The healing power of poetry

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (17/03/13)

If, as in Shelley's words, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," then poems are the unacknowledged healers. This is wisdom Kim Rosen knows in her bones. A graduate of Yale and Sarah Lawrence College, talented and energetic, Rosen was in mid-career when she found herself in a deep depression. Her coping mechanism was to clean house. One day, under a radiator, she found a dusty old cassette tape. She popped it in the player, and then went to scrub the dishes. A man's voice reciting poetry rolled through the house and touched her so viscerally it was a moment that changed her life.

Rosen writes about her journey with spoken poetry in Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. It's a prescription for poetry as essential medicine for everyone, even those who hated poetry in school and insist they don't understand it. The spoken word artist, who is based in northern California, now travels the world teaching people how to cultivate a special relationship with a poem.


In a recent interview, Rosen told The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright that at the time of her life-changing moment, she was a therapist. "And when your job is to inspire and get other people out of pits, it's a very challenging moment" when you yourself are depressed. She went on to quote from the poem (by Derek Walcott) that so touched her, and said that the words, and the speaker's delivery "cut right through the layers of numbness, right into the deepest part of me which I actually thought I was never going to touch again."

Rosen emphasizes the importance of saying a poem aloud, rather than just reading it. In her book, she discusses the importance of breathing. "Breathing has a lot to do with life," she explained. "The good news about reading a poem even to yourself is that it naturally changes your breathing. Reading poetry on the page can be like reading music on the page." Rosen believes that the way most people learn about poetry in schools leaves them with "educational trauma" from being drilled on learning different meters.

"The better language for me is shamanic, how a shaman beats a drum, and in indigenous society, that drumbeat can melt the veils between the inner world and the outer world," she said. "So too a poem, even if it's not obviously rhythmic, has its own rhythm and that gets inside of your body, and inside your breathing, and shifts consciousness. "

According to Rosen, memorizing a poem is different from learning it by heart." The word memorize has the suffix -ize, which has to do with gaining control over something, capitalize, privatize, those kinds of things," she said. "The word 'by heart' has obviously a deep personal relationship going on."

At the time of her depression, Rosen read long sections from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and though she can't recite it all, she hopes over time to be able to do so. "I feel that If I could know that poem by heart, I would have within me a map for the internal life, at a very deep and true level," she said.

Rosen is "thrilled" by the many styles of spoken word poetry that have emerged, and she's confident that the form will never disappear. "I think poetry is hardwired into the human being in the same way art and music are, and that we emerge from a primordial rhythm, we all emerge from the heartbeat, whether we're in Iraq or Kenya or the United States or Canada, and that heartbeat turns into the rhythm of language, and language will always turn into poetry."

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