By Andrea Scarpino
Poetry can break you. Its tenderness, brutality. Its moments of lyricism so beautiful you forget where you are. Who you are. Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” And Robert Bly: “For this is a world in which everything is lost.”
Poetry can break you. Day after day, the blank page, thousands of words that need to be arranged in exactly the right order, exactly the right shape. Exactly the right punctuation or lack of punctuation. Thousands of words clamoring for your attention and you must choose carefully, correctly. You must choose their life. The weight of that charge insurmountable.
Poetry can break you. Hours spent sending it into the world, trying to find it good homes, kind readers, and day after day, rejection letters, silences. “Thanks, I really liked these,” one editor wrote in blue pen on my rejection slip. “This is lovely,” another wrote about my personal essay, “but too personal for our journal.” Again and again, defeat. “You can’t take it personally,” I tell my students, and in that moment, I believe. Gregory Orr: “love/ Is also a shattering.”
Poetry can break you. But then, it can put you back together. I moved across the country at 17 after my mother lost custody of my younger brother. I moved alone, no idea where I would stay, if I would finish high school. Days before I left, my favorite doctor gave me a book of poems by Mary Oliver. He read “The Journey” out loud to me while I lay in a hospital bed getting my final pain treatment: “determined to do/ the only thing you could do–/ determined to save/ the only life you could save.” That moment, that poem, saved my life. And also, Charles Simic, after my father died: “Then, I remember my shoes,/ How I have to put them on, / How bending over to tie them up/ I will look into the earth.”
And then it can put you back together. “It is either the beginning or the end/ of the world,” Carolyn Forché said, “and the choice is ourselves/ or nothing.” Poetry can break you. Again and again. Break everything you think you know into pieces. And then it will hold out its hand. “Ourselves or nothing,” it will say. And it will help you choose.
Poet and essayist Andrea Scarpino is a frequent contributor to POTB. You can visit her at: www.andreascarpino.com