It’s the approach of Valentine’s Day, a day that beseeches us for articulate declarations of love. So why settle for the trite but true? Why not go for a poem that can actually knock your socks off, that offers a new way of coming alive to your own tremulous heart? We turn to poetry at weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations, and births etc. because poems can express wonder and appreciation at each milestone. Poems are the bridge from wonder to words. For despair, excessive love, heartbreak, feral joy, isolation and other wounds, there’s nothing like a meaty poem. It’s the best medicine for the sheer vulnerability for being alive on this earth, sleeved, as we all are, in impermanence.
Bread for the soul
As the late poet Mary Oliver, considered one of America’s finest, said, “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”
How exactly does poetry nourish? It shows us how to channel our emotions in a spiritual direction. It gives us words for our loneliness. It pierces the veil of separation between ourselves and the everything else. It helps us fall in love with our lives—exactly as they are. It helps us find power in the naming of our experience, so we can claim it and even cherish it.
Distillation down to essence
The beauty of poetry is its succinctness. It condenses the world down to a fine concentrate—a nectar of revelation. There are many different definitions of poetry. The best words in the best order. It can be as a simple as the famous William Carlos Williams poem: “so much depends/ upon/ a red wheel /barrow/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/ chickens.” It is seeing into the life of things, word by word, image by image. It helps us awaken to our senses and fine-tune our antennas to receive the world in all its gritty, lovely reality.
Live the questions
The best poems ask us a question—they do not provide easy answers. Think of Oliver, who writes in her poem “Spring,” “There is only one question; / how to love this world.” Poetry is the forum for the constant dialogue we have inside our head and hearts, the way we reason with and supplicate our inner multitudes. As the poet W. B Yeats says, “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
Rock your world
Poetry, it is said, delivers the news we can’t get elsewhere. It is radical, concise, and unforgettable—good poetry that is. Once you hear a stunning line from a poem you can’t unhear it—it will become a part of your own private book of psalms, a secret refrain you murmur inside your head. And the epiphanies poems offer, while they ring with the conviction of truth, are also downright surprising. Think of this line from Galway Kinnells’s poem “St Francis and the Sow”: “The bud/stands for all things/even for those things that don’t flower/ for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing.”
The American poet Emily Dickinson famously described the effect of poetry as, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” When a line seems to open up a new possibility, a new way of understanding, that is the power of poetry. It ripens us so that we can flower from within. so that we show us how to flower from within. Another poet called a poem “a thought, caught in the act of dawning.”
Finally, poetry offers us the possibility of radical change. A threshold, a turning point, a tipping point. An assumption exposed and humbled. The poet Adrienne Rich told us, “The moment of change is the only poem.” To change in some fundamental, undeniable way, to question everything we thought we knew and come out with an altered perspective, is the holy grail of poetry. To allow the words to seep into us and change our very texture.
As my poetry teacher, the poet Holly Wrenn Spaulding says, “The best poetry defies our appetite for speed. It cuts through the noise: it is a signal. It moves us to new thoughts, feelings, actions. It can be a way of life and by that I don’t just mean that we can write poems as part of what we do and are while alive. I mean that I can be a person on whom nothing is lost. I can cultivate this way of looking, sensing, recording, thinking, feeling, being, and in doing so, bring more presence to my experience of being alive.”
I’m going to sign off with a snippet of one of my favorite love poems, written by the late Derek Walcott and appropriately titled “Love after Love.”
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. 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.
I’m hoping the poem serves as a gateway drug, enticing you to explore the language of poetry not as something intimidating and remote, but as something as close to you as the thrum of your own blood in your veins.