The Power of Poetry to Change Lives
Updated: Apr 15
by Aleathia Drehmer
My earliest recollection of poetry was Robert Frost. There was a sadness and knowing in his eyes that drew me in. It slightly disappointed me his poetry was rhyme driven, but I loved the rural backdrop of his work. Frost suffered much death and grief in his life, and was plagued with depression. He laced it through his poetry in a way that spoke to me.
I envied his rural life and the solitude that allowed space to think and be one’s self. It was a fantasy life for me as I struggled in a dysfunctional home. I spent plenty of time alone, but the environment was tumultuous. I couldn’t imagine Robert Frost’s peaceful wooded life, but I dreamed of it. The work was both pragmatic and dreamy. I thought about the philosophy of my own life.
A Question by Robert Frost
A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth
While other kids were hanging out in high school, I spent much of my time working at the Steele Memorial Library. The summer I turned thirteen, I worked a lot as a server, but spent an equal amount of time in the dusty stacks reading poetry. They shelved it next to the equally dusty tomes of philosophy and it was here that my poetry asked questions about the universe. Here I found Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
“The Song of Myself” was especially poignant and I can remember sitting on the floor, fingers covered in dust, surrounded by the musty smell of aging paper and feeling entranced. Whitman is sometimes called the father of free verse and it was with his work that I had a feeling of opening up. Whitman’s grasp of reality and unabashed way he looked at himself was mesmerizing. He was unapologetic. The opening to “Song of Myself” changed the way I looked at myself and other people:
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
College was an exploration of the self. The apartment I lived in, with two strangers, was spartan. I was away from home for the first time and completely broke, but happy to suffer it. I took classes at the local community college. In the creative writing poetry class, I found other lovers of poetry, despite the heavy focus on Byron and Shelley. My poetry evolution didn’t come from either of those poets, but from my contemporaries. We hung out in the student lounge talking about poetry and in this mingling of minds, these students opened up my world to writers I’d never heard of before. It was then I discovered the wonder that is e.e. cummings.
Cummings showed me the power of using words economically. His work exemplified the strength a poem could have when connector words were removed. He understood the reader added these invisible connections in their minds. He introduced me to parenthetical phrases to capture thought or a second voice inside the poem. Cummings' use of shape in his poetry gave me the freedom to create visually as well as verbally. His work came along when I was just gaining purchase in my own life.
e.e. cummings (excerpt)
handsome and clever and he went cruising into a crazy dream
two were a hundred million whos
(while only himself was him)
two were the cleanest keenest bravest
killer you’d care to see
(while a stuttering ghost that maybe had shaved
three times in its life made three)
brawny and brainy they sing and they whistle
(now here is a job to be done)
while a wisp of why as thick as my fist
stuck in the throat of one
two came hurrying home to the dearest
little women alive
(but jim stood still for a thousand years
and then lay down with a smile)
When I moved to Seattle in early 1994, it was the first and biggest adventure I’d been on that didn’t involve my parents. It was my first time living in a major city and though these places can offer a lot of culture and creative opportunities, I couldn’t afford any of it. I was standing in the food bank line poor, but still recognized the importance of every experience I had. I used the green spaces tucked in the urban sprawl for inspiration and made many trips to the mountains and hot springs with friends. Nature and urban landscapes melted into my work.
On one of my trips to the UW bookstore, I discovered Mary Oliver’s book of poetry called “Twelve Moons”. The poems in this book changed the way I looked at myself as a person and the poetry I was trying to write. It made me question who I wanted to be as a writer, as a woman, and as a human. I was so moved I cried in the store.
Sleeping in the Forest by Mary Oliver
I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
By 2007 I was well into the small press poetry scene, had a small child, and I was undergoing a divorce. There were a lot of struggles, but I believe when we emerge on the other side of struggle, we find creative growth.
I met a small press poet named Rebecca Schumejda in these years. She was also an Upstate New Yorker, and an educated poet whose work impressed me. Schumejda writes about hard topics in everyday life and the bruises people carry on the inside. She is one of the few contemporaries whose level of work I always look up to.
On a recent vacation, I finished reading “Something Like Forgiveness” which is an epic poem. I cried throughout this book, feeling the exploration of grief and the difficulty one faces finding a place in the world after tragedy. It’s a book about trying to understand where and when forgiveness should live in our lives. Here is an excerpt from “Something Like Forgiveness”:
The space between trees
reminds me of loss
of your fingers wrapped
around steel bars
around that place
where the boy
pushed your hands
around my baby’s toes
and if you hadn’t held onto it
all those years
how would our lives
be different now
The evolution of our own poetic works comes from constantly reading the work of others, both classically trained and those self taught. There is power in words, in the sharing of experiences that we didn’t live, but can somehow relate to.
Go out and find some words that change your life.
Next week I’ll talk about the importance of independent bookstores and community, and share some of my recently published work.
About the author
Aleathia Drehmer lives in Corning. She will share her thoughts on the art of poetry throughout April to celebrate National Poetry Month. Learn more about her at www.aleathiadrehmer.com.