Rather than reaching for a glass of wine and a rerun of CSI: Miami after a long day, Amy Bloom asks you to break open a book of poems, sit back and devour what'll really get you through.
After a long day doing work you do not love enough (or work you love so much, it sometimes leaves you hollowed out and in despair) and coming home to tired, hungry children (or wishing you had children to feed, or wishing your children were cats) and talking to your spouse, who is more interested in sports/the war/the stock market/pornography (or wishing you had a spouse, even if he or she ignored you, or wishing that your spouse was someone else entirely), people are inclined to pour themselves a drink (if that is a vice you are still allowed) or get a pint of ice cream and watch TV.
I don't blame them. I do it myself (and sometimes, to be efficient, when the day has been as bad as all that, I pour the brandy right over the vanilla ice cream and save myself some steps). But television only passes the time. Pretty good fiction passes the time a little better. Great fiction will take you to another place, and there are times when that kind of travel is essential. But poetry is the thing that will take you inside yourself, it will hand you back a piece of your soul, and poetry is what I'm selling today.
When I think that I cannot bear another marital misunderstanding, another exchange of good intentions fizzling out before they get halfway across the room, there is Mary Jo Salter and her poem "A Benediction":
Marriage is all contradiction.
On blissful days, you choose to live
for the moment, as in romantic fiction;
on miserable ones, believe
in what lies beyond the blue horizon.
In short, you can't be realistic
unless you dare to throw out reason...
and marriage, after all, is a joint
venture, not a game in which
adversaries score a point;
both of you stand to lose the match.
How poetry can stand by you like time-tested recipes
And I see us both, suddenly, in old-fashioned tennis whites, trying too hard for the point, and completely failing to notice that there's not even a net, for heaven's sake, and I smile across the room (it's not a completely happy smile, but it contains the memory of love, even if love itself is a bit beyond me at the moment) and I call up a little Mary Oliver in "A Pretty Song."
From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.
Poetry has stood by me like the most reliable recipes. It has reassured me like dawn after a bad night (that moment where you lie in bed, thinking, If I can get to 5 A.M., I will be all right). Jane Kenyon, who was the poet laureate of everyday depression and, fortunately for herself and for us, of happiness as well, sits right by me as I am looking for some of that happiness. I can see her pushing back her dark hair and looking at me with the tired, smart eyes of someone who has seen an awful lot of 4 A.M.: "There's just no accounting for happiness," she says, "or the way it turns up like a prodigal..."
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon,
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
And I'm so grateful to have her say it for me, and to be understood by someone I don't know, I get out of bed feeling less alone.
Two of the people I have loved best and most deeply die and my parents grow old. You think Desperate Housewives will help with that? Not even Law & Order, which I prefer to most social life, and certainly to Ambien, will really help. Donald Hall will help. Jane Hirshfield will help.
When his wife, Jane Kenyon, died, Donald Hall wrote the best book of his life, Without. "Her Long Illness" is from that:
It was reasonable
to expect that in ten or twelve months
she would be herself.
She would dress and eat her breakfast.
She would drive her Saab
to shop for groceries...
And Donald Hall goes on, in the next stanza, and I know he's crying the way men do, jagged and ill at ease, writing for me and my dying friends:
"It was reasonable
to expect." So he wrote. The next day,
in a consultation room,
Jane's hematologist Letha Mills sat down,
stiff, her assistant
standing with her back to the door.
"I have terrible news..."
Jane asked only: "Can I die at home?"
Poems for good times and bad
And I sat in more than one hospital room, holding more than one hand, and 3,000 songs on my iPod helped to block out the world, but Jane Hirshfield helped more, with "Poem with Two Endings":
Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.
Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.
Neither is ever satisfied, neither is ever filled,
each swallows and swallows the world.
The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.
Poetry is not only for the bad times (although it is better for bad times than anything else I know, except love). Poetry can make a good day better, with a picnic lunch and Peter Gizzi's Some Values of Landscape and Weather or a big, splashy American chunk of Walt Whitman or any one of Mark Doty's collections ("I want what everybody wants, / that's how I know I'm still / breathing: deep mix, rapture / and longing. Let me take your arm...") or the Dorothy Parker omnibus or the shiny good cheer of Billy Collins or Sharon Olds's wonderful tribute to the teacher who saved her life in sixth grade (and thank you, Mrs. Krikorian, "a tall woman, / with a deep crevice between her breasts, / and a large, calm nose," and since poetry makes us more generous, thank you to all of our Mrs. Krikorians).
Poetry provides the words, the lyrics, for every beautiful occasion—birthday, wedding, golden anniversary—and it is, in addition to honoring the dead, understanding grief, and observing the world, the greatest of Cupid's arrows. When you have a great poem in your hand, or in your heart, or even better, if you have attempted a poem yourself, you are close to irresistible. To read poetry aloud to one's loved one, or the one you hope to love and be loved by, is such a compelling mix of romance and seduction, of meaningful looks and powerful pauses, I wonder that the television sets of America don't just turn themselves off when you look right at the man or woman across from you and clear your throat and say, "You know how I feel about you? I feel like this, like Rumi":
Love lit a fire in my chest, and anything
that wasn't love left: intellectual
All I want now
to do or hear
The perfect poem for lovers
And when you have made up, again, or made love, for the first or thousandth time, turn to your him or her and quote, if you can, or read, if you will, from any of these poems, or from this one by Wislawa Szymborska, "Allegro Ma Non Troppo."
Life, you're beautiful (I say)
you just couldn't get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaily,
more anthillful or sproutspouting.
I'm trying to court life's favor,
to get into its good graces,
to anticipate its whims.
I'm always the first to bow,
always there where it can see me...