Nearly every day, poetry saves me. Some favorite line or surprising image will rescue my vagrant attention from the careening bandwagon of my thoughts and redirect it to the path of my soul. My mind quiets, my breath deepens, and I remember what matters most to me.

For many years, poetry was not a big part of my life. Though I wrote poems as a child and went to college hoping to become a great poet, the intellectuality of the academic approach I encountered as an undergrad disheartened me. Suddenly poetry became a foreign language, and I couldn’t crack the code. So I turned away.

Then, through a miracle I describe in Chapter 2, poetry poured back into my life, cracking the encrustation of depression that was then gripping me. The healing did not come through writing poems or even through reading them. It came when I discovered that taking a poem I loved deeply into my life and speaking it aloud caused a profound integration of every aspect of me—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. I felt a wholeness I had never before experienced. I felt like I was flying. I was speaking the truth, and the truth was setting me free.

For the first time in my life, I had found the voice of my soul.

On Entering the Language of Poetry

Many people have confessed to me, “I want to like poetry, but I just don’t understand most of it!” I know what they mean. For decades, I felt the same way. Until I realized that the language of poetry, like the “language” of music or art, is not (usually) about the kind of understanding I had been taught. Most Western education focuses on analytical thinking, much of which happens in the left hemisphere of the brain. But, while poetry happens in both sides of the brain, it primarily calls on the holistic, intuitive, and imagistic functioning that is the work of the right hemisphere. And, since it arrives in words, poetry can be deceiving. The left brain, which is the primary processor of language, can mistakenly perceive the poem as part of its own domain and apply its highly tuned rational capacities—often to no avail. When asked how to help young readers appreciate poetry, the poet Mary Oliver said, “Emphasize their response in terms of feeling. We give far too much focus to understanding in our educational systems. Don’t ask them what the poem is about. Ask them, ‘How does it make you feel?’”1 Billy Collins wrote a poem about this dilemma called “Introduction to Poetry.” In it, he talks about how, even though he invites people to look at the light through a poem like a color slide, or “press an ear against its hive,” all they want to do is beat it with a hose to “find out what it really means.”

In order to enter poetry’s language, your grip on habitual, left-brained ways of processing information needs to soften. Somehow we know how to do this with music and art. You probably wouldn’t try to figure out the exact meaning of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing. Nor are you likely to do a pragmatic analysis of an abstract painting by Georgia O’Keeffe or Jackson Pollock. You feel these art forms. You allow associations to play through your awareness. You let your linear mind relax and go for the ride.

As you read poems, listen to them, and speak them aloud, try meeting them as you would a piece of music. Allow your rational, linear brain to relax. Dare to not understand, to lose your grip on making sense of the words. Let the images, like musical notes, pour over you. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes that poetry “comes before thought . . . [R]ather than being a phenomenology of the mind, [poetry] is a phenomenology of the soul.”2

A Note about the Soul and Other Indefinables

Like several other words pointing to intangible realities—God, spirit, love, and heart being only a few—the word soul is frequently used to stand for some assumed territory, often without delineating exactly what that territory is. The Encyclopædia Britannica defines soul as “the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity.”3 But in the Bhagavad Gita, the soul is anything but individual and human; it is the one unchanging, indestructible, indivisible presence within everything. In the Old Testament, the soul is sometimes referred to as breath and therefore necessary to the life of the body. But Christian writers have portrayed the body and soul as separate and, at times, in conflict with each other. Plato, quoting his teacher Socrates, defined the soul as the immortal essence of a being. Jungian psychologist James Hillman calls the soul “the poetic basis of mind” and goes on to define it as “the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, fantasy.”4

In his book Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes, “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful.”5 Indeed, the very indefinability of the word gives us the need for poetry. Poems can speak these ineffables with a kind of mysterious accuracy. “Poetry is a commitment of the soul,” Gaston Bachelard writes. “Forces are manifested in poems that do not pass through the circuits of knowledge.”6

In this book, I take the liberty of asking the word soul to include all of these varied and even opposing definitions. I ask it to stand for all that lives in us beyond the socialized, survival-oriented self. I ask it to include the many realms of the “inner”7 world: the psychological self with its memories, wounds, imaginings, and feelings; the oceanic movements of the emotions; the archetypal themes, forces, and elements of the collective unconscious that we share with all humanity; and the Self that is pure, formless, awake, eternal presence. What all of these have in common is a lack of concern with appearances, achievement, or even survival in worldly terms. According to Emily Dickinson, “The Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door—.”8 Chariots stop at her gate. Emperors kneel on her doormat. She opens and closes “the Valves of her attention” when she pleases. She is beholden only to herself.

This book is an invitation to discover what happens when you merge the power of the word with the language of the soul. The potency of the words we speak is not a new discovery. From the Proverbs in the Old Testament to a recent flood of books on the creative power of thoughts, many teachers have revealed how words, whether silent or spoken, can cause hurt and healing, war and peace—within and around us. To take a poem into your life is to fill yourself with words that ignite your true essence, aligning your thoughts, words, and deeds with your heart’s wisdom and longing. The simple and powerful act of creating a deep relationship with a poem you love can change your life and, through your spoken words, the lives of those around you.

Each chapter in this book invites you into a different dimension of relationship with a poem. Although I speak of them sequentially, you can start anywhere and explore each chapter with or without reading the others. For instance, you can directly experience the powerful healing medicine of poetry in the chapter called “The Anatomy of a Poem,” regardless of whether you ever go on to speak it aloud to others. You can read the chapters on learning a poem by heart to discover new and transformative ways to commit just about anything to memory: a prose passage, a speech, or your lines in a play. And the lessons in “Undressing Your Voice” may help you speak authentically in public, whether you are delivering poetry, telling your own life story, or teaching a class.

At the end of each chapter you will find a poem. Sometimes I’ve chosen the poem because it speaks one of the themes in the preceding pages, sometimes because I referred to it in the text, and sometimes for the sheer beauty of how it opens the mind and graces the movement of the journey at that particular moment. Like coming upon a mountain stream after a long hike or listening to music after much conversation, I hope you’ll let the poems wash over you, tuning your inner listening to “the one who talks to the deep ear in / your chest.”9

No exploration of the healing power of poetry would be complete without an opportunity to directly experience the magic that can happen when you listen to a poem delivered by someone who has deeply embodied its wisdom. On the CD at the back of this book, the voices of several esteemed spiritual teachers and poets, each reading and discussing a favorite poem, are woven among my own insights on hearing and speaking poetry. Also included is a guided meditation where I invite you, to conceive, write, and give voice to your own poems.

My greatest hope is that this work will inspire you to find the poems that are the language of your soul, take them into your life, feel them in your body, speak them to those whose lives you touch. As you embody the poems you love, you may meet yourself, your imagination, and your true voice in ways you never dreamed of. As you speak the words aloud, you can change the world around you with poetry’s medicine—dissolving lines of separation, fostering intimacy and truthfulness, and awakening the heart.

Love after Love

The time will come

when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door,

in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread.

Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

—Derek Walcott

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