Poetry as Refuge

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I wrote my first poems when I was 14 sitting on the stoop of my dad’s girlfriend’s garden apartment in central New Jersey. My family was falling apart, each parent barricaded in part of the house, and our relatives were choosing sides and joining in the chaos. I had been a child artist, but now I needed words, and once I put one word after another down, I found myself stepping out the suburban highways of heartbreak and into an altogether different landscape.

There was a clearing, forest circling the edges, with enough light breaking through the clouds to make the air silvery. I could make out a pond, sometimes calm, sometimes turbulent, where I swam, each line, each stroke replenishing me with the sense of my own strength to get across and back again.

Another way to say this: poetry was and still is my refuge, a place to step out of what’s impossible to sit with, even in a time of broken keepsakes and a whole lot of screaming and crying. Writing saved my life for something better, showing me a way to find, claim, and even name a space where I could see the world in new ways.

So many decades later, I continue to return to the refuge of poetry. I’ve spent ample time here while navigating challenging waters, including breast cancer, and 17 years later, ocular melanoma. I’ve returned to the poem after each childbirth, determined not to lose my place of solo sanctuary even when living in baby heaven with all the night feedings and day driftings. I’ve come back to poetry when my father died, my mother-in-law died, my close friend died. I’ve written throughout the pandemic.

I’ve returned here a thousand ways on ten thousand days not just for big life jolts and turnovers but to step into the cool waters of the world as it is outside my buzzing mind and, at times, aching heart. “Treat the world as if it really existed,” poet William Stafford wrote, and poetry is a direct line into the reality outside our thoughts and thinking and beyond what the world tells us about who we are.

In fact, I find poetry to be a refuge into the real world, teaching us—as we read and write poems—how to open our senses to what’s happening around and within us. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” Dylan Thomas writes, and in this summer’s explosive blossoms and so much greening up in a hurry, Thomas’s line links us with what’s happening. In a sense, poetry teaches us how to open up our peripheral vision (as well as the ears of our ears, to paraphrase e.e. cummings) so that we can see and hear much more than what our frontal lobe or computer screen might be telling us.

Where does such increased awareness and presence land us? Poetry teaches us through images and voice, rhythm and sound, how much we are not alone. It gives us language, whether it comes through or to us, to circle about the holy and multifaceted that would otherwise be unnamable. It shows us the path to dwelling in other perspectives as well as in the visceral delight of making something. It asks us essential questions, such as, in Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” this lifelong quest: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” In all, it urges us into brave spaces where we can take refuge to find and live our truths. 




This post is in reference to the class Poetry as Refuge, taught summer 2021. To see Caryn's current classes, visit her artist bio page.