Poetry can do many things: inspire and uplift, provide consolation and catharsis. But can it actually rescue a person in emotional peril?
According to Jill Bialosky, the answer is yes.
In her new memoir, “Poetry Will Save Your Life,” Bialosky, a poet and novelist, describes how poetry has helped her deal with tremendous losses, beginning with the death of her father when she was 2. His absence and her mother’s resulting struggles made Bialosky feel deeply insecure, until she was introduced to the poems of Robert Frost by her fourth grade teacher.
“I read my own story in ‘The Road Not Taken,’ ” Bialosky recalls. “There are two roads one might travel: The road where families are whole and not broken, and fathers don’t die young, and mothers are happy — where everything seems to fit together like pieces in a puzzle; and the road I travel, which is crooked and not quite right, with bumps along the way. I know it is important I choose the right course.”
While the young Bialosky couldn’t choose her family’s course, poetry provided solace when her mother became depressed with grief, went out with various men and married unexpectedly, bringing a stern stepfather into their home. At other times, poetry offered her hope and tenderness, as when a new baby sister is born.
Each chapter opens with a beautifully described memory. Then Bialosky seamlessly shifts to a famous poem (or two) that expresses what she felt at that time — or that allows her to reflect on the experience. The result is a lovely hybrid that blends her coming-of-age story with engaging literary analysis.
In the chapter called “Prayer,” for example, she recalls how a favorite babysitter taught her and her sisters “Now I lay me down to sleep,” which made them feel less alone when their mother was out on a date. Later, Bialosky discovered a gorgeous poem by Li-Young Lee, which begins with the wind asking, “in my father’s voice, Have you prayed?” The poem goes on to describe a father’s love as “milk and sugar,/ two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief, and what’s left over/ is trimmed and leavened to make the bread/ the dead and the living share.” Both pieces, Bialosky writes, illustrate how “a poem links us to a universe at once intimate and communal” and strives to “capture and fathom the reality beyond appearances, the world invisible to the eye.”
As the memoir progresses, Bialosky moves from adolescence to her career as a writer. Her professional success and happy marriage are challenged by the suicide of her youngest sister and the deaths of her first and second babies. Devastated, she learns that poems “might be about what hurts,” but they can also “remain a sustaining source of comfort.”
Adults and mature teens will find much to love in this book, which demonstrates how poems can become an integral part of life. It also suggests, on every page, the wisdom and deep compassion that make Bialosky, a longtime editor at W.W. Norton, a tremendous asset both to readers and other writers.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.
By Jill Bialosky
Atria. 219 pp. $24