Lew Welch

Fall In Love Again With Poetry

November 3, 2009 at 3:52 pm , by

autumn leaves, very shallow focusToday you’ve probably read dozens of e-mails, news items, tweets and status updates. But when was the last time you heard someone recite a poem? For me, surprisingly, it was twice in the past week—in fact, I was pelted by poems like bright autumn leaves in the wind. I wanted to pile them up and roll in them. I’d forgotten just how therapeutic that could be.

First, at work I overheard two colleagues talking about poems having to do with autumn. I chimed in with the snippets I could remember from my school days: for one, Keats’s “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…” (so charmingly butchered to “fruitlessness” by Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’s Diary). And then Shakespeare’s adorably mournful metaphor for his own aging in “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang/Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Oh, and who could forget Robert Frost’s  “two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”

But then Tom Claire, our associate managing editor, bowled me over by reciting one I’d never heard before, in its entirety. If you don’t know it, you should. It’s “The Importance of Autumn” by beat poet Lew Welch, from his out-of-print book Ring of Bone. (No, you can’t Google this poem, but if you post a comment asking for it here, Tom says he’ll e-mail it to you.)

SAVED BY A POEMNow my poetry pump was primed. So I read Kim Rosen’s beautiful new book Saved By A Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. It’s filled with stories of people whose lives were changed or helped by the power of a poem, including the author, who lost her life savings to Bernie Madoff. Guess what? Poetry sustained and inspired her through an incredibly difficult time.

Then I was lucky enough to be invited to a small gathering at writer Eve Ensler’s loft in New York City, where Rosen recited several of the poems from the book by heart—and from the heart. Hearing these poems spoken aloud reminded me of the power of language that is not tweets, not sound bites, not status updates. As Ensler wrote in the book’s foreword:

“Poetry is a form of revolution. It strengthens our muscle for care, our capacity for intricate metaphoric thinking, our appreciation for ambiguity. It take us out of the literal so that we can see what is real.”

What poems have helped you see what is real?