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Molly Fisk: Poetry Is All Yours

d2a4183824ffb50545411cbdd879f970“Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver

Because April is National Poetry Month, it seems only fitting to offer you something poetic to think about today. If you’re reaching for your mouse to click your way elsewhere, thinking, “Poetry, oh, gross!! I hate poetry!” hold that gesture just for a minute. It’s true that many, many people think they hate poetry. Much of the poetry we know about comes from our high school English classes where teachers turned to the 19th century for inspiration. While some of those poems are wonderful, quite a few are old-fashioned enough to sound obscure, and have contributed to the popular idea that poetry is unfathomable and not something meant for ordinary people.

All of this is horse-twaddle, if you’ll pardon my French. Poetry is for everyone, and here’s how you can tell: whenever something big happens in the world or in an individual life, people turn toward it: Suddenly poems are flying around the internet, being shared, liked, and retweeted hundreds of times. Poems are read at weddings, christenings, and funerals, at opening ceremonies and presidential inaugurals. This is because poetry is the language of emotion.

Prose — that is to say fiction, non-fiction, journalism, letters, scientific papers, tweets, texts, blog posts, and anything else strung together in normal-seeming sentences — is the language we use for most of what goes on in our lives. It’s how knowledge and information get passed around. But the minute someone falls in love, out come the romantic poems, declarations in verse, the poetic descriptions of wonderfulness: cue Robert Burns, “my love is like a red, red, rose,” or Kim Addonizio’s “I want a red dress, I want it flimsy and cheap, I want to wear it until someone tears it off me.”

If there’s a natural disaster or an act of war, here is W.H. Auden’s poem again, “September 1, 1939,” with its honest lines: “Waves of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/And darkened lands of the earth,/Obsessing our private lives;/The unmentionable odor of death/Offends the September night.”

Likewise, the solace and understanding that middle-aged women derive from the opening lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” is incalculable. This poem has saved marriages, relationships, years of jail-time, and millions of dollars in therapy bills, not to mention prevented suicides. “You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.”

Poetry gives us permission. It reminds us that we are loved and we are human. Its rhythms are those of the heartbeat. Its rhymes lure us into remembering more than we ever imagine. It’s a form of song, with a quieter tune. From Emily Dickinson’s teensiness: “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” to Walt Whitman’s extravagant: “I am large, I contain multitudes!” poetry is all yours.

Don’t be afraid.


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  • Dina Barzilai April 9, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    It’s ironic that “poetry is the language of emotion”. Decades ago, before I did some intensive work in therapy, I truly thought I had no emotions. (My first step to realizing that I did, in fact, emote like any other human, was guessing how I felt by looking at a chart and picking one I “thought” fit!” Yet, when I thought I had no emotion, I wrote hordes of poetry (albeit shitty). Now that I can always identify how I’m feeling by writing or talking through it–I rarely write down my poetry, although seemingly poetic lines pop into my head quite often while I’m doing something else–driving, cleaning, showering. Curious. Maybe I’ll write a poem about it.