Mary Oliver told us to “Pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.” Poets have the best instructions for life. Could it be that poetry is a super power that can make you happier and more employable? Of course it is!
Poetry forces you to slow down. You can’t rush through a poem, scarfing its contents like an email swallowed whole in the express checkout line at the grocery store. A poem is meant to be savoured, its words read carefully so that you can adjust to its rhythm, melody, harmony and strangeness. The right poem for you will click: it will hint at something important to you. Generous, open, yet focused attention is the most important quality you can bring to a poem. Another word for this flavour of attention is…you guessed it…mindfulness.
Has a poem ever clicked for you in a way that made you want to read it over and over and over? For me, it was…
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
(Emily Dickinson, “Poem 372”)
As a Canadian, I often think about the Chill and Stupor of Freezing persons letting go…
Poetry invites us to enter another mind. The interior lives of other people are often invisible, except on Twitter. But Twitter is the basement of thought. Poems encourage us to linger in loftier places with people who may be of a different gender, race or religion, miles or even centuries distant. Reading a poem is an act of empathy as we think along with the poet. Poet Seamus Heaney said that “Poetry can fortify your inner life.”
What is it then between us? / What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us? (Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”)
Poetry encourages you to reflect on what’s truly important. Poets toil on the front lines of consciousness, where they see what the rest of us are too busy to notice. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets can see the “gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” Poetry moves us closer to what is vital and elusive, that which cannot be explained; it creates a quiet imaginative space free of informing, arguing and selling. Poetry gives you a place to reflect on humanity, possibility and love.
So, through me, freedom and the sea / will make their answer to the shuttered heart. (Pablo Neruda, “Poet’s Obligation”)
Poetry can make the commonplace feel uncommon. If you’re struggling for ideas and the brainstorm has run dry, click on some poetry and select a random line. Let the slipperiness of poetic language allow you to drift in an entirely different direction where habitual ways of looking at things disappear, new connections are made, and you enter a state of wonder. As Matthew Zapruder puts it so poetically in Why Poetry, the experience we want from poetry is “a feeling, an intuition, that is beyond what we know in ordinary life…in poetry our familiar language can start to feel resonant with significance, more alive, even noble again.”
What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices? (Robert Hayden‘s “Those Winter Sundays” reminds us that the word office, far from the mundane place people toil to make a living, used to mean a divine responsibility.)
Poetry wants to be shared. Poetry begs to be read aloud, to dance to its own rhythm, to drown out the drumbeat of uniformity. It wants to change the world by bringing people together in an appreciation of their common humanity. Poetry wants to change your world.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind, / We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough. (Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”)
Poetry begets poetry. When you find a poem that resonates, you can’t help but want to write poetry. You want to make someone else feel what you have felt, the unfamiliar familiarity in what Yeats called, “the quarrels with ourselves” that we work through in the composition of a poem. The comfort with ambiguity and dwelling in possibility that writing poetry gives you has been tied to better job performance, increased satisfaction and higher earnings. And poetry could even make you more employable. According to The Wall Street Journal, the most promising jobs of the future are hybrid jobs combining the technical and the creative. Wouldn’t you rather live in a world where the software developers are also poets?
“I shall in due time be a poet.” Ada Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron and the woman who has been called the world’s first programmer.
Reciting poetic lines can ground you. Memorizing poetry will not only give you some tasty conversational condiments, but it will give you 24/7 access to instant wisdom. As a child I was forced to memorize Rudyard Kipling‘s “If” and ever since, whenever my ego gets too puffy or too deflated, his words remind me to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” You can cling to poetic words and use them like a lifeline to draw you out of cesspools of stress, anxiety or depression.
19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill said that romantic poet William Wordsworth cured his depression, calling Woodsworth’s poetry a “medicine for my state of mind.” Mill was able to feel a sympathetic joy with the poet in his tranquil contemplation of beauty.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free/The holy time is quiet as a Nun/Breathless with adoration; the broad sun/ Is sinking down in its tranquility (William Wordsworth, “It is a Beauteous Evening Calm and Free”)
Believe it or not, there is a National Association for Poetry Therapy and a Journal of Poetry Therapy that seeks to build an evidence-based foundation for the use of poetry as medicine for those who like to take their dose of poetry with a clinical trial to back it up. But poetry is as old as human history: it has survived because we need it. As poet Ralph Angel puts it, “Poetry has always existed and will always exist because there will always be the need to say that which cannot be said.” Ancient Greek physician Soranus prescribed poetry as supplemental treatment for mental disorders. Is it an accident that Apollo, the Greek god of healing, was also the god of poetry?
Given that poetry is so powerful, why aren’t more people drawn to it? Perhaps it’s because we’ve been taught that poets are tricksters who throw together difficult words, mind-bending metaphors and opaque symbols with the sole purpose to confuse and intimidate. Why don’t poets just say what they mean? Why must they obscure the meaning of the poem such that it’s available only to those skilled in the poetic arts?
Why can’t I understand this poem?
Don’t be intimidated by the search for the true meaning of a poem as if it’s an escape room and you need to decipher an elusive code to find the one way out. Give in to the poem’s supernatural mystery–poet Sharon Olds says she has no idea where her poems come from–and experience each moment as it feels right to you. Poetry makes meaning in dream logic, the multiple associations and origins of words are the portals to the poem. Give in to the dream as you drift into a poetic state of mind, a state of relaxed uncertainty. As Matthew Zapruder puts it, “A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand.” If you feel the need for a dream guide on your poetic journey to increase your appreciation and understanding, reach for a dictionary.
Poems’ usefulness comes from their refusal to be overtly useful. They can make you feel disoriented, comforted, aroused or disturbed. For a moment, the poem unmoors you from the ordinary and you experience your world anew, as Wallace Stevens writes, “more truly and more strange.”
I experienced the world anew and strange when my boss gave me The Wellspring, a collection of poems by Sharon Olds. We became close friends, our friendship forged in the communion of shared poems.
I have always wanted to cross over/into the other person, draw the/other person over into me. (Sharon Olds, “West”)
Ours was a successful poetry exchange, but gifting poetry in the workplace can be fraught. Mary Oliver with her gentle beautiful wisdom is a safe choice. Emily Dickinson, although unsettling, conveys a certain slant of seriousness. Pablo Neruda is iffy, except in the most intimate relationships outside work. Sharing Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton with a colleague may be considered an act of passive aggression.
Down the road you may find it impossible to resist sharing poetic discoveries with others, but for now just take the first microstep. Give yourself the gift of losing yourself for a few minutes in the restorative reverie of a poem, so different from the rest of our lives, and so necessary.
It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there. (William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, that greeny flower”)