A word is dead
When it is said
I say it just
Begins to live
— Emily Dickinson
Poetry is the language of the soul. From below the surface of your life, the truth of who you are calls to you through the poems you love. Even if you have been touched by only one poem, or just a single line heard at a crucial moment and remembered, those words are an invitation from within. To take them deeply into your life and speak them aloud brings every level of who you are—your thoughts, your words, your feelings, and even your physical energies—into alignment with what matters most to you. You are receiving and giving voice not only to the poem but also to your own soul.
Many of us have searched for guides to help unravel the riddles of our existence and point us toward aspects of ourselves we cannot uncover on our own. We have turned to gurus, friends, lovers, and mentors for help. A poem you love can be such a teacher.
Before written language took words out of our mouths and onto the page, and long before “virtual” communication lifted them off the page and into intangible space, our ancestors knew that a poem, spoken aloud, could change us with its vital, voiced wisdom. Even today, in many cultures throughout the world, poetry still resides in its original home—in the sounds, sensations, and feelings of the human body.
I invite you to take a poem you love into your heart and your body. Develop a vibrant relationship with it. Become intimate with it, and allow it to guide you into intimacy with yourself. Receive the poem’s gifts as it illuminates undiscovered realms within you.
And give the poem the gift of a home in your particular humanness.
If you do this, that poem can become a teacher that is always with you, touching and changing every moment of your life.
As you go deeper into your relationship with a poem, it may guide you to discover treasures that you did not know you had. Perhaps there are hidden talents or creative visions that will appear.
Perhaps the poem will call forth a long-buried memory, magnetized by the words to the surface of your consciousness for healing or inspiration. Perhaps it will open you to a new way of seeing the world, or a feeling of grief you have avoided, or an experience of joy you didn’t know was in you.
A poem is a physical event. The rhythm may quicken or slow your pulse. The flow of the language may expand your breathing.
The music woven into the words may change the very texture of your voice. A poem even entrains your brainwaves, altering your biochemistry and allowing shifts in consciousness that can bring healing, understanding, and unexpected insight.
Spending time with a poem is a way of choosing what you’re going to do with your attention. In this world of iPods, e-mails, cell phones, and spam, opportunities for fragmentation of consciousness are thick and fast. It can be lifesaving to return to the sanctuary of a poem that you hold within you. Like singing a song you love or blasting it on the stereo, like reading a favorite Psalm or the Heart Sutra several times a day, it is a choice to fill your thoughts with what you hold precious and believe in, instead of the plethora of commercial jingles, self-criticisms, or anxieties about the past and the future that usually overrun the mind.
When I focus on a poem I love, my thoughts stop spinning and become quiet. My body relaxes. My breathing finds the rhythm of the poem. Whether I’m in the car, on the subway, walking on the beach, or sitting on a meditation cushion, that poem becomes as real a refuge as any church, synagogue, or mosque.
To develop a relationship with a poem is something like falling in love—with all the wonder and challenge that can bring. It begins with infatuation: the curiosity to get to know the poem, to learn everything you can about its meaning, rhythm, sound, and silence. At the same time, you are allowing the poem to carry you into yourself, evoking feelings, reflections, and new experiences of the world.
Then, as with any relationship, inevitable difficulties arise and the hard work comes: suddenly you find you don’t like the last stanza after all, or you repeatedly stumble over the third line, or a certain turn of phrase inexplicably brings up a sense of discomfort you’d rather avoid. But you hang in there anyway, allowing the poem to take you beyond your comfort zone.
A new and enriching experience invariably waits behind every resistance. Ultimately there is the pleasure and grace that comes when the poem has become yours. You know it intimately and can share it with others or simply read it to yourself for your own pleasure. The spoken poem is a wondrous new creation born of the unique convergence between words that have been written by someone else, even someone who may have lived centuries ago in a faraway country, and your own voice.
Once you know a poem deeply, you have a gift you can give others as well as yourself.
Kim Rosen, MFA and author of Saved by a Poem, is a spoken-word artist, a teacher of self-inquiry, and an award-winning poet.