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Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words Paperback – October 1, 2009
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I'm still reading and savoring the book on my Kindle. [The book-book comes with a CD, and the ebook reputedly also includes audio downloads(?) which I need to figure out how to access. This audio component features the author and others sharing favorite poems.]
Not your preferred way to spend a Saturday night? I guess you must have missed that great Saturday-night show on HBO with Russell Simmons and Spike Lee which grew out of the Brooklyn poetry slams. (I absolutely must interject here that the poetry slam concept actually originated in my home town, Chicago -- which has also been home to the Poetry Foundation since 1912.)
Rosen says we place way too much emphasis on trying to understand poetry, analyzing it to death. She maintains that poetry truly comes alive in the body and thus in the soul. The idea is to find a poem that speaks to you deeply and take it into yourself, make it part of your breathing and blood-flow and innards -- your dancing, your journey, your quest for healing. She says that poetry can heal us. She won't get any argument from me. But don't worry that her suggestions have anything to do with the old stuff, the rote memorization we may have been assigned in elementary school. She counsels a whole other way of getting into a poem and letting it into you, and she predicts that it will change you. I can personally attest to the truth of that assertion.
Other cultures know all this already -- way better than we do out here in the ad-glutted, mall-ridden, frenetically monetized U.S. of A. I don't have a viable theory as to why we are so conflicted about poetry, why some of us are positively repulsed by it and plenty of us never think about it or go near it if we can help it.
By way of contrast, Rosen recounts that in 2006, in the heart of Baghdad and in the midst of frightening clashes and terrifying explosions, a thousand people -- both Sunni and Shiite -- came together in a gigantic tent to share poetry, to dance, and to weep together. Soldiers from both militias ended up joining in and volunteering to guard the premises. The first such gathering was followed by many others. Poetry broke down the barriers between the factions and became a powerful force for peace. It satisfied some fierce craving people may not even have known they had -- some urgent need that seems increasingly endemic to all of this earth, to all of humanity, even if some of us do not yet realize just what it is we are thirsting for down here in the depths of ourselves.
Also, according to Rosen, "in many parts of Latin America, Ireland, and the Middle East . . . it is not unusual for spoken poetry to be heard as part of everyday conversations." According to her students from Ireland, people in that land routinely share poetry by W.B. Yeats or Dylan Thomas well into the night at the neighborhood pub. She also notes that in Iran, poets are national heroes -- and that in Israel, fans line up in the bookstores of Tel Aviv for a new volume of poetry the way they do here for a best-selling vampire novel. In the Middle East there is one TV channel devoted exclusively to poetry -- inspired by the most popular prime-time program in the region, a kind of poetry recitation contest along the lines of "American Idol" which has more viewers than news or sports. Closer to home, some 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cubans spray-paint walls with the lyrics of Spanish poet Antonio Machado.
It is difficult to summarize this wonderful book in a brief review, or to distill its major points. The author has spent years studying and teaching poetry as a pathway to spiritual healing, and she has so very much to say on the subject. She shares her own experiences of darkness and despair, relating how bringing poetry alive within herself brought everything else into alignment -- how a true encounter with poetry, a long love affair with a special poem, can strip a human being down to her authentic self; can nudge, seduce, or wrench her from her abyss of suffering and stuckness: instilling in her or restoring to her a sense of oneness with everyone else and with all creation; reshaping her into a formidable force for mentoring others and repairing the earth.
Rosen provides clear guidelines for doing this -- for adopting a poem and taking it to heart, living with it and nurturing it and letting it sing in your blood and bones. These are really very practical and comprehensible instructions, although I realize that in my enthusiasm, I may sound rather mystical or oody-doody about the whole thing. This path is really not some esoteric byway of civilization. It is a road well-traveled by millions of our forbears and contemporaries, surprising as this may seem. One culture after another has cherished poetry profoundly, regarding it as a vehicle of ecstatic celebration or quiet consolation; has found it medicinal, therapeutic, transformative. Even prehistorically, some scientists postulate, Neanderthal peoples first spoke to one another not in prose, but in a language which resembled a kind of poem, or poem-song.
As one might expect, the author scatters various poems throughout the book, including some of my own all-time favorites. If any specific quotation may conceivably deliver her message "in a nutshell," it is these lines from the physician-poet William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably
every day for lack
of what is found there.
I never really hated poetry but truly didn't "get it" at all. Of course my introduction was in school and there was nothing enjoyable about it at that time - many, many years ago. Reading "Ten Poems" and then "Saved by a Poem" have been deeply moving, deeply revealing, I just can't find the right word. I don't know how it works but they enter me and fill me - sometimes with love, sometimes compassion, sometimes questioning. Listening to the CD accompanying this has really changed how I feel about poetry. Hearing the poems read and then hearing the readers express how they were moved by the poems is amazing.
I am not often moved by words but now, that is my experience. I loved this book (and the Ten Poems to Save your Live) and recommend both very highly.