How Poetry Saved My Life by Natalie Goldberg
How Poetry Saved My Life by Natalie Goldberg
I was in my early twenties and knew nothing but a hunger, a
wild restlessness, unease. I had no landing place and no
direction after I graduated from college with a BA in English
and found no one who wanted to hire me for the sake of litera-
ture, the one thing I loved faithfully since ninth grade. No one
even seemed to value it. I was bewildered and out on my own
in the big, non-matriculated world.
Then one exquisite October afternoon, sitting on a futon
in a communal house on the corner of Hill and Olivia in Ann
Arbor, Michigan, in 1972, I experienced time collapse and
space move into rivers. The walls exploded into a bath of black
crows and electricity passed through my burning hand. No
longer did I push words around on a page. A town, a bakery
on a street, a friendship I once loved, all shimmered. A holy
thing had happened. I had written my first true poem. Poetry
was no longer relegated only to the realm of dead white men
from the seventeenth centuryy who had lived across the ocean
and filled my classroom textbooks. Poetry was mine. A synapse
had connected. I could write.
For the first time I noticed trees and flowers. I learned
names: Russian olive, elm, oak, peony, geranium, petunia,
marigold. Details mattered. Cracks on sidewalks, broken
glass, worn stop signs, everything spoke to me. Rock, leaf,
car: I rode rushes of thought with my cheap pen. I gripped
a spiral notebook.
Poetry, I whispered, poetry.
My mind extended over clouds, insects, birds, small lost
countries. I now had a purpose, a direction. My grandmother's
soup exposed layers of posibility, my father's white starched shirt
held my attention. Tomato soup, Brillo, World War II, ceiling
paint, Ohio, this knee, that clock, his ring, all had weight and
A kiss was no longer just a kiss-- let it crack open a line for me.
my heart break. I knew nothing. I received it all.
Before poetry, I was lost. Now loss had a smell, a color, a
ture. A fast train could split its side. I held lost childhood,
lost moment. They belonged to me and I was found.
There was nothing I couldn't speak about. My most mundane
experience could take shape. If I peeled a grape, land slid in
Caracas. If I bought a pair of pants, there was rain in the Sahara.
Do you see it? A woman mattered. She had muscle and the force
Poetry was my way into the big religion. It split open
grammar, broke down objects and subjects. I swayed as one with chim-
neys, sycamores, the hungry, and the hurt. History resounded.
Memory lost the past and arrived in the present. My eyes were awake
underwater. Was the poem writing me or was I breathing the poem? I
was free to be buried, to be forgotten, or could live forever in the
and fall of the Pacific tide.
I went to cafes, readings, bookstores. I met friends who
loved what I loved. We bent our heads over the Mississippi,
counted eight sparrows on a fire escape. I was introduced to a
half-known poet, soon to die. I watched him eat a thin ham
sandwich at a drugstore. He slowly mouthed: "Poetry will never
fail you, but you may fail poetry." I held Jim White's words
down deep inside as his body was returned to his beloved
And then I used his words to move me: I hitched to Chicago
to hear one of the first poety slam contests, studied with Allen
Ginsberg in Boulder, Colorado, wanted to follow in his hallowed
footsteps, met Anne Waldman, Ntozake Shange, heard Linda
Gregg, Louise Gluck, Nikki Giovanni, Galway Kinnell, Gerald
Stern, Amiri Baraka, Miguel Algarin, Simon Ortiz, Marge Piercy,
read Adrinne Rich, Denise Levertov, May Swenson, Anne
Sexton, James Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maxine Kumin.
I won a poetry fellowship and traveled to Israel, heard
ancient Hebrew spoken in the streets, walked with Bedouins and
camels in Sinai, beheld an oais of three pomegranate trees
against hills of pink sand. I attended readings in Jerusalem
where people came after work, their lunch pails still in their
hands. I sat and watched as the question and answer period last-
ed longer than the reading. "Why did you put 'the' in the third
line?" I saw that a country could honor its poets, that poetry was
available to everyone, and that it was an esteemed profession.
When I met a Israeli, even in the street, and they heard I
was a writer, they said, "Recite one of you poems right now" and
I memorized my poems so I could do that. A new and different
voice came to me in that land, straight from the root of my life and
I was not ashamed. I read to a group of scientists in Tel Aviv my
last night in that old, old country. I was no longer divided by
border or boundary.
I returned home and when I began to write prose, poetry
was my foundation. It taught me the care and profundity of each
word. It demanded that I not be glib, that my whole body stand
behind what I said. Poetry glimmered between the branches of
my sentences, the one thing in our greedy society that has not
been gobbled up and sold in the marketplace. Always at my back,
it kept me honest and served as an incorruptible reminder.
I dedicated myself to something bigger than myself and was
handed over to beings seen and unseen, mountains and space,
dead ghosts, grocery stores, night owls, snow, whistles, the divine
in the center of the dumb. I came to love my life, its ragged
edges, big hours, and lonesome paths. I learned that one equals
two, three, then four blue apples, seven pears, until it comes back
to itself again. All one intimate, aching poem. All of us. That's
what poetry taught me and how it saved my life.
What a poet finally passes on is her breath at moments of
inspiration. We read the work aloud and breathe her breath.
May you be inspired by these poems and may they help to bring
- Awesome !
Until about 3 years ago I had no use for poetry. Now it's like air or
water, an essential element of life. Thank you all for sharing yours
here, it's really amazing !
--- In VoicesOfThePhilosophersStone@yahoogroups.com, n.m.rai
> How Poetry Saved My Life by Natalie Goldberg
Thanks!!!!! You have a lot of company and I think it has a lot to do
with the way it's been taught in schools. In other parts of world,
it's a part of everyday life.
Here's a wonderful online treasure trove. There may be a few dead
links here and there but most should be active.
You can also get a poem a day in your email which I do - one of the
highlights of the day.
Mentioning this in case you don't already know about it.
--- In VoicesOfThePhilosophersStone@yahoogroups.com, "Mary"
> Awesome !
> Until about 3 years ago I had no use for poetry. Now it's like air or
> water, an essential element of life. Thank you all for sharing yours
> here, it's really amazing !
> --- In VoicesOfThePhilosophersStone@yahoogroups.com, n.m.rai
> <naga.moon@> wrote:
> > How Poetry Saved My Life by Natalie Goldberg