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Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir


Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir

When asking what the title POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE entails, one could look no further than the epigraph adapted from the poem “Dedication” by Czeslaw Milosz: “What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people?” Jill Bialosky attempts to answer this question through her interpretations of 52 select poems, from such poets as Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath and Yehuda Amichai, with her own anecdotes sprinkled throughout.

Readers may get the sense that Bialosky is attempting to explain her love of poetry in the same way she describes her English teacher talking about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” in class, “gesturing madly with her arms as she recites the verse.” Emphasizing her passion for collecting poems, she explains in her preface, “I’ve flagged poems in individual volumes or anthologies with paper clips and Post-its. I have Xeroxed poems and stuck them on my refrigerator.” Bialosky keeps readers engaged by taking the time to connect her life to the spotlighted poem.

"POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE is an engaging memoir that succeeds in its mission to show the power of poetry and how even just a few lines of a poem can evoke memories shared universally and in their own ways."

By sharing in some of these experiences, I look back to my own feelings in the classroom, where the world around me seemed vast and full of questions I could not even begin to answer, and studying Poe and Hemingway allowed me to feel the most connected to the world. As Bialosky reflects on Yehuda Amichai’s “My Child Blossoms Sadly” in connection to the lack of security felt in the days after the demise of the Twin Towers, I remember driving past the Westboro Baptist Church protesting outside the Jewish Community Center, whose campus my middle school shared. Even if we individually are years or worlds apart, poetry acts as the middle ground on which our experiences can be exchanged and better understood.

As much as we are brought into the rich details of Bialosky’s world, we are also privy to the (perhaps brushed-over) joys and pains that she has experienced throughout her life. In one chapter, she refers to a poem by Theodore Roethke in relation to the birth of one of her sisters and the clashing feelings of hope and tension. In the next chapter, Plath is put into focus as Bialosky’s mother and stepfather divorce and Bialosky falls into a depression. In one passage, she describes these conflicting feelings: “In the late sixties there is no language to talk about this form of melancholy…. There are times when I want to shake my mother out of her depression. Bearing witness provides its own strange strength. I know I cannot fall too. My mother needs me.”

In letting the book be formatted the way it is and not placing the events she describes in chronological order, Bialosky’s analysis of each poem is gathered in a scrapbook-like manner for readers to skip through to any spot that seems particularly meaningful for whatever life circumstance they are going through, sharing in the universal experiences that connect us all.

POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE is an engaging memoir that succeeds in its mission to show the power of poetry and how even just a few lines of a poem can evoke memories shared universally and in their own ways. While an interesting concept and attractive even to those who were turned off by poetry in school, the autobiographical anecdotes appear written in a vague manner and gently brushed over, not allowing for anything more than the surface of the memory. Still, there is a great chance that you will be convinced of poetry’s value and relevance, leading you, if you let it, to starting a collection of poems for yourself by the time you reach the end of Bialosky’s outstanding work.

Reviewed by Gabriella Mayer on August 18, 2017

Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir
by Jill Bialosky

  • Publication Date: October 2, 2018
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982104821
  • ISBN-13: 9781982104825