I believe the practice of writing poetry can save a life. I believe this because it saved mine.
Where do we go when someone has bruised our heart? When we’ve attempted a life-change and failed? When there is absolutely nothing wrong with the outside of our life, but the inside is roiling like an angry sea? We could pull the covers over our heads, or have a second latte, or a third glass of Gentleman Jack. Or, we could write poetry.
If you’re a future poet, i.e., you haven’t tried this before, first, choose a book of poetry. Read it with the intent of getting inside the head of your poet. You may not like her; you may not understand her, but listen as best you can. Do you hear the music of her voice, its rhythm, or the riffs between her lines?
When you’ve read, at the very least, ten books with this same intention to detail, then you can begin. Grab a few books of poetry and a pencil. Mark the stanzas; count the iambs; note the line breaks; feel the words on your tongue, the roof of your mouth. Decide how a particular poem is put together. Let it put you back together.
Pablo Neruda was the quintessential poet, drinking all of life in, writing all of life down. When he said he loved the sea, you believed him. When he said, “I have gone marking the atlas of your body with crosses of fire,” you believed him capable of great love.
Writing poetry is a practice that teaches. First it teaches us humility, that growth takes time. Then it rewards us with small successes, an internal rhyme we didn’t even try for, or that perfect word that took two days, our head bent over a thesaurus, to discover. If we are especially fortunate, it brings us friends. The kind that call when we’ve gone missing, who rejoice when we finally get a recalcitrant poem accepted, and who weep with us over the loss of our dog.
Poetry saved my life. When circumstances moved me from California to Tennessee to Oregon within a very short period of time, the one constant was my ability to chronicle my topographical world and my emotional world in verse. Writing poetry saved me from diving headfirst into depression (or Gentleman Jack); yet it was not cheap self-expression or therapy. It was work. It demanded sobriety, patience and diligence. There was room for reflection, but never for self-pity.
To be a poet it to be an opening, a gaping vulnerability, a fallible, stumbling human. And it is to be very, very fortunate. We, like Neruda, are given an opportunity to embrace this world in all of its startling beauty and its daunting ambiguity. He wrote of that beauty and ambiguity, and of his obligation as a poet. If we are to become poets, we too have an obligation to drink in all of life, and to write all of life down.
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