Transformative Power of Poetry

I recently read “Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World by Jane Hirshfield. It is a dense study of how written expression moves the human soul during times of strife and turmoil and the virtually muscular articulation of happiness. W.H. Auden wrote that “Poetry makes nothing happen”. However, poetry has the power to soothe or enlighten people. Jane says, “In the simplest act of recognizing the imaginative, metaphoric, or narrative expression of another, you find yourself less lonely, more accompanied in this life.”

I often turn to poetry when I’m troubled; when the outside world is not making sense to my interior world. I write, painting emotions in visual terms. Recently in a journal I wrote, “a sepia smear slides through the doctor’s words as the verdict is rendered”. It gives a deeper meaning for me than simply recording a sad but expected diagnosis.

It can be said as well that joy expressed in poetic terms layers an event with a calculus beyond the dictionary rendition of words.  My feelings when I witnessed the birth of my grandson could not be contained in words like joy or elation. “His first breath coursed through me, the first breath of new life, evergreen hope, a rainbow of possibilities exploded my lungs. Tears sprang unheeded in rivulets of gratitude”, I wrote.

One example Jane uses in the book is a poem by Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize winning Polish-American poet of the twentieth century. He expresses the transitory nature of life in this short poem. A simple memory stirs a wider wonder. Who are we and where are we going?


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive.

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going,

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebble.

I ask, not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Czeslaw Milosz

Being able to use words to convey the deepest sense of who I am is my joy.

Painters to Poets

In July 2002, seven of us were fortunate enough to have a workshop at a private home in Tucson taught by the poet, Gina Franco. She teaches poetry writing, 18th & 19th-century British literature, Gothic literature, poetry translation, Borderland writing, religion and literature, and literary theory at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She was awarded the Philip Green Wright-Lombard Prize for distinguished teaching. She earned degrees from Smith College and Cornell University.

I recently pulled out my files of classes and workshops and thumbed back to 2002. (My writers’ group jokingly refers to me as ‘the historian’ of our writing life.) I read through my notes from this workshop. I also tend to scribble notes not relative to the topic at hand or draw sketches of other classmates if I get bored, but in this file, there were none of those side tracks.

The content was a very intense route of the historians up through the modernists and how these poets were influenced by St. Augustine’s confessions, and how others used it to fit or create a new style of poetry. Post-WWII, many moved into abstraction vs. concrete, wanting to get away from the ‘feeling’, the deep-down confessional and traditional way of expression. Long story short—loose, individual culture, voice, and finding that individual voice on the page came about. Gina then compared short story writing to poetry, using omniscient, an exaggerated first person as in ‘I”, reactionary, stream of consciousness, arbitrary, conflict, and many more.

Alas, during this workshop, my head ached at the end of each meeting. In some of the discussions, I was crystal clear on structure, enjambed, stress syllables, expository, juxtaposition, and other times, my brain crinkled up like a small paper bag, and I down shifted to neutral to coast to the next refreshment break. I did not even have the energy to doodle.

At the end of the workshop, that last night, I was far too overstimulated, at the same time, far too exhausted I could barely drive home. One thing stuck, what the expressionists were doing with paints, the poets wanted to do with words. Images by painters were coveted by poets. As an artist, I got this transition. 

Poetry as I know it is an elegant dance. Strokes and splashes make meaning from memory and makes meaning from objects, and art into words. Like brushstrokes in a painting, words can transform onto a page to create a multidimensional world. With words, a poet can create crisp images and evocative descriptions that capture sensory perceptions in the ‘mind’s’ eye.

The few workshops I have taken on poetry have always drawn something out of me. On the last evening, I was thrilled when Gina gave us another prose poem to study, then pick five words that resonated with you personally, and write.

The birch sways with an imbalance

and I worship with a prayer of wild violets.

The darkness rises above my head

and the trunk of the birch splits dark red.

Rising is unreachable, filling my eyes

with evening rain, and peace wanders in

like a garden.

Give poetry another look.