How Poetry Saved My Life

Any time I've craved comfort and beauty, poetry has provided both

I'm not a "real" poet, never will be—but poetry has saved my life more than once. Growing up in a Bronx housing project, I wrote my first poem at four years old. It was one of the few mementos from my childhood that my clinically depressed mother saved. She believed that if she complimented me or showed off my poems or artwork, I might get "a swelled head" and that would be "a terrible thing." But for some reason, she liked that poem. It read:

"I love the city / It is so pretty."

Although I don't possess the written version (my mother lost it during one of her moves), I can picture it: black crayon on red construction paper, with painstakingly rendered block letters. It was a celebration of New York City, the city I still love more than any other. Even then, I knew it was the city—Manhattan, especially—that would one day rescue me from my stifling, unhappy life.

At age 11, my father bought me my first diary. It had a pink faux leather jacket and a brass lock. Mostly, I filled it with sad, stream-of-consciousness prose about school, boys, friends and rock stars. But one day, I wrote another poem:

"Little Miss Lonely sat in a chair / Little Miss Lonely stared at the air."

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Short and to the point, it wasn't destined to win a Pulitzer, but it captured the loneliness and unhappiness I experienced every day in my textbook-dysfunctional family.

Back then, I yearned to please my charismatic, larger-than-life father, whose love and affection were effusively given but then taken away whenever he flew into one of his almost daily, unpredictable rages. I quickly figured out that one thing I could do to win him over was to share his love of poetry. He was a fan of the masters: Shelley, Keats, Shakespeare, Poe.

So I committed to memory, and then recited his favorite poems to him: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"; "The Highwayman" (although I stumbled, mortified, over the word "breast" in that one); "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven."

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"To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells / From the bells, bells, bells, bells!" I shouted, flinging my arms this way and that, basking in his beaming admiration as he praised my "dramatic delivery" and "poetic essence."

As a young woman, after I left home, I wrote a few poems that were published in literary magazines. Although I wanted to be a writer, I knew that poetry wasn't my path. (I was too much of a storyteller.) More than anything, though, what I wanted was to leave behind my family's unhappiness.

I sought out romance as an antidote, and among my various relationships was a brief fling with an alcoholic, avant-garde poet. He quickly lost interest in me, but I followed that affair with two others, also with poets. Unfortunately, one of them cheated on me with his ex. The other came out as gay during our relationship. Despite the fact that the relationships were doomed, both men wrote poems about me. At least for a while, being their muse made me feel special.

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Years later, I was in the process of becoming a first-time, middle-aged parent. My husband (not a poet) and I were adopting a baby girl from Guatemala. We were assured that we could bring her home at six months old. But Guatemalan adoption laws changed, preventing us from doing so. A groundswell movement wanted the new laws declared unconstitutional. Along with many other families, we were stuck in limbo, waiting for a resolution.

I wept a lot and spent many sleepless nights, fearful I'd never be reunited with my child. I found myself craving comfort and beauty. I knew that poetry could provide both. I invited friends to write poems in my daughter's honor. Maybe the power of poetry would carry her to us.

When my daughter came home, at one year old, we threw a party at Westbeth, a living-and-working space for artists in Manhattan's West Village. A number of my friends read their poems aloud to my black-haired, big-eyed daughter, whom I held tightly in my arms, never wanting to let her go.

My daughter is now 13, and I'm busy and overwhelmed, trying to juggle the various demands of real life. Poetry can feel very far away. So now and then, I reread the poems written for my daughter. I take solace, for instance, in these universal words by the acclaimed poet, Molly Peacock (whom I'm fortunate to call my friend):

"It's no accident that life and hope / have the same number of letters …"

Tags: memoirs