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Thoughts from Linda:

Ten Poems to Change Your Life

Roger Housden

2001

 

For our December selection, as with all months, we search for ‘something old and something new’ to review. The Swerve, which is our ‘something new’ book is actually about an old poem while this book, which is older, is about newer poems along with several which are old. So, the two books for December have a real mixture! 

 

The important point and theme is that poetry and poets are such a gift to us all and, as we see with each of the poems this month, poems can have global implications. 

 

That only happens because of the impact that one poem has on one person.

 

This book is a curated selection of poems that span history, covering different centuries and different parts of the globe and are interpreted by Roger Housden.  

Housden grew up in the cleft of a Cotswold valley on the edge of Bath, England. From 1986-98 he founded and ran The Open Gate, a conference and workshop center in England that introduced the work of Ram Dass, Thich Nath Hanh, Jacob Needleman, James Hillman, Robert Bly and many others into Europe. He has published twenty-six books, including four travel books, a novella, Chasing Love and Revelation, and the best-selling Ten Poems series, which began in 2001 with Ten Poems to Change Your Life and ended with the publication in 2018 of Ten Poems for Difficult Times.

This book was given to me in January of 2016 by my good friend and colleague, the founder of The Bali Institute, Marcia Jaffe. I have not read his other selections but find the poetry in this book to be so well-interpreted that I keep coming back to it over time.

 

It begins with one of my favorite poems by the American poet, Mary Oliver, The Journey—The Only Life You Can Save. He includes poems from Machado, Walt Whitman, Kabir and Rumi along with St. John of the Cross, Derek Walcott, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell and Pablo Neruda.

 

As Housden notes in his introduction, “good poetry has the power to start a fire in your life.”

 

With Mary Oliver’s poem, he notes, “even now, after hundreds of readings, this poem grabs me by the shoulders, shakes me hard, and demands I look again at how honestly I am living my life.  Poetry like this is rigorous, demanding, ecstatic…to read poetry like this…can be a fierce and dangerous practice; dangerous because you may never be the same again…”

 

He goes on to say…”I find poetry to be an agent of transformation” and as he notes, “a great poem can open a door in us we may never have known was there…through the encounter with the poet, the poem can proclaim our fundamental belonging in the world. When the poet is reaching into territory that lies just beyond our conscious experience, we may shiver and not know why.”

 

I have never understood the Ode to My Socks poem by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, until reading this interpretation. Indeed, this poem can change the way you see what is in front of your eyes. Filled with wonder and delight in ordinary things, this poem offers an amazing portal into appreciation and humility. 

 

You will enjoy the classic of Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, entitled ‘Song of Myself.’ This is his longest and, Housden would say, his most daring of works. Historians note that this poem is reflective of an enlightened Whitman, who in June of 1851 had a profound experience and paid homage to that new stage of his life via this poem. Housden would say that “there is no greater poem for restoring perspective” than this one.

 

I also love the Kabir poem, as translated by Robert Bly, The Time Before Death. Written in the 16th century, this spiritual man lived in India as a weaver, had a family and escaped death when accused of heresy. He was known as a great spiritual leader in his time, and only as a poet later in history, after his death. My husband, Tony, often reminds me that “life is not a dress-rehearsal” and this poem makes the same point. He notes that “without even being aware of it, it is so easy to slip into living life as if it were a rehearsal for the real thing.” Kabir calls on us to live the “truest of lives” and to (as he says) “receive the Guest”, in other words, the One inner force of who we truly are. The poem is an elegant example of complexity wrapped in simplicity.

 

I share the sentiment of Emily Dickinson and her experience of reading poetry:

 

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

 

If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to read these aloud, even just to yourself. They are a fine collection worthy of the title:  10 Poems to Change Your Life.