Last year CavanKerry Press donated, as part of its GiftBooks program, copies of Divina Is Divina by Jack Wiler, to Meg Gadapee, an RA at a under-served college in Vermont, who wanted to create “an oasis of sanity for people who love good coffee and poetry.” Her mother Carlene, a high school teacher in New Hampshire, begins this blog by describing what happened when Meg gave Jack’s book to another RA who was having a “really rotten day.”
-Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
Poetry and Perspective
by Carlene M. Gadapee
My daughter is a senior and a Residents’ Assistant at a small college in a small town in a relatively small state; that is to say, there’s not a lot of outside diversion available to students who are experiencing a string of bad luck, a bad day, or a really stressful event. Early this fall, she asked me to find her some good poetry books, just so she could have them on hand, for her own use and to recommend to other residents as part of her job and in hopes of starting a group of readers. I selected a few from my shelf, and CavanKerry donated a couple of books as well. Recently, she shared with me this story:
A resident came to her, fully involved in a really rotten day. Rather than commiserate, binge-eat, or play some variation of a blame game/sympathy session, she offered up Jack Wiler’s Divina is Divina. “Here,” she said, “try this.” A while later, the resident returned, bearing the book in hand. “The poems weren’t what I expected,” she said, “but it’s funny…I feel a lot better.”
This is not unusual.
In a recent study done through Liverpool University, as reported in The Telegraph, it was found, among other things, that “reading poetry increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain…helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they have read” (Henry). For most college students, and by extension, for most people who are old enough to suffer the angsty self-doubt brought on by life’s challenges, what we need is not another dose of trans-fats and trashy television, not endless talk sessions and explorations of how we feel about things; instead, what we really could use is a sizeable helping of perspective. Most temporary problems will go away over time; if we spend a lot of time Chinese finger-puzzling our issues, they tend to grow more restrictive, and we can become even more trapped and frustrated by our own inability to cope with the challenges. Stepping outside of ourselves for a short span of time, reading some other characters’ experiences, and living in the head of someone else, even a fictional someone, can be just what we need. Professor Philip Davis of Liverpool University, quoted in the same article, says “this is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books,” and I think he’s on to something.
I’d like to go back for a moment to what my daughter’s resident said. First, that the poems were not what she expected. This begs the question: what do we expect poems to be? What do we expect them to do? What work, as it were, does a poem do in the world? Too often, poems are relegated to greeting card status, or are laboriously copied out in purple sparkle pen in preteen girls’ diaries and are left there to languish, fragments of human experience cut off from the rest of the world. Poetry is communal: that means we need an idea, a poet, and an audience. With this human dynamic, magic happens. Words are summoned out of the imagination and from experiences and are given form; ears receive the gift, and the transaction has begun. Poetry is both aural and oral as an art form; its purpose is to unite people, either in person, or across the miles, the years, on the page, and in the air. How better to heal a soul, to give meaning to an experience, to take one’s own confusion and give it scope than through someone else’s words?
The young college student couldn’t articulate why, but she did feel better. The poems were not intended to be instructive, or to provide a sense of compassion or a sympathetic listener on the page. They were not selected at all, except as a book handed from one human to another; a gift of possibility, of words that could provide space and time enough for things to sort themselves out. A break in the cycle that allowed perspective to ease its way in.
Quite often, the answer to stress and personal crisis is medication, professional or well-intentioned friendly intervention, or at least sitting with a bunch of girlfriends, painting toenails and eating ice cream directly from the carton. The world is a crazy place, no lie, and where so many college students find their panacea is often in a bottle. Why not try poetry?