POETRY FOR LIFE
In an earlier post, I wrote about the purposes of poetry. Since then, as I’ve been creating my new poetry course that I’ll be sharing more information about soon, I’ve been thinking about the role of poetry more specifically in my own life. I’ve been engaging with poetry, writing it informally since I was four, and then studying it formally since I was 19. How has that engagement shaped me? Today, I want to share a kind of autobiography through poetry.
I hope that in reading this, you will find points of interest, comparison, and also contrast. And I hope that reading this will help you reflect on the role of poetry in your own life and the role of other art forms or activities that you have engaged in deeply for many years.
At the end of this post, I have some reflections and writing prompts for you.
POETRY FOR LIFE: BEGINNINGS
I fell in love with poetry in college in a Whitman seminar with the critic Helen Vendler. Vendler taught me to read closely—very, very closely. And an amazing thing happened: the more closely I read the poems, the more space opened within them. The more Whitman articulated his vision, the more his poems pointed to what could not be said, and this excited me. It felt like a window into other forms of perception and truth.
The visionary 19th-century poet William Blake wrote of seeing the infinite in the particular, and this insight, it seemed to me, was one of the great gifts of poetry itself:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
At the time, I didn’t have an explicit spiritual orientation, but poetry was a path for me into the sacred that is all around us.
I went on to get a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia University, where I concentrated on poetry. I hoped to study “epiphanic poetry”—that is the way poetry across historical periods expresses and captures moments of epiphany, of heightened insight and meaning—but I needed to choose only one period to focus on. This ended up being the 20th century and I wrote my dissertation on poetic authority: where does the authority of a poem and/or poetic expression come from?
By the time I wrote my dissertation, I was also writing my own poetry seriously. I’d enjoyed writing poetry since I was a child, but it wasn’t until I became pregnant with my first child, when I was in my third year of graduate school, that I felt a strong calling to write more and to take my own writing seriously.
Pregnancy and motherhood, like poetry itself, seemed like a window into the sacred that is everywhere around us. I felt a desire to give language to the experiences of motherhood (that in the early 2000s were still rarely written about).
POETRY FOR LIFE: BECOMING A POET
When Gabriel was one, we moved from New York City to Cambridge, MA so that I could study with the poet Jorie Graham, one of my favorite poets at the time, who had recently moved to Harvard from the University of Iowa MFA program and was teaching advanced poetry workshops. Jorie wrote about the life of the mind and of the body; she wrote about motherhood and history; about the natural world and philosophy; her poems were ambitious, far-seeing, and full of music.
It was thrilling to work with her. Her attention and commitment to poetry were inspiring.
Jorie encouraged us to bring our full selves to our poems, and I did that.
Poetry was a form in which I met myself, in which I stripped away what was unnecessary, and, as Rilke says in his Letters to a Young Poet, lived the questions themselves.
“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
I also ran a reading series where I got to invite and meet many of my favorite contemporary poets, including Linda Gregg, Claudia Rankine, Robert Pinsky, and many others. My poems began to get published in such places as The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Yale Review, and Kenyon Review.
As I wrote, as I raised my young children (I now also had a daughter), and as I built the brick and mortar part of my adult life—settling in Cambridge, buying a house, getting paid work, to name a few—I also began to engage in deep introspective work. I was in therapy seriously for the first time and as I protested the war in Iraq and did pacifism work, became interested in not only external peace, but also internal peace: I had been in school for 20 years and was a writer, but I felt that I didn’t have the tools or understanding to have peace within myself or to model for my children real peace or even the belief in a world in which that peace was possible.
I think that when we decide to look deeply within ourselves, when we ask fundamental questions about our orientation to the world, when we, in fact, live the questions, we must be ready to come to difficult truths. And so it was through this path of self-inquiry that I came to consciously remember early childhood trauma and sexual abuse in my own past.
I came to see that my poems had understood and pointed to my trauma even before my conscious mind had been able to name it. My poetry had a wisdom that my conscious narrative brain did not; it had helped lead me to my own remembering. When I did not have language for my body’s experiences, when the experiences of trauma led me into the vortex of silence, when I felt caught off from narrative (at times, I literally could not say what I was experiencing or remembering), the language of poetry was there for me. Poetry helped me understand the experiences of my body and mind and it also helped me integrate and recover from those experiences.
At the time, though my poems felt big enough to contain these experiences, the poetry world that I was in, and my own personal skills, didn’t make me comfortable confronting these subjects in my published work. There was still a strict divide between writing “good,” “professional” poems, and a poet’s personal life and deep healing work, which were somehow seen as not serious. There was still, also, in the poetry world, a deep taboo around sexual abuse—one friend who started to write about the subject was told by her professor that she would never have a career as a serious poet if she published those poems.
POETRY FOR LIFE: HEALING
In the years that I was actively healing, I turned to many forms of therapy as well as meditation, Buddhist philosophy, and yoga as tools of understanding and transformation. I stopped writing for publication.
But all along, I was writing poems.
Indeed, poetry has also given me a bigger perspective. For poetry gave me insight into not only the traumatic, but also the larger connection and insight of the sacred that holds us, of our common humanity, of our interconnection that we find through our experiences both in the physical world and with language itself, that shared medium that shapes our life and through which we also get to take agency. Poetry was a part of my healing journey and beyond healing, of my growth and spiritual path.
Though I did not end up writing my dissertation on the poetry of epiphany, I came to feel that the epiphanies and insights of poetry had guided my own writing life. Poetry gave me new insights, new perspectives, heightened insights that I didn’t find elsewhere, a level of connection, meaning, and pleasure that helped shape my orientation to what it means to be human.
In working with a poem for myself, in writing not just the first draft, but in staying with the poem and reworking it, asking questions of it and listening to the answers, I came to those moments of insight and understanding that seem to pierce through the more ordinary experiences that our rational mind can lead us to. My own experiences with poetry and with the very close attention that the form demands have opened to greater expression and expansiveness, understanding, and freedom.
POETRY FOR LIFE: TEACHING
As I healed, and as the professional world around me also became more open to women’s experiences and to the intersection of the personal and the public, to good art and to personal growth, I began to publish my poetry again, and I founded Align Your Story Writing School with the goal of bringing together the best of the head and the heart, mind and body, craft and practice.
I am the author of the poetry book The High Shelf, which explores trauma, healing, motherhood, the environmental crisis, the sacred, and the nature of language itself. Individual poems have been published in more than 50 publications and journals.
I’ve taught poetry at Stonehill college, MIT, Grub Street, The Muse and the Marketplace, The Mass Poetry Festival, and in many other places.
I write primarily for the journey that my writing takes me on, for what it helps me realize and perceive. The very form of the poem itself, the creation of a work of art that has a life of its own, that can stand on its own is very different from writing in a journal. It’s in the crafting of the poem, in allowing it to have its own weight and coherence that I find the greatest pleasure and understanding.
Normally, I write in notebooks and put my poems away for many months or even years, and then later go back and gather them, revise them, and only slowly begin to publish them and share them with others.
Today, when I teach, I integrate the form of poetry with mindful and embodied practices. I have found in my own writing life and in teaching thousands of students over the past 15 years that when we write from a more integrated space—first by quieting the mind and engaging the body—we can get to the heart of our creative voice and vision more easily with more insight.
I do not write poetry all the time. I go through periods when I write a great deal and other periods when I primarily write prose, and other periods when I write very little in any genre. My writing feels part of an organic process, connected to the journey and cycles and seasons of my life. My writing changes as I change. For example, the poems in my book The High Shelf explored what happened when I wrote with and into silence, when I tried to enact the tension of what cannot be said.
More recently, perhaps as a reflection of this time in my life that is more relaxed, my poems are interested in untying knots, in finding comfort even in places of discomfort— in letting go.
Because I have put in those 10,000 hours that we need for mastery, those years and years of study and practice, I feel that I have the tools to reflect different voices, different moods, and different forms of expression.
It is my goal as a teacher to lead students to the tools and the rhythms of their writing life that works best for them. I do not believe that there is one size that fits all, but rather than in studying the work of master poets, and the things that they each do differently, we can come to discover what works best for us, at this particular moment, in our own evolving life and writing journey. In listening deeply to ourselves, in paying close attention to what is around and within us, our writing can be a deep and transformative journey and process of discovery.
POETRY FOR LIFE: CONNECTION
I have come to see poetry as not a solitary act, but rather a dance with a medium, tradition, and other distinct voices; we are shaped by others’ language and come to shape the language and ourselves through our engagement with it.
Many of the insights of mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy—of careful attention, emptiness and form, cause and effect, and interbeing— can be seen, if we look closely, in poetry itself. I find in poetry, as in my own Buddhist practice, an ability to look at the full complexity of our reality as well as reminders of the good, the beautiful, and what I want to celebrate.
I come back to poetry when I need a shift in orientation, a reminder of what I already know but have forgotten, when I want to discover something new, when I feel dull and need a little sparkle. Life can sometimes feel heavy, the world around us leaden, dull, unkind. But in poetry, I connect again with the sacred, with that meaning that is always there, with the sacred. Poetry remains, for me, a form of epiphany, a manifestation of the sacred and of the relationships between all things.
Whatever one’s spiritual orientation, this close attention to (and in) poetry, I have seen again and again, leads to new understanding, appreciation, and possibilities.
Enjoy the writing prompts below, and I hope to hear from you! I love reading your comments. And, as always, share this with any friends who might be interested.
Also, stay tuned for more information about my Poetry Of Attention online poetry course. We’ll be starting together in October. The course will unfold over eight weeks, and then students can still work with the material, teachings, prompts, and practices, which come with lifetime access so that students can continue their own lifelong journey in poetry 🙂
POETRY FOR LIFE: WRITING PROMPTS
- Reflect on the role of poetry in your own life.
- Was there one particular moment when poetry changed something for you? Write about that.
- Was there a time when your writing knew something that your conscious mind did not? Write about that.
- Write a mini-autobiography with poetry or writing at the center.
- Are there other art forms/ activities that are central to your life? Write about how they have shaped you.
Please share your thoughts/ comments/ writing below. I love to hear from you 🙂
Thank you for the email. I miss receiving your prompts. I loved listening to poetry as a child. My favorite was ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’. But my education and work experience was in Math and Finance. I would write poetry as a way to journal. In my retirement I have more time to spend on poetry and recently wrote a poetic memoir. Your email has motivated me to get back to the 31 day challenge.
Hi Lorraine! Thanks for your comment. It’s so great that you wrote a poetic memoir! Yes, the 31+ course is always there for you–and it will be different each time 🙂 I love that we can appreciate poetry whatever our formal education.
I needed Love the questions!!!
I’m so glad 🙂 <3
Thank you for sharing this. Like others, I’m sure, I think about why I write and how poetry is part of my life, and your biographical reflections suggest some different ways of thinking about these matters. Peace
I’m so glad. Thanks for letting me know, David!
What purpose does poetry have for you?
Poetry is words from and to my heart and imagination. Taking care not to overdo I try to create what I see and feel; express as closely as I can. The poem cannot go beyond what I know. But it can point me toward something new. Again and again.
Valary, I love this: “The poem cannot go beyond what I know. But it can point me toward something new” It’s almost a koan, how we can discover the new through what we know 🙂 Thank you for your comment..
Thank you for the wonderful and inspiring email. I fell in love with the poetry of Robert Lewis Stevenson as a child. I loved the way he understood what it meant to be a young person, and a sickly one at that, but still enjoyed childhood as best and as normally as he could. His poetry reminded me of my dad, who was a very mature and hard working and responsible grown up but never an “old fart adult.’
Poetry is very important in my life, but I only began writing about 20 years ago. I am a science and math tutor/teacher by trade, and I always worry that my poems sound more like lab reports than poems. But still, I must write, and for better or worse, I continue, because it noourishes me, heart and soul.
In addition to miscellaneous poems, I have a series of poems about Mary, mom of Jesus. They are not religious in any way, nor do they have any evangelical agenda. They are simply the story of a woman whose unusual son was murdered. I was raised catholic, but I have no religious beliefs and life has taught me that god, if he/she exists, is not a loving one, (but that’s another poem, hehe), Personally I see the person of Mary as an archetype of Everywoman, and so that’s how I write about her. So we often sit and have coffee together, and consult with how and where her story should go next.
Sorry I have gone on and on. Again, thank you for your poetry, thank you for all you do for us, for me.
Thank you so much for sharing your journey here! I so appreciated reading it—all the richness of literature and connecting to different stories and people across time and space–and also connecting with ourself!
I am consistently inspired by your writing. You turn email into a pure work of art! I am very much looking forward to the new poetry thing you’ve got brewing. Will there be scholarships at all?
Thank you for always giving so much of yourself. You are an amazing being!! Your courses have changed my life and my ability to exist with some peace in this world. Gratitude and Love, Nadia!
Aw–thank you so much for your kind words, Renee! I’m so glad that my words have been able to touch you <3
Thank you for the words of Blake, you got my attention. I love poetry for when I went to school we memorized poems for all grades through public and high school. The quality of Poetry was not strained but fell as the gentle rain from heaven upon my head and heart.
I feel poetry needs to be said out loud. I find simple poetic beauty in the lyrics of songs and hymns.
I have sung to my wife in our youth and old age;
“When I grow too old to dream, I’ll have you to remember.
When I grow too old to dream you kiss will live in my heart.
So kiss me my sweet and don’t let us part,
For when I grow too old to dream, your kiss will live in my heart.
Thinking about poetry I realize what I sang and memorized from songs became prophetic of who I became.
I have had a wonderful life moving and evolving in three slightly different careers. But I have been restless and rambling across Canada with my family.
But there are lyrics that describe a lonely child on a farm hearing the trains that passed through our farm
For part of my childhood youth, we had no car and my life was somewhat isolated.
These words are true of me:
“In a lonely shack
by a railroad track
I spent my yonder days
And I guess the sound of the outward bound
Made me a slave to my wandering ways
And the wayward wind is a restless wind that yearns to wander
And I was born next of kin to the wayward wind.
Thanks for letting me share.
I am moved to write poems because of my life experiences. The process of aging and witnessing the aging of my friends and family, aging my spouse’s and the impact dementia has had on him, by the birth of babies and new seasons, and the songs of birds and of performers. I’m not a professional writer however I love writing.
Thanks for writing about your journey. Yes, for me writing poetry is an entry into the sacred, in nature, in the world, in myself. Each poem is an epiphany, A call from my soul. See you soon.
I had a great read, thanks for the prompts also. For me poetry is therapeutic. It’s a way I unburden myself when I feel stressed, sad, lost or when I don’t even know what I feel.
It’s funny, I always tell people I rarely write about myself or my personal life experiences. In retrospect, I think all of our writes express who we are if we read between the lines closely enough. For example, during a rather blue period when I was feeling unloved and isolated a line came to me; the most unlovable man in the world. From that I wrote a five part series of shorts about a man born ugly, abused and mistreated all his life who eventually has his own epiphany, via an angel sent from above, that he is loved, after all. It changed his life dramatically. Anyway, I enjoyed your article and I’ve begun posting on Instagram for now. We’ll see what happens…