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'Poetry Will Save Your Life' is a sketchbook of personal experience through the lens of poetry

Poet Jill Bialosky illuminates for us the joys and tragedies that have shaped her – saved her – through poetry. 

Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir By Jill Bialosky Atria Books 240 pp.
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  • Janet Saidi

In Poetry Will Save Your Life, the poet Jill Bialosky endeavors to bottle up the emotional response we readers have to poetry. Bialosky wants to make the pleasure of poetry as meaningful for us as it has been for her, throughout her life Her new memoir is a sketchbook of personal experience through the lens of poetry, as Bialosky illuminates for us the joys and tragedies that have shaped her – saved her – and the poems that have guided her along the way. 

Bialosky writes about her childhood growing up in suburban Cleveland overwhelmed by a plethora of attentive Jewish relatives and a painful gap created by the early death of her father. But in fourth grade, Bialosky has a close encounter with Robert Frost through his poem "The Road Not Taken," and she realizes that the powerful emotion of nostalgia for a life not lived, the negation of experience and what might have been, is not her own peculiar pain but instead is one universally shared: through poetry.

The poetry and the poets emerge in this memoir as friends with time-capsuled messages about innocence, experience, and survival, guiding her through key milestones in Bialosky's life – falling in love (John Keats, James Wright), going to college (Robert Bly, e.e. Cummings), having sex (Sharon Olds), and bearing witness to her mother's depression (Sylvia Plath).

And when Bialosky faces the tragic death of her youngest sister, W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop are there, to remind her that "The art of losing isn't hard to master" (Bishop), and that sometimes with the "miraculous birth" there are "Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating/ On a pond at the edge of the wood" (Auden). 

All of this adds up to an intimate discussion not only on how to read poetry, but also on how to love poetry. It's a good book for younger readers interested in literature as well as established readers who want to be reintroduced to the poets they first fell in love with. 

The book perhaps suffers a bit from the absence of a compelling through-line – the stories and poems are presented in small sketches along many themes, without the momentum or narrative arc that readers have grown to expect in memoirs. And in the early sections, one senses a sort of reticence, a holding back from revealing too much.

But in a late chapter on "Motherhood," Bialosky opens up wth a poetically raw recounting of the tragedy of losing a first daughter at 10 hours old, and then a second baby, this time a son, lost within the first 24 hours of birth, before the healthy birth, finally, of her third child, also a son.

Of course, this son brings great joy, but Bialosky writes beautifully of the complexity of emotions surrounding this time and of the memories of her first two infants whose presence will always be with her. 

"Perhaps we turn to poetry," she writes, "because it can fathom and hold the inexplicable, the gasp between words, the emotional hues impossible to capture in everyday speech or conversation."

Particularly after the death of her infant son, the tragic nursery-rhyme cadence of Auden's '"Funeral Blues" poignantly captures her pain:

"He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong." 

During these personal tragedies, the lyrical honesty of Sylvia Plath also speaks to Bialosky, who finds that "Plath seeks to universalize her experience, to in effect, impersonalize the personal" with lines like "Wrap me, raggy shawls,/ Cold homicides./ They weld to me like plums."

With these gracious intensely personal sketches, her narratives told through the prism of verse, Bialosky convinces us that poetry is alive and ready to breathe with us – through love, loss, joy, pain and the immensity of experience life brings us.