Jill Bialosky begins her resonant collection of essays about her favorite poems with the following observation:
Like a map to an unknown city, a poem might lead you toward an otherwise unreachable experience; but once you’ve reached it, you recognize it immediately.
What follows is an evocative autobiographical journey across the varied topography of the poetry world. Organized under open-ended subject headings (“Discovery,” “Self,” “Sexuality”), the chapters of Bialosky’s book mesh moments of the author’s personal history with the history of the poets and poems under consideration. Each poem is printed in its entirety within the space of the chapter. In this way we are empowered to encounter and appreciate the poem on our own terms, while having Bialosky’s responses as guideposts.
Often, we are surprised by what we learn. An early chapter in the collection opens with the family’s search for a lost dog, and this quest turns to a consideration of the entire poem from which the children’s rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is excerpted. Penned by sisters Jane and Ann Taylor at the turn of the nineteenth century, “The Star” reveals itself to be a beautiful and complex poem with a simultaneously mysterious and comforting final verse:
‘Tis your bright and shiny spark
Lights the trav’ller in the dark:
Tho’ I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle little star.
Bialosky juxtaposes her childhood use of this poem (it helped her fall asleep) with her present, adult awareness of the poem’s skillful use of rhyme and repetition. This patterning creates a magical “constellation of possibilities” which resonates with the adult reader as much as, if not more than, the young one.
Uncomfortable discoveries are also valuable. Bialosky tells about encountering Langston Hughes in the wake of a childhood school trip to Terminal Tower in Cleveland. During the school bus ride to the site, Bialosky notices children playing on a porch, and wonders why they aren’t in school. She sees men drinking from a bottle on the street in front of broken-down apartments and houses. The contrast between the office spaces in the Terminal Tower and the ghetto streets she has just driven through, is something she doesn’t have words for until she reads “You and Your Whole Race,” and “I, Too.” An affecting biography about Hughes invites us to read more of his work, and to learn more about the poets who influenced him: Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay among them.
We also rediscover ourselves and our heritage with the help of the poetry we read. In a subsequent chapter titled “War,” Bialosky remembers how frightening she found the Akeda portion of the Torah as a child. The work of Yehuda Amichai helps her understand this fear. But there’s a further twist: Amichai’s biography gives way to another memory — at a restaurant in Iowa when the server tells Bialosky that she is the first Jew that the server has ever met.
At once a rich personal history and a history of personal readings, Poetry Will Save Your Life demonstrates repeatedly that poetry can and does rescue us, because its metaphorical language gives voice to the things and experiences that ordinary speech cannot express.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a poet, magical realist novelist and professor emerita in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Riverside. Read more about her at stephaniehammer.net.