Author Jill Bialosky‘s deep love for poetry began when she first read Robert Frost‘s “The Road Not Taken” in elementary school. Now a celebrated poet and novelist, poetry looms large in Bialosky’s life as a means of shaping herself, distilling her experiences and making sense of the world.
In her latest memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life (Atria Books), Bialosky maps her storied life through the many poems that have stayed with her, examining the universal pull of poetry through her own experiences. She revisits each poem during what she calls its Life, framing the time when she first found meaning in the poem, and its Afterlife, when that meaning would take on new significance with the passage of time.
To mark the release of her memoir, Parade asked Bialosky to choose three volumes of poetry that changed her life. Read on for her poetic insights.
We are flooded daily with the news of the world on Twitter and Facebook, on blogs and in the newspaper, on the radio and in the media. As an antidote, here are three books of poetry that will allow you to see the world through a different lens. They embrace truth, beauty and the power of the imagination to transform indelible moments, experiences and ways of seeing. Each were essential to my own coming of age as a poet.
Geography III contains such masterpieces as “In the Waiting Room,” “The Moose” and “One Art.” In the poem, “In the Waiting Room” a child is in the waiting room of a dentist’s office while her aunt is getting a tooth pulled. Flipping through National Geographic, she looks at images of the inside of a volcano, an American adventure couple in riding boots and helmets, babies with pointed heads and the image of women wearing neck rings. These images cause a stir, an existential crisis. “you are an I,/ you are an Elizabeth,/ you are one of them” the child exclaims. She recognizes herself as an individual being and also as part of a larger world and it is extraordinary. The poem, as in all of Bishop’s work, is accessible and mysterious all at once. “One Art” is another beauty. It uses the playful form of a villanelle to tell the universal story of how we lose things every day, a watch, a key, places and names, even a loved one. The ironic turn at the poem’s conclusion, that none of these losses are “disaster,” gives way to despair. There are 10 masterful poems in the volume; each one locates the reader in a particular time and place and delivers an emotional truth in language that is astonishingly clear and resonant.
The poems of Sylvia Plath are essential reading for any reader interested in the evolution of the psyche. Many young women, especially, come to Plath’s poems and their dream like evocations leave an indelible mark. Ariel contains poems of poetic genius. They offer a road map to the interior life of a woman, a wife, a mother, an artist, struggling against the confines and gifts of her gender. It contains her master poems, “Daddy,” “Ariel,” “Nick and the Candlestick” among others. In “Nick and the Candlestick,” a mother awakens in the blue light of dawn to check on her child in his crib, “love, how did you get here,” she muses. It is a six-word sentence that sums up the awe of a mother looking at her child, at this miracle of being. The poems in Ariel are about being, what it means to be alive and open to various emotional registers. As Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes says in the introduction of a recent edition, “it begins with the word love and ends with the word Spring.” It records the birth of a child, the breakup of a marriage, the determination of embracing a new life. The poems are deeply felt, deeply menacing, fully alive.
If you want poems that are philosophical, smart, abstract and concrete all at once, poems that pierce with brilliance, startle with imagery, poems that as Emily Dickinson famously said, “take the top of your head off,” read the poems of Wallace Stevens, a giant of Modernist poetry. “The Snow Man” is perhaps his best known. It embraces what we know and what we don’t know and our relationship to the world outside of us and the world within. Others like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” are twisty and mind-bending. Perhaps what I love most about the poems of Wallace Stevens are the way in which they embrace and telegraph solitude. In “The Snow Man,” a poem ostensibly about seeing things as they exactly are, one could read a hundred times, and each time see something different. For me, its closing stanza captures what a poem can do that no other art can: capture the inexpressible: “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”