When things get overwhelming and you feel knee deep in distractions, what do you do to slow things down? Some people turn to meditation. I use poetry as my remedy. As soon as I sense a whiff of spring, I dig up the first stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and recite these words to whomever will listen:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
I don’t know why I memorized this part of the poem in college, but through this exercise I realized that reading and experiencing a poem can be transformative. It takes me away from what’s happening around me, an escape from the busyness and distraction of our media-saturated and information-rich attention economy.
As it turns out, my observations have been proven by science. Neuroscientists have mapped the way poetry affects the brain — it happens to affect the same area of the brain as music. This is the very area on the right side of the brain where we get shivers from an outstanding emotional response. No wonder reading poetry helps us unwind, promote self-reflection and support creativity.
In her book, Standing on Marbles, Karol Wasylyshyn gives examples of how poetry not only can “speak” to people, but how it can arm them with information that provides steadying effects. Through her provocative and at times searing poetry, she bridges the gap between the conscious and creative mind. In “Sometimes We Invent What We Need,” she writes:
Do you remember how after—after the electricity,
the great conflagration that nearly burned you down—
how you couldn’t even recall the spark?
You remembered only that something wild and
ill-formed arrived—unwieldy mass of clay that yielded
to your kneading and throwing and molding on the wheel
you imagining a vessel, a vessel beyond its own words or
thoughts, briefly perfect vessel touching for a time in its
persistence, beckoning shades of blue and promise,
well-fated vessel for drinking—tipping with you all numb
and crazy…sliding into your next night. Yes.
Yes, sometimes we invent what we need.
In 1996, the Academy of American Poets chose April as National Poetry Month. Today the academy says that it is the largest literary celebration in the world, with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.
The Academy also provides an excellent place to get started reading poetry. Through their poem-a-day program, you can sign up and be emailed original unpublished poems by unknown poets. Try interrupting your day with a poem and see what it can do for you. As Emily Dickenson wrote:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
I dwell in possibility, do you?