Other people’s words and skillful use of language have long been my faithful companions. When I was young, strong heroines in favorite novels gave me courage and provided a map for my life.

I didn’t discover the transformative power of poetry until I was in my 20s and making my way in New York. That’s when life got serious, tested my ambition, and broke my heart.

A mentor who eventually became a dear friend introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay (ESVM), the famous poet and playwright who lived in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century. One of my most cherished possessions—a valuable first-edition copy of ESVM’s short poetry collection, A Few Figs from Thistles —was a gift from this friend who was old enough to be my mother at the time. She told me the first “fig” depicted how I was living my life and that she was enjoying watching it unfold:

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — it gives a lovely light!

I was struggling to make ends meet but always made time for fun which included plenty of cocktails and nights out with handsome men.  Some of those men of course were careless with my heart but no matter I could always find solace and courage in ESVM’s wise words.

Rather than bore my friends, I could indulge my sorrow—whenever it hit me—and cry as much as I wanted in the privacy of my bedroom. I found everything I needed in those 32 pages—strong doses of hope, wisdom, and encouragement.

Good poetry feels to me like an answer to a prayer or an insightful session of therapy.

Poetry for Good Times, Too

In the years since I’ve found myself gravitating toward poetry whenever I’m searching for meaning. When someone has caused me pain. When something doesn’t make sense. When a person I know doesn’t play fair. But poetry that is charming and whimsical has a place, too.

When my now-grown children were young, I made a point of inserting playful rhyme into their days, hoping they too would become poetry fans.

This anonymous verse is still a favorite:

I eat my peas with honey;
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps them on the knife.

And they learned table manners courtesy of an amusing, often-irreverent cast of characters known as the Goops, Gelett Burgess’ 19th-century creation:

The Goops they lick their fingers, And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth–Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating, And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I Am not a Goop–are you?

My kids and I shared many happy times committing those silly lines to memory.  

Loss and Discovery

Until she died in January (2019) I wasn’t aware of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Given my love affair with poetry and the outdoors, I’m not sure how I missed it.  Mary Oliver—the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and countless other accolades, was 83 when she died at home in Florida. She was known for her contemplative writing about nature and finding the sacred in ordinary spaces.

Prior to living in Florida, Oliver spent many decades in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she lived with her long-time partner and usually a dog or two. There’s plenty of lovely scenery and constant exposure to nature’s elements in Provincetown, a picturesque hamlet at the end of Cape Cod surrounded by ocean on three sides.

But it was often when she was in transit during her daily walks in the woods that verse arrived. It happened so frequently, she was said to have hidden pen and paper along the trails so she wouldn’t get caught unprepared.

Notoriously media-shy, Ms. Oliver did not grant many interviews but when she died, NPR re-released a gem—a conversation recorded in 2015 on a podcast called “On Being”. The host, Krista Tippet, sat down with the poet to discuss her words and her life, and now I can’t stop thinking about that beautiful conversation.

Toward the end of the hour-long interview, they discussed one of Oliver’s much-beloved poems, “Wild Geese” which Tippet describes as offering “a consoling vision of the redemption possible in ordinary life” and a poem that “has saved lives.”

Saved lives? Really?

Is it actually possible for something as ubiquitous as a poem to save a life?

I’m not certain of that but I can attest to the transformative power of words. Like a brisk walk outside, poetry can provide a healthy distraction; a meaningful change in perspective; nourishment for the soul.

Poetry has been called “therapy,” and “therapeutic art.” It can be used as a valuable technique in a group therapy setting and to facilitate communication in other forms of psychotherapy, too.

Many of you reading this may be struggling with mental health challenges so I’m sharing this short, searingly beautiful poem in the hope it provides some comfort. You can read it here or watch this video with the poet herself reciting the words.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes
over the prairies and the deep trees
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place in the family of things

I find the imagery in this poem profound and moving. The clear, simple language distracts me from my worries and takes me to the wide, open field where the crisp air makes me pay attention so I can feel the powerful flapping of the birds’ wings.

But mostly I’m reassured by the encouraging sentiment—the permission to “love what [the body] loves”.  And I’m especially comforted by the last few lines…that it’s impossible to feel lonely when you allow your mind to take in the power, beauty, and peace available right outside your door.

Like a loved one gently holding your hand, “Wild Geese” reminds us to keep going; that we all have a place in the natural order of things, and that everything is going to be all right.

Good poetry is never indulgent. It offers wisdom and insight. It helps you sort through confusion and understand emotional pain.

As Mary Oliver wrote in her guide, A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace & Co. 1994), “Figurative language can give shape to the difficult and the painful. It can make visible and ‘felt’ that which is invisible and ‘unfeelable.’ “

Like music, poetry speaks a universal language of rhythm, speaks truths in a language that vividly encompasses emotions. It is therapeutic not only to the poets themselves but to any receptive reader of words. And therein, I can imagine, lies poetry’s unique power to redeem, if not save, lives.


Last Updated: Aug 24, 2021