Poetry Will Save Your Life

A Memoir

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About The Book

From a critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author and poet comes “a delightfully hybrid book: part anthology, part critical study, part autobiography” (Chicago Tribune) that is organized around fifty-one remarkable poems by poets such as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Sylvia Plath.

For Jill Bialosky, certain poems stand out like signposts at pivotal moments in a life: the death of a father, adolescence, first love, leaving home, the suicide of a sister, marriage, the birth of a child, the day in New York City the Twin Towers fell. As Bialosky narrates these moments, she illuminates the ways in which particular poems offered insight, compassion, and connection, and shows how poetry can be a blueprint for living. In Poetry Will Save Your Life, Bialosky recalls when she encountered each formative poem, and how its importance and meaning evolved over time, allowing new insights and perceptions to emerge.

While Bialosky’s personal stories animate each poem, they touch on many universal experiences, from the awkwardness of girlhood, to crises of faith and identity, from braving a new life in a foreign city to enduring the loss of a loved one, from becoming a parent to growing creatively as a poet and artist. Each moment and poem illustrate “not only how to read poetry, but also how to love poetry” (Christian Science Monitor).

“An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines” (Kirkus Reviews), Poetry Will Save Your Life is an engaging and entirely original examination of a life while celebrating the enduring value of poetry, not as a purely cerebral activity, but as a means of conveying personal experience and as a source of comfort and intimacy. In doing so the book brilliantly illustrates the ways in which poetry can be an integral part of life itself and can, in fact, save your life.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Poetry Will Save Your Life includes an introduction and discussion questions for your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

For Jill Bialosky, certain poems stand out like signposts at pivotal moments in her formative years: the death of her father; first love; leaving home; a sister’s suicide; the birth of a child. Drawing from fifty-one remarkable poems by masters ranging from Robert Frost to Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop to Gwendolyn Brooks, Shakespeare to Adrienne Rich, this engaging and original memoir celebrates poetry as a means of conveying personal experience and as a source of comfort and intimacy.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1.Bialosky has the uncanny ability to remember poems tied to specific memories as far back as ten years old. What is the first poem, nursery rhyme, or song that you can remember from childhood? Is there any memory you associate with it?

2. Bialosky is profoundly moved by Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” when it is read aloud. Pick one poem from the book, read it first to yourself and then read it aloud to a few other people. How does this exercise change your understanding of the poem? What is something new you learned about the poem by saying the words aloud?

3. Did you know that the famous lyric “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” originated in a poem? Can you think of other examples of writing that are poetic but not necessarily considered poems? How does this change your view of what poetry is or can be?

4. In “Selfhood,” Bialosky describes growing up as part of the “latchkey” generation—a term coined because kids had less parental supervision typically when they returned home after school hours. Through Robert Louis Stevenson’s two poems, “The Swing” and “My Shadow,” she recognizes her own independence as a separate being from her tight-knit family of sisters. Why does Bialosky feel frightened and exhilarated by her freedom? How do these two poems exemplify this conflict? How do individual freedoms and independence differ?

5. In the chapter “Ancestor,” the question is raised: “Aren’t poems the same as prayers?” (pg.34). Bialosky describes reciting Psalm 23: “The Lord is My Shepard,” at her grandmother’s funeral and argues that they are. Do you agree? In what ways are poems and prayers created and used that make them similar or different? Why does Bialosky find solace in “Psalm 23?”

6. In the chapter “Prayer” Bialosky contends, “A poem links us to a universe at once intimate and communal.” (pg.46) How do the two poems in the chapter “Prayer” express or speak to this notion? What are the emotions that each poem evokes when you read it?Are you able to connect these two poems to your own meaning of prayer?

7. The poet Wallace Stevens is quoted in the chapter “Imagination,” saying “unreal things have a reality of their own, in poetry as elsewhere” (pg. 49). How do you interpret this in regard to Stevens’s poem, “The Snow Man?” What is something unreal in your own life that has its own reality?

8. Bialosky posits that “stories are born from desires we are too afraid to act out in real life” (pg. 51). Pick a favorite movie, book, poem, or song and write down a short summary of its story. In what ways does the story capture your fears?

9. Bialosky’s memoir takes an unconventional, non-linear style. As you read fragmented scenes from her life, are the poems that follow enhanced by her memories?Are their specific poems that remind you of a memory from your own life, and if so, which poem and why?

10. In the preface Bialosky writes, “This memoir is also a form of mythmaking, for experiences are heightened, altered, and shaped by the form in which they are told.” (pg. xv) What do you make of this statement?What did you think were Bialosky’s most memorable scenes in Poetry Will Save Your Life, and why?

11. Think of a formative experience in your own life and compose a poem drawing from that inspiration. Use the structure or cadences of one of the poems in the book if you need a guide.

12. How does Bialosky’s Jewish heritage contribute to her sense of identity, but also to a connotation of confinement? In what ways can knowing history be both freeing and restricting?What are the poems in the book that define this experience?

13. How does learning that Emily Dickinson lived largely isolated from the outside world of Amherst, Massachusetts, affect how you read her three poems in the chapter “Faith”? Does knowing the context of the poet’s life give the poetry more meaning?

14. The poet John Keats is quoted as saying “Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it” (pg. 104). Interpret Keats’s meaning and discuss how it relates to the themes of Poetry Will Save Your Life.

15. In Poetry Will Save Your Life Bialosky tackles difficult life circumstances through poems such as depression (“Poppies in October,” pg. 85), suicide (“Tulips,” pg. 165), and the death of a child (“On My First Son” pg. 179). She writes, “Perhaps we turn to poetry because it can fathom and hold the inexplicable, the gasp between words, the emotional hues impossible to capture in everyday speech or conversation” (pg. 180). Do you think this is achieved in the poems she showcases?Do you have an emotional response to the poems, and if so how do they that allow you to see differently?

16. Of the poem, “My Mother’s Feet” (pg. 117–118) Bialosky explains how “anything—even a pair of feet—can be subject matter for poetry and allow for revelation.” Write a poem about a simple object and imbue it with what makes it memorable to your own experience.

17. Why do you think Bialosky titled her memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life? Do you think poetry has the power to change lives?

About The Author

Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

Jill Bialosky is the author of four acclaimed collections of poetry. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Kenyon Review, and The Atlantic, among others. She is the author of three novels, most recently, The Prize, and a New York Times bestselling memoir History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. Jill was honored by the Poetry Society of America for her distinguished contribution to the field of poetry in 2015. She is an editor at W. W. Norton & Company and lives in New York City.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (October 2018)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982104825

Raves and Reviews

“An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.”

– Kirkus

“A delightfully hybrid book: part anthology, part critical study, part autobiography. . . . candid and canny. . . . Bialosky’s erudite and instructive approach to poetry [is] itself a refreshing tonic.”

– Chicago Tribune

“A lovely hybrid that blends [Bialosky’s] coming-of-age story with engaging literary analysis. . . . Adults and mature teens will find much to love in this book, which demonstrates how poems can become an integral part of life.  It also suggests, on every page, the wisdom and deep compassion that make [Bialosky’s book] a tremendous asset both to readers and other writers.”

 

– The Washington Post

“Bialosky, a poet and novelist, sees her life broken up not by years, but through poems. Her moving memoir …. shows how poetry can be a powerful tool for healing and understanding.”

– Real Simple

"An intimate rendering of a poet's passion for words."

– Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“Unusual and affecting…using 51 poems, ranging broadly from nursery rhymes to a Shakespeare sonnet, [Bialosky] sets out to demonstrate how reading and remembering poetry can provide a kind of salvation. . . . Like the weather and politics, the human condition isn’t altered by poetry, but this lovely memoir poignantly and credibly shows how it can inspire our acceptance of life.”  

– Hilma Wolitzer, East Hampton Star

“An intimate discussion not only on how to read poetry, but also on how to love poetry. . . .Bialosky convinces us that poetry is alive and ready to breathe with us—through love, loss, joy, pain and the immensity of experience life brings us.” 

– Christian Science Monitor

“This is the only textbook you will ever need on poetry.  It tells you not only how to read poetry, but why to read it, lovingly illustrated by portraits from Bialosky’s life so intimate that every passage feels like a private gift, tenderly crafted for the reader’s memory, to be cherished for years to come.”

– Hope Jahren, bestselling author of Lab Girl

Poetry Will Save Your Life is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read, but it’s so much more. Bialosky does something miraculous: as she shares stories from her life, she shows how specific poems can help all of us make sense of our own lives and the world. Here are classic and contemporary poems that help us see and hear one another more clearly; that speak to us in times of loss and grief; that guide us through our every days. If you’ve always loved poetry, this book will captivate you. And if you want to love poetry, then this book will open worlds. Poetry Will Save Your Life is itself a life-saving book.”

– Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living

"Time and again she proves her thesis of survival through the arts. But it is not a work of an essayist but one of a person who believes in the power of art to connect us in our shared humanity."

– New York Journal of Books

Poetry Will Save Your Life is a remarkable and compulsively readable book, one that combines the poignant moments of lived life and the reflected life of words in a wholly original way.  Jill Bialosky writes with as much pristine skill about her personal story as she writes about the poems that nurtured and inspired her.  The intersection of art and life has rarely been so vividly rendered.”

– Daphne Merkin, author of This Close to Happy

“This charming and captivating book ties each moment of the author's development to the transformative verses she read.  She allows these poems to organize her deliberate candor about a complex and compelling life.”

– Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree

"Jill Bialosky writes with a sincerity that would have made Dickinson herself weep. She fights to keep poetry from being lofty and academic, she takes it out of the clouds and brings down to earth. Having an expert guide you to a subject with the humility and enthusiasm of a beginner is as moving as her prose in which she reminds us that she has also been a woman who needed saving, and poetry swept in and gave her back a pulse. She achieves something remarkable in that it feels as though she is revealing herself for our sake, the readers: basically what all the best poetry strives for."

– Mary-Louise Parker, author of Dear Mr. You

“Empathic, wise, humane, and consoling, Jill Bialosky's Poetry Will Save Your Life is an engrossing celebration of poetry for any curious reader. Bialosky tells us about the poems that have kept her company over the years--and along the ways she joyfully illuminates both poetry and life itself.”

– Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye

“Unusual and affecting. . . . Using 51 poems, ranging broadly from nursery rhymes to a Shakespeare sonnet, [Bialosky] sets out to demonstrate how reading and remembering poetry can provide a kind of salvation. . . . Like the weather and politics, the human condition isn’t altered by poetry, but this lovely memoir poignantly and credibly shows how it can inspire our acceptance of life.”

– Hilma Wolitzer (East Hampton Star)

"Bialosky's attention to detail and love of language serve the reader well. This is a book to savor."

– Library Journal

"Should you be looking for proof that poetry is balm for the wounded soul, you’re likely to find it here.”

– The Forward

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