If perhaps she sought a brief
oblivion in nicotine, I should not blame her now.
For the furnace was shot, and no odors of dinner
cooking wafted from the kitchen, and our father
was not there. We saw him in our mind's eye
several miles away, leaning on the bar, seeking
his own relief in a cheap bottle of bitter beer.
To make us well, the doctor plunged his needles
in our naked rumps, and pulled the blankets tight
beneath our chins. And then--for reasons I cannot
conceive, and so I call it grace--removed from his car's
dark trunk, thick platters of old music encased
in paper sleeves. He carried them inside where we lay, burning.
On our ancient player: The Nutcracker Suite,
some strange and delicate food afloat in the air I swallowed
hungrily with my ears.
And when I turned
from the harsh click of the needle's arm resettling
itself in its metal saddle, the world was stained glass,
my body a delicate canvas of skin over bone.
Something had once been painted there beautifully
and with care. And if it had worn away over the years,
or grown encased in a kind of shell? I suddenly saw
I could get back my beauty. I could peck my way out
like any young god, or a duckling, the black swan
hatching in a nest of white, the dark hum
of music in a small, tight place that resists
giving way till the final moment. Then it shudders
apart in an orgy of exit, and the shell--the shell cracks open.
(from A Walk in Victoria's Secret (LSU: 2011)
Emily Dickinson poems quoted are from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
, Thomas Johnson, editor. (Little Brown, 1961).
Martha Dickinson Bianchi's quote is from her book, Face to Face with Emily Dickinson
(The Riverside Press, 1932).
William Stafford quotes are from: Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation,
by William Stafford (Michigan, 1978).
Donald Justice's poems, "The Telephone Number of the Muse," is from Departures
John Keats's letter to John Taylor is from February 27, 1818.
' forthcoming collection of poetry, In the Months of My Son's Recovery, will be published by LSU in early 2019. She is the Director of Creative Writing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.