Why Poetry Matters; Why I Matter

Poetry Image

Written by Kristin Rose

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” ~ T.S. Eliot

            For a lot of my life, I have had a hard time allowing myself to take up space in this world. There is something about writing, poetry in particular, that helps me to see the world in a new and transformative way. Poetry helps me to make sense of the world around me and somehow feel safe. Writing to me is a daily, spiritual experience. In many ways, there is nothing scientific and mathematical about poetry. I love that there are no “right” or linear answers, just constant exploration.

I have had a desire to write since I was five years old. I was a theatrical and dramatic little girl always reading, directing plays, and writing stories and poems of some sort in a pink leather journal or whatever composition books I could find. I would create stories about make believe worlds. One of my favorite and most influential writers is Robert Lowell. I will always remember these lines from the poem “Skunk Hour” from his collection Life Studies: “One dark night/ my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull./ where the graveyard shelves on the town…/My mind’s not right.” Something about that poem stuck with me: the image of the “hill’s skull” and speaker’s admission that “my mind’s not right” was heartbreaking, original, and honest. I identified with this idea of my mind being not quite right. For me, I didn’t know if this was depression, alcoholism, madness, or a conflation of the three. I knew that Lowell had written it down. He talked about something that scared me and also resonated within me in plain language.

I have struggled with depression and alcoholism for more than 5 years now, and I have had periods of sobriety and relapse. For me, my alcoholism and depression was something that I always wanted to hide and never let other people know about. God forbid, they would find out I was not perfect. Writing poems finally allowed me the ability to be honest about my alcoholism. This was freeing to me in a way that I had never felt before.

My grandmother died from alcoholism when I was one year old; I met her once but I don’t remember. I found her journal from 1935 in my mother’s attic a few years ago. I wrote a series of poems titled “10 Don’ts for Beautiful Girls” which examines how the disease of alcoholism affects a family and is propagated throughout the generations. My brother also struggles with this disease, and I have written a few of my poems and prose pieces on him. In many ways, when I am examining my brother in these pieces I am also looking at myself. In my family, we never talked about that which was uncomfortable or disturbing. The truth was always swept under the expensive oriental rug, and for many years I simply drank so I didn’t have to feel the discomfort of keeping so many secrets. Writing and poetry has let me tell the truth.

For me, as a poet and a person, I constantly struggled for so long with the idea of being allowed permission to take up space in the world. I’m not sure where these insecurities came from or if they are just part of the human condition. For me, redemption or serenity comes with the daily practice of writing.

I think I may have wanted to be a poet ever since I was 10 years old. One of my first memories of poetry in the classroom is from my fourth grade class at A.W. Cox Elementary School in Guilford, Connecticut. My progressive teacher, Mrs. Light, was friends with a local poet and arranged for her to come to our class on Friday afternoons to teach poetry.

The visiting poet read work she had written as well as poetry by famous but accessible poets like Robert Frost. I remember the words of Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” echoing off the bookshelves:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

Ms. Gunn also facilitated writing exercises. In many ways, this was my first creative writing workshop, and I remember writing poems about a turtle and the pond in Cape Cod my family and I used to visit every summer. Interestingly enough, I still write about these same topics in my series of “Crooked Pond” poems. As a child, reading, writing, and creativity were a means of escape; in many ways it still is for me today. This workshop is also where I first remember learning about rhythm and sound. I also remember that at age ten I had a voice that I thought was important, and I did not censor myself.

As I grew into adolescence and young adulthood I found it harder and harder to believe that this voice mattered. I continued to read and write in my journal, and my study of fiction and poetry, along with my participation in poetry workshop, allowed me a glimmer of hope that I do have a voice and it is important. I learned that poets like Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Elizabeth Bishop also each had a voice and were compelled to see the world in new and revolutionary ways. As a teenager I began struggling with depression, and the reading and writing of poetry, although a solitary practice, helped me. Poetry workshop was equally important because it gave me a place to share this interest with like-minded people so that I no longer felt so solitary.

I remember enjoying poetry in my high school English classes and falling in love with John Donne and the metaphysical poets. During sophomore year of college at Stanford University, I took my first Introduction to Poetry Writing workshop with the Wallace Stegner Fellowship poet Rick Barot. It was in this class that I think I first I fully fell in love with writing poetry and poetry workshop. Professor Barot introduced me to poets like Wallace Stevens and Charles Simic. Reading the poem of Simic’s “Talking to the Ceiling,” in which he described an “insomniac’s brain is a choo choo train,” I remember feeling transformed. I didn’t know poets could or were allowed to write poems like this, or that they could be funny.

After getting divorced in 2009, I moved back to Connecticut from San Francisco, thinking I would finally go to medical school. I had double-majored in pre-med and English literature with a concentration in creative writing and had always felt a pull towards writing but also towards the biological sciences. After working for a year at Yale in a neurogenetics lab and shadowing many doctors, I realized that I would much rather be writing or watching episodes of Greys Anatomy than attending medical school or working in a hospital on a daily basis. I found myself getting too emotionally attached to patients and wanting to know their stories, and I was unable to turn off my brain when I went home. I realized if I wanted to be a doctor I was going to have to shut down the empathetic parts of myself that I really valued. At this point, I decided to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. I realized that reading and writing mattered to me more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems and short stories seemed like a great place to be. I now teach Freshman Writing at Fairfield University, and I witness the therapeutic and redemptive power of writing on a daily basis.

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