How Poetry Can Shape a Life

When I was in my twenties, I was halfway through my master’s degree in journalism when I decided I no longer wished to be. It’s not that I didn’t like my professors or writing in general—I did—but I missed poetry. I longed to be in creative writing classes. Back then, I still didn’t understand how the two styles of writing could work together. So I decided to quit. For a few hours, I whooped it up to all my friends—I was done! Yay!  

Then my father called. 
“You’re already halfway through,” he said. “You’ll never regret having a master’s degree.” And he was right, as he has been about so many things, even when I didn’t want him to be. So I listened to him and enrolled in the next quarter, but I made one change: If I was going to stick with the program, I knew the only way to make it through would be to add in a creative writing class every season.

I remember the first poetry one I took. I walked into a room with soft chairs and a couch, and I sat down among what must have been a group of eight people. In that room, with the light through the row of windows rinsing our faces, we learned to have conversations about each other’s poems, to focus and critique the words and content, not the person, and to be frank but kind, too, and respectful. We did not know yet how well these skills would serve us in the greater world, in life outside the classroom. 

For a final assignment, we were asked to memorize and a recite a poem from a poet we admired. I picked “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur. It’s about a father, standing in the stairwell outside his daughter’s room, listening to her clang out a story on her typewriter. And then it’s about a bird trapped in a room. But the poem, like any good poem, isn’t just about either one of those things. The best poems ask us to think twice about something. They ask us to see a moment in a different light. The poem, for me, is about how difficult it can be to figure out who we are and what we want, and the struggles we face as people, and the passion we must have to overcome them. To this day, I can still remember standing in front of the classroom and reciting that poem. When you read a beautiful poem, you are inviting beauty into your own life. The poem made me feel hopeful and grateful.

A few years ago, I made a vision board for myself. If you don’t know what one is, here’s all you need to know: it’s a place to create a visual reminder of what you want from your life. Mine—which is a 12” X 17” cork board—sits propped up against my desk lamp so I can see it every day. Most people use pictures to represent their goals—a picture of a beach to symbolize peace, or a photo of a house they hope to someday actually buy. But I’m a word girl, so most of my vision board is, too. I have two poems on there, both by Mary Oliver. “The Singular and Cheerful Life” is about nature but is ultimately about the importance of living each day fully. “Thirst” is about a spiritual quest. The first time I read that poem was during a week I was undergoing a major surgery and searching for answers. I found one in that poem.  

If you think a poem can’t change your life, then think again. Every day, these poems nudge me to what matters. 

In 2016, when I finally finished writing the book I had been writing for seven years, I used a few lines from Richard Wilbur’s poem as the epigraph. After all, that poem has served as my companion for most of my adulthood. Every once in a while, I still recite the poem out loud, just to myself (and my dog), in my living room. When I do, the poem never fails to remind me of what I always wanted to do in my life, and to keep moving toward it.


Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of four books, including the short story collection, A Small Thing to Want (Press 52, 2020). Her poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautioful at the Beginning, is the 2019 Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry winner and will be published by Mercer University Press in 2021. Learn more at http://www.shulycawood.com.


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