Non­fic­tion

Poet­ry Will Save Your Life

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

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 5‑time Push­cart Prize nom­i­nee in fic­tion, non­fic­tion, and poet­ry. She is Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture and Dis­tin­guished Teacher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side. A for­mer Man­hat­tan­ite, she cur­rent­ly lives on Whid­bey Island, WA.

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