Poetry as Transformation

Poetry as Transformation

Even the title of Kim Rosen’s new book and CD, “Saved by a Poem” caught my attention, quickened my heart, stirred something deep in my soul, and prompted the January 25 e-quotes.

It is difficult
To get the news from poems
Yet men die miserably every day
For lack
Of what is found there.
– William Carlos Williams

It’s true, a poem can tenderly touch us, and fiercely shake us, in the very center of our being. Poetry lifts up the soul, points the way to mystery, fuels the creative spirit, and gives courage to the faint of heart.

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.
– Mary Oliver.

Poetry reminds us of the deepest truths of life when we have forgotten our way, evokes loss and possibility simultaneously, and links us inextricably with every other human being that has ever lived, loved and ached. Poetry allows us to perceive our troubled world and respond with care.

Poetry is the language of our time. It is a verbal excavation, digging us into and under that which is inarticulate, that which cannot be said but can be felt, that which cannot be stated but can be conjured. Poetry is a form of revolution. It re-arranges our thinking, our perception, our dialogue. It takes us out of the literal so that we can see what is real.”
– Eve Ensler.

REFLECTIONS on Poetry as Transformation

Years ago – this truly happened – 40,000 people filled the University of Minnesota football stadium to hear T.E. Eliot read his poetry.

“We come to poetry for moments of truth. We share it with others for moments of communion.”
– Kim Rosen

May this month’s reflections and tools, inspired by Saved by a Poem, help you discover the profound passion and power of poetry to help you transform your life and the lives of everyone you meet.

1. Poetry as Meditation

Great poetry calls into question not less than everything. It dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind. It amazes, startles, pierces, and transforms us. Great poetry happens when the mind is looking the other way; the heart opens, we forget ourselves, and the world pours in.

In today’s world it is deceptively easy to lose sight of our direction and the things that matter and give us joy. How quickly the days can slip by, the years all gone, and we, at the end of our lives, mourning the life we dreamed of but never lived. Poetry urges us to stand once and for all, and now, in the heart of our own life.
– Roger Housden

Poetry can be a refuge from the din and discombobulation of every day life. In settling into a focused 10 minutes of reading, reciting, sharing from our favorite author or anthology, the mind quiets, the body relaxes, the breath deepens. Called into presence by the resonance of truth, we touch again what matters most. Poem strengthens and disarms the mind and heart at the same time. It cuts through our habitual conditioned patterns, waking us up to a new vibrancy in the moment.

And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see –
it is, rather, a light by which we may see –
and what we see is life.
– Robert Penn Warren.

2. Poetry as Inquiry

Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate, for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.
– T.S. Eliot

Poetry is a transformative agent. We can read a poem when our souls need a larger view, a reminder to be amazed and grateful than anything exists at all, let alone that life, in moments, can be uplifting and exalted. We can even write a poem, as we often do, when we need to plumb the darkness of the moment, to find in the pain and confusion a deeper meaning, to make sense of the non-sense of our experience. Poetry can bump us up against the places in our psyches that have become constricted, fragmented, avoided. The right poem at the right moment can crack us wide open again to truths long denied and to the resilience to face them now. We plumb the depths of the muck, then we step into an awareness, a gasp of recognition; we recover the essence of what is and re-awaken the faith, trust, and vision for life to go on.

The real thing about poetry is, no matter what lonely street you’re on, someone has been there before you, and survived.”
– Guy Johnson

The Lightest Touch

Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then, like a hand in the dark,
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.

In the silence that follows
a great line,
you can feel Lazarus,
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.
– David Whyte
Everything is Waiting for You

3. Living a Poem by Heart

Breathe-in experience,
breathe-out poetry.
-Muriel Rukeyser

Living a poem by heart is different than learning a poem by heart. Not just memorizing a poem but developing an intimate relationship with it. Letting the images, sounds and rhythms of the words on the page or spoken in our ear reverberate in our psyches, taking them in, feeling them in our body, breathing, sounding, dancing them, speaking them to those whose lives we touch.. Living a poem illuminates realms in our memory, in our imagination, bringing a blaze of discovery, a turning and transforming within. To take a poem into your life is to “ignite your true essence, aligning your thoughts, words and deeds with your heart’s wisdom and longing.” K.R.

In Impossible Darkness

Do you know how
the caterpillar

Do you remember
what happens
inside a cocoon?
You liquefy.

There in the thick black
of your self-spun womb,
void as the moon before waxing,
you melt

(as Christ did
for three days
in the tomb)

in impossible darkness
the sheer
of wings.
– Kim Rosen

4. The Gift of Forgetting

Poetry is a place to go back to when there is no way forward.”
– Eve Ensler

Noticing the moment when we stumble over a line in a poem, not liking it or not wanting to face what it evokes, becomes a gateway into split off, hidden, painful, shameful places in our psyches that can now be tenderly held in a new awareness, a new appreciation for the power of them to hide or de-rail essential parts of ourselves. These moments of refusal bring us to a threshold where we can see choices, reclaim various voices within ourselves hushed by a harsh world, speak the deeper truths, and dissolve the walls that separate us from ourselves, from humanity.

5. Poetry as Integration

Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.
-Carl Sandburg

Poetry is processed in both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, certainly. But the deep knowing of poetry is processed primarily through the holistic, intuitive, imagistic capacities of the right hemisphere. We feel the meaning and metaphor of a poem in our bodies, traversing our emotional landscape, letting memory and imagination carry us beyond ourselves to new horizons, rather than logically analyzing what the poem is about. This deep knowing is what catalyzes the wholeness that transforms us from the inside out. Poetry re-patterns our neural circuitry, shifts our neurochemistry, unites our body-mind-heart-soul together in a new “aha!”, a new way of being.

Science is for those who learn; poetry, for those who know.
– Joseph Roux


Forget what you learned about poetry in school. (That it’s complex, opaque, a problem to be solved in 1500 words by tomorrow.) Poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart. It holds the cadence of common life. It has a passion for truth and justice and liberty; it is a buoy to people in ordinary trouble: to a friend whose life has gone skidding into the meridian, who has been struck by bad news, who is frying eggs and hash browns and has whiny child clinging to his pant leg.
– Garrison Keillor

* * * * *

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.  Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.
– Paul Engle

* * * * *

Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.
– W.B. Yeats

* * * * *

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
– Dead Poet’s Society

* * * * *

Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance.
– Robert Frost

* * * * *

I have no doubt that our highly distressed society could be saved by poetry.
– Thomas Moore.

* * * * *

Poets are like magicians, searching for magical phrases to pull rabbits out of people’s souls.
– Glade Byron Addams

These and other quotes are from the June 22, 2009 e-quotes on Poetry, which you can download in their entirety from my website. Truly a resource.


“When could be a better time for poetry than now? Poets can be truly courageous people, who are willing to stand up for what they believe. Who else to say what needs to be said but a poet? In times of pain, you need to know that other human beings have felt as you feel. And that feeling is not confined to race or class or issue or country or nation. It is the heart of the human being.”
– Guy Johnson

[These are three stories from “Saved by a Poem”]

Kim tells of her own journey in discovering “poetry as medicine.” Coping with family illness and a depressing, inner emptiness, she found an unmarked cassette tape someone had accidentally dropped behind the radiator in her office. Curious, she began to listen to it while doing the dishes and heard David Whyte’s deeply melodious voice: “To find the great silence/asking so little/ one word/ one word only.” Something in the tone, the words, the rhythm, pierced her numbness, touched her inner soul, and brought her to the couch weeping. Kim began reading, learning, hungrily taking in poems. “You will love again the stranger who was your self.” (Derek Walcott, Love After Love)

“As I shared the poems with others and talked about my experiences, a remarkable phenomenon occurred. All sorts of people started telling me about poems that had saved their lives.” Like Rilke’s “First Elegy” that helped pierce through the barren numbness of a friend’s grief over the death of her daughter in a car accident. Like “I said to my soul be still, and let the dark come upon you/which shall be the darkness of God” from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets to help a friend through chemotherapy. Like her optometrist’s assistant who was hanging by a thread after the untimely death of her brother. “I memorized almost all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. They brought me back from a nervous breakdown. They literally saved my life.” Kim found people carried poems in their wallets (I do); taped them to the frigde (I do that, too.); could recite poems they had memorized in high school 20, 30, 50 years before. (Yup, that, too.)

* * * * *

Kim tells the story of poetry as medicine for Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Maya had been raped at age 8 by her mother’s lover; when the man was murdered, she stopped talking for almost 6 years. She became mute because she imagined her own words had caused his death. . In those years of silence, she memorized poetry – Shakespeare’ sonnets, Edgar Allan Poe, Lawrence Dunbar. When she was 11 years old, a wise but fierce teacher challenged Maya to speak the poetry out loud. Maya was terrified and refused for six months. But one day, hiding under her house, she recited a sonnet of Shakespeare’s and heard her own voice again for the first time in years.

After hearing this story from Maya Angelou, Kim heard another story of poetry as medicine from Maya Angelou’s son, poet and novelist Guy Johnson. After his 9th spinal surgery after being paralyzed from a car accident, Guy called his mother from his hospital room and asked her to read “Invictus”, written by the poet William Ernest Henley when he himself was learning to survive the loss of a leg and an eye in a riding accident.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.

The surgery, and the love of family and friends, and the miraculous power of poetry to support and sustain, allowed Guy to move and re-teach his fingers to hit the right keys on the typewriter and write “The Psalm of Severed Strings.”

…Yet, if spirit remains,
A human can still be seen
Amidst the disobedient flesh.
And, if the will has life,
Even wood can be made to dance.
Thus, when you see them among the crowds,
You have seen the true puppeteers,
For with gossamer thread
Each ligament, nerve and limb is moved
To rejoin life’s wild carousel.

* * * * *

Another story from Kim:

“On a bombed-out street that was once a beautiful section of downtown Baghdad, a large tent was erected on August 28, 2006, in the midst of explosions and clashes. It was the first of many gatherings of poets in what came to be called the Freedom Space events. There, while Sunni and Shiite militias roamed the streets propagating terror, men and women from both factions gathered to speak poetry together. The Shiites sat opposite the Sunnis, as if it were a competition. But by the end of the event, they were embracing and dancing together because the poems from both sides voiced the same words, the same longings, the same wounds.

“There were 25 people in the tent at that first gathering. Since then the movement has proliferated throughout Baghdad and the surrounding areas. Though some of these gatherings are held in areas where people have been killed for speaking poetry, more and more are risking their lives to be a part of the surge of hope. Even soldiers from both Sunni and Shiite militias have joined the celebration, volunteering to guard the space and speaking poetry from the stage. Some have left their posts in the army because they see in these poetry gatherings a more powerful form of peacemaking than any militia.

“The Freedom Space of March 2008 was held at the technical university in downtown Baghdad. Though armed guards surrounded the space and the sound of bombs punctuated the poetry, inside an audience of a thousand, Sunni and Shiite, danced, wept, and cheered.”

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
– Salman Rushdie


1. Your personal lineage of poetry

Bring to mind a poem, or a line of a poem, that has touched your life (or several poems). Can you remember by what grace this poem came into your life? Can you pass this poem on to others now? (I have been utterly amazed hearing, sometimes months later, of someone who was moved or touched by a poem or quote in these e-offerings. The ripples can go on and on, person to person, forever.)

You can create a poetry journal (or a data base on your computer) to safe-keep poems that have touched your life in meaningful, even startling, ways, to return to them whenever you need guidance and nourishment.

2. Reverberating with a poem

Choose a favorite poem, one you wouldn’t mind hearing yourself say over and over for ten minutes. Recite the poem out loud again and again, allowing new associations, new images to emerge in your mind. Speak the poem quietly, loudly, quickly, slowly, hearing new details, new nuances in the rhythm and melody of the poem. Savor a particular word, image, metaphor over and over. Steep yourself in the feeling of the poem. Allow it to resonate throughout your body and soul. You can do this exercise with a friend, both of you reverberating in new ways to each other’s recitations.

3. Sharing your poem with others

“Something different happens when soulful language is spoken out loud. Poetry gives voice to our deepest longing and is meant to be heard and shared.” Kim Rosen

You can invite kindred souls to meet with you for a pot-luck dinner and poetry. A “salon” where you can share aloud poems that speak deeply to you. Kim suggests:

“When you are about to speak your favorite poem to someone, there is a silence just before you begin. Instead of looking at the words on the page, or talking about the time you first discovered this poem or what it means to you, take a minute to meet the eyes of those gathered. Even the thought that someone is about to read or recite a poem can transform the atmosphere of a room. People automatically ready themselves for “deep listening” as Rumi calls the soul-to-soul communion of poetry. In that moment before you speak the poem, you may feel the very texture of the air becoming saturated with presence. Out of this fertility, the poem can emerge organically. When it is over, again allow the silence that naturally comes. You have just shared words that have touched and changed your life. Be with your companions in the wave of vulnerability that may wash over you in the wake of the words.”

4. Writing your own poetry as inquiry, catalyst, integration.

I have found the best moments to create a poem have been when I’m riding a wave of experience; something is percolating, bubbling up, and the energy starts to flow. I can channel the energy into words through talking to myself or with a friend, allowing the emergence of something new to articulate itself as I literally “hear myself think.”

I can channel the flow of energy into words in a free-form, stream of consciousness, writing non-stop for three pages, as Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist’s Way. Then sifting through for key themes or images I can use to begin to shape the flow into a poem. Caring more about the flow than the words themselves.

Then I give myself a space of time, an hour or two, to let the words and images shape themselves. Getting my self, my judgments, out of the way as much as possible; letting curiosity guide the process. If I get stuck, I go back to the original feelings and images that were percolating and catch the wave again. When there’s enough shape, but not necessarily finish, I let the poem ‘breathe’ for 15-30 minutes. I walk around the block, do chores, re-fill the bird feeders, clearing my mind for a fresh look. Then I come back and see what’s there, letting it go as an interesting exploration in creativity or polishing it to completion. Very important: I share the poem with friends as soon as I can; sometimes this “cooks” the poem even more until I’m satisfied.

5. Collective poetry

In my own Gourmet Poets Society (we’ve been meeting quarterly for 9 years now), sometimes there is so much resonance from the poetry we’ve been sharing, we are inspired to create a collective poem. We pass around a sheet of paper. Someone writes a line and folds down the paper so the line can’t be seen. The next person writes their own line and fold down the paper again. The paper is passed around, each person adding a line and folding the paper, until we have created a collective poem out of our collective but unspoken consciousness. Reading the collective lines straight through often reveals startling synchronicities and continuities, and always generates a great deal of fun and appreciation.


Poetry can be a vibrant part of our relationships, our chosen work or service in the world, our deepening sense of awe, beauty, purpose and wonder.

Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words by Kim Rosen, Hay House, 2009.

One of the most heartful, accessible guides to the power of poetry to change a life – ever. Kim shares her own personal journey with poetry as well as the insights and breakthroughs many students have experienced in her workshops. As poet Jane Hirshfield says of the book, “profoundly useful and usefully profound.” Includes Kim’s own list of 50 Poems to Live by Heart and a CD of more than a dozen well-known authors reading and discussing their favorites poems.

www.kimrosen.net for a schedule of workshops and poetry concerts. Next one in the San Francisco Bay Area February 27, 2010.

Being True to Life: Poetic Paths to Personal Growth by David Richo. Shambala, 2009.

David Richo is a psychotherapist and writer who draws on Buddhist teachings, Jungian perspectives and poetry in his workshops on personal and spiritual growth. In Being True to Life David offers readers a comprehensive protocol to dive into the process of reading and writing poetry to heal wounds from the past, overcome fear, loneliness, etc., and find one’s own authentic voice. Exercises in mindfulness, visualizations, active imagination and dreamwork enrich the reader’s creative effort to write poetry for their own growth and emotional healing.

www.davericho.com Next workshop in San Francisco Bay Area. Feb. 20, at Spirit Rock Meditation Center

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden, Harmony Books, 2001.

The first of a most remarkable series of books: Ten Poems to Open Your Heart, Ten Poems to Set You Free, Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime. Roger presents a poem, then leads the reader through the most fascinating commentary, opening the subtle nuances and rich emotional and spiritual tapestries of each poem. We are changed – open, free, sustained.


Clear Mind Wild Heart: Finding Courage and Clarity through Poetry by David Whyte.

A CD exploration of the power of poetry to lend us courage, to give us the vision of those who have endured, and to bring us boldly to the “fierce edges” of our lives, by one of the world’s finest poets and a premier advocate for the transformative power of poetry. This CD set guides the listener into the wellspring of the poetic imagination, including the work of Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, Antonio Machado, and many others.



Joe Riley’s free e-mail download of a poem every two or three days. Inspiring, touching, delicious.


The website’s Poetry Tool is an easy way to search hundreds of poets and thousands of poems by author, title, category, topic, etc. Publisher of Poetry magazine, the foundation also sponsors the “Poetry Out Loud” competition. Over 300,000 students all across America participated in 2009, learning great classical and modern poems in hopes of winning a $20,000 college scholarship.


The Library of Congress has many ways to access poetry, including “180”, a poem a day for high schools students, created by former poet laureate Billy Collins.

And nowadays, you can google any poet, any title, any first line, any line of a poem at all, and find a dozen links to what you’re looking for in less than 10 seconds. Enjoy.


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