When under a great deal of stress I turn to poetry, benzodiazepines and exercise. They all work, but only 2 of 3 are really socially acceptable. My choice really depends on the time of day, source of stress and intensity. Let’s just say that poetry is a bedtime ritual, exercise best enjoyed in the morning and the benzos only as a very last resort. Relax, they are prescribed. I have used only 1-3 times over the course of a horrific summer and fall.
I enjoyed poetry as a kid. My mother gave me my first book at age 10 or so. It was Robert Louis Stevenson “Child’s Garden of Verses”. It was an odd choice for my mother. She was not a particularly literate person. I never saw her actually read a book. She always seemed too busy with domestic chores to indulge in literature. But there it was, under the Christmas tree that year. When I unwrapped it, I shrugged, pretending not to enjoy it in front of my immature younger brother and judgmental older sister. I do remember the look on her face though. It was more of a connection, as if to say, "I may not have time to read this but you certainly do and should, for my sake." I loved reading it in the quiet of my room. I loved the pictures of the Victorian cherubic children, on the beach, flying kites or playing in a haystack . The pictures and words melded into pure joy and peace on a lazy summer afternoon or better on a restless humid night. I still have that book, minus the dust jacket, nestled among perhaps better poets but ones not necessarily closer to my often-childish heart.
Growing older I often denied my lyrical self. Sure high school English with its obvious poems was effortless and interpretation was a piece of cake for me compared to my often illiterate classmates. In the ease, I didn’t take it seriously and drifted to science where 1970’s girls were rewarded by saying that they were becoming doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs. Science was my major, graduate school my goal and God forbid, anyone get in my way. Stealthily I indulged again my senior year of college, in an attempt to get an “easy A” (not that my particular university gave those out). I delighted in Hart Crane’s "The Broken Tower", read with intensity Poe's "The Raven" and finished with a dull textbook on "Poetic Closure". I got the A, raised my GPA and sailed off to Grad School.
But poetry was a hidden pleasure, hiding it even from myself for a long time. School ended, career came, training evolved and tried to evolve again, then jobs, marriage, children, etc. I should have stopped by that snowy evening once and awhile, for I had miles to go before I sleep.
As a middle aged woman struggling with the vagaries and adversities of life, I have turned again to poetry. I cherish Frost, like an unrequited lover sensing his moodiness, vague themes and stark, simplistic words. I laugh at Dorothy Parker and her constant need for a man as if she wasn’t strong enough herself. Anne Sexton’s often-overt sexuality surprises me as if her name predicted her subject matter. Gwendolyn Brooks seems closest to my darkness with her realism and sarcasm. A close friend introduced me to Marge Piercy and I delight in her earthly womanliness.
There are others in my crowd: Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, Patrick Kavanagh, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Truman Cooper and William Butler Yeats. They fill my nights now often marked with longing, emptiness and sadness. But they understand. They have been there, maybe with poetry book in hand, too.
They are my friends now when my real ones are living their own lives and are sick of my whining. They validate my sadness, joy or frustration in love, marriage, children, career, elderly parents or life in general. With them I will conquer the darkness and never be alone-J