A poem a day: Guest-post by Marybeth Holleman

Like most writers, I read a lot. OK, that’s an understatement. I depend on reading like other people depend on exercise or therapy or friendships: it centers me, guides me, defines me. Books are as necessary as food.

I came late to poetry. I rarely read it until my first marriage disintegrated in the widening wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Then, on the frontpages of Refuge, I read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,”and was astonished at how that poem spoke to me. I picked up Linda McCarriston’s Talking Soft Dutch, and it was as if a friend counseled me. I hurried to more, and their poetry was like an oracle I could open to any page and get answers, or at least solace, or understanding.

Since then, I carry poems with me everywhere: in my head, memorized; tucked into my purse; squirreled into my trip journals. I begin every class, no matter the subject, with a gift poem. I pass along poems to everyone I love. For my mother’s 70th birthday year, I sent her a poem a month. Every morning, curled into my purple chair, I read a few poems before I write a word of my own. It settles me into good language; it helps me to, as Jane Kenyon recommended, have good sentences in my ears.

Poetry is an essential element of my diet, there when I need it. Just over a year ago, my brother was murdered. The books I had been reading suddenly fell flat, became absolutely irrelevant. This is what happens with trauma: that which tethers you to the world suddenly loosens and breaks. For weeks on end, I couldn’t find anything to read that didn’t offend me with its banality. Then, in desperation, I stumbled back to my poetry shelves. I picked up Anne Caston’s Flying Out With the Wounded. I read it in one long winter afternoon. This was a book I’d been unable to read because of its graphic depictions of suffering and death. Now these poems reached me.

I craved more. So I sent out a plea to [pelagicpoetry], a listserv of poets and readers of poetry, managed by Liz Bradfield. I wrote of my loss, I asked for poems – and received salvation. From friends as well as from strangers, with whom I shared only a love of poetry. They told me about http://www.poets.org/, a site listing poetry by subject. One woman wrote me, “I’m sorry you have to know this part of the world.”

I hope that none of you ever have to know this part of the world, but if you do, I throw you these lifelines:

Elegy by Mary Jo Bang
What the Living Do and The Good Thief by Marie Howe
After by Jane Hirshfield
Otherwise by Jane Kenyon
Without by Donald Hall
Red Bird by Mary Oliver
Poems by Rumi, Paul Celan, Czeslaw Milosz, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kathleen Spivak, Ruth Stone, Moira Linehan, Naomi Shihab Nye.

I’m grateful to these poems, to the written word, and to gatherings of generous writers and readers, like [pelagicpoetry] and 49 Writers.

In my first post, I mentioned the power of words to effect change. Words save lives, too. Literally. A student once brought me a newspaper article about a small plane crashing into an apartment building in New York City. The building was evacuated, all except for an elderly infirmed couple on the 27th floor. Though each step was excruciating, they escaped down a narrow stairwell. The woman said she willed herself down by repeating a line from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day:” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

So, read on. And if you don’t already, throw some poetry into the mix. They may just be lifelines for you, too. Here’s one I’ve been carrying around for the past year:

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
You must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between regions and kindness.

To continue reading this poem, click here to see the full text at The Writer’s Almanac.

Thanks to Marybeth Holleman for being our March featured author.
Photo by James Holleman.

7 thoughts on “A poem a day: Guest-post by Marybeth Holleman”

  1. What a powerful and touching tribute to poetry! And thanks for including the excerpts — it made me want to read more. Mary Oliver is one of my favorites, but I wasn’t as familiar with Naomi Shihab Nye. My mom is a poet and while I don’t write it myself, I frequently read it for inspiration. Often poems succinctly and artfully say in a few lines what I’m taking hundreds of pages attempting to say. I think writers of all genres can benefit from the example of finely honed poetry, where every word, every syllable, matters. Happy National Poetry Month (April)!

  2. Marybeth,

    Like you were once, I still am: not reading much poetry. But when I worked as an outdoors instructor (for Outward Bound), I always read one poem at the course end’s little ceremony — Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese.

    What better words are there to send teenagers off / back into “the real world” (as some ironcially called it)?

  3. A beautiful reminder, and a beautiful poem. For seasons I’ve read, and sometimes written, a poem every day, finding the practice both soothing and energizing. Thanks to your post, Marybeth, I’m inspired to start again. A nice source for a poem a day is Panhala in Yahoo groups – the moderator emails a daily poem, drawing on poets like Oliver and Rilke.

  4. Lovely post, Marybeth. I read poetry too, not as much as I’d like to, but often enough. I revisit many poets ofen–Rilke, Cavafy, Adonis, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Keats, Neruda, among others.

    Whenever I need to remind myself of my place in this world, remember these lines from Rilke’s Sonnet No. 14 from “Sonnets to Orpheus”:

    “To the used as well as the muffled and mute / store of full Nature, the uncountable sums, / jubilant add yourself adn cancel the count.”

  5. Oh, Marybeth…thank you so much. What a heartening journey! In a world where violence can instantly take a loved one, it would be easy to get lost in meaninglessness. Instead, you’ve stayed open to poetry. You’ve reminded me that poems should never be forgotten. I’m on a trip right now with the usual number of books – fiction and nonfiction – packed into my suitcase. But my poetry is at home. So I thank you, and Naomi Shihab Nye, for Kindness, and I’ll go looking for some lifelines of my own.

  6. Marybeth,
    This is so beautifully written and so true! I loved Wild Geese so much, I printed the poem out on what I thought was fireproof paper, sandwiched it between glass and fused it in my kiln. It came out charred, like an ariel landscape of a burnt forest. It became the eyeball in a large metal eye I made!
    Another wonderful poetry book about grief is Alan Shapiro’s “Song and Dance” about his brother who was a broadway actor and died of a brain tumor. And his book, “The Last Happy Occasion” is also a great one. Gotta plug him, what can I say?
    Thank you for ALWAYS writing such powerful pieces.

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