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How poetry can change a life

Shuly Cawood • Apr 15, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Some time ago, when I was one year into my master’s degree in journalism with one year left, I decided to quit — not because the program lacked strength but because what I really wanted was to study poetry. I had already begun celebrating my decision to quit when my father called me up.

“You’re already halfway through,” he said.

It’s not as if I couldn’t do the math, but I couldn’t see the finish line that he could see or the future he could imagine. My father understood that a master’s degree in anything would help my career, and he probably surmised what it would take me years to understand: that a journalism master’s degree in particular would strengthen my writing skills and help me land a wide range of communications positions, which in fact it did. But back then, I just wanted to write poetry.

On my father’s advice, I stayed in the journalism program, but I decided that in order to get through my final journalism year, I needed to take all my electives in the English Department. I tried to get into a poetry writing class with one professor, but she wouldn’t let me in. “Your poems are too sentimental,” she told me.

It was Dr. David Citino who let me into his poetry writing seminar, Dr. David Citino who taught me how to take sentimentality out, Dr. David Citino who made it possible for me to stay in my journalism program and finish. Poetry saved me from quitting.

When National Poetry Month comes around every year in April, I can’t help but celebrate. Poetry did not just save me from quitting my journalism degree: poetry has been my constant companion and has helped me through upheavals, emotions, and changes and has helped me cope, understand and let go.

It always disappoints me when I hear people make the blanket statement that they don’t like poetry. It makes me wonder what kind of poetry they have encountered or were asked or even forced to read. Some people say they just don’t “get” poetry. I wonder if they have ever been given an accessible poem. I have certainly read my share of poems I did not understand at all — and some of those poems have won great awards — but those aren’t the poems I return to. I go back to Mary Oliver’s “The Singular and Cheerful Life.” I go back to Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come.” I go back to “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur. And there is so much new poetry to be read, such as “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur, a book I wish I had read — I wish it had existed — when I was a young woman, just starting my 20s.

And have you heard of Poetry Out Loud? It’s a national program that encourages high school students to memorize and recite great poetry. The program “helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life.” I’d love for the program to start at any of the region’s high schools. I’d love to be a part of it.

All these years since my master’s in journalism, I’m still writing poetry. I’m still publishing my poetry. I’m still excited by creating it and by reading other people’s inspirations.

For the last couple of years, to celebrate National Poetry Writing Month, I have featured one contemporary writer’s poem on my blog. This year, I have stepped it up: I am featuring at least one contemporary poet on my blog every week in April, and I have partnered with Robert McCready, the creator of the Magic City Poetry YouTube channel (a channel devoted to reciting great poetry works), to read the featured poems.

So enjoy April. It’s a month not only for newly blooming flowers and warming temperatures but for an art that matters and can change a life.

Shuly Cawood of Johnson City is a writer and the author of the memoir, The Going and Goodbye. You can find her blog at www.shulycawood.com.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessary reflect those of the Johnson City Press.

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