alice kociemba: first poem that enthralled me

Poetry was a later-in-life love affair. I was not aroused by poetry’s passion in adolescence, nor did I have a fling with Shakespearean sonnets in my twenties.  So when did I, for once and for all time, trip and fall in love with poetry?

Not in my parochial grammar school, where the way poetry was taught was an introvert’s nightmare: “Memorize ten lines of The Courtship of Myles Standish. Tomorrow, I’ll call on you, randomly, to stand in front of the class. Stand up straight. Enunciate.  Let me hear you all the way in the back. Do it again. Do it again… from the beginning!” And in the private, Catholic girls high school I attended, that same teaching technique turned me off to even the moving narrative of Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man.”

I graduated from college into the turbulent late sixties and early seventies, with the whole country in turmoil about civil rights, abortion rights, anti-war activism, and the War on Poverty. I continued to think of writers of all stripes—and poets in particular—as dilettantes who had the leisure of a  “literary life,” not my hard-scrabbled life of working (often two jobs) and supporting a family.

Then, in my early thirties, I was hit by a line drive at a baseball game. I lost the ability to work and to read, and I had to quit my high-pressured job as an on-call “psychiatric social worker” in a general hospital’s emergency room. The ER secretary mailed me a “get well” gift—the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.  Poetry literally saved my sanity! Dickinson’s short poems, with their short lines, helped me to re-learn how to read. Through those six months of enforced isolation (I could no longer drive, because of seizures), I read maybe one poem a day, over and over. I had been a veracious reader and a compulsive worker prior to the injury, and those poems compensated for the loss of my personal and professional identity.  

Emily Dickinson’s poems inducted me into her world of living with great pain and loss.  I was mesmerized by how she used imagination and sparse language to transcend the particular circumstances of her life, her time, and her family. Here is a brief example—maybe not the first poem that enthralled me, and certainly not the only one, but a poem I have fallen in love with:

XCV.

I many times thought peace had come,
When peace was far away;

As wrecked men deem they sight the land
At centre of the sea,

And struggle slacker, but to prove,
As hopelessly as I,
How many the fictitious shores
Before the harbor lie.

This was a poem I gladly memorized and have returned to many times throughout these next decades of my life.  “I many times thought peace had come…” Whenever I feel a bit hopeless about the world and all its problems, I recite it to myself (never in front of a class or an audience), and when I come to the last line I feel I am finally safe and at anchor in these turbulent times.  Before my injury “I could not stop for death,” but Emily’s coach kindly stopped for me—and, to quote another famous poet whom I’ve since learned to love, “that has made all the difference.”

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Alice Kociemba is the Guest Editor of Common Thread (2015 & 2016). She is the director of Calliope, a poetry reading series, with winter craft workshops, at the West Falmouth Library, now in its ninth season. For the past six years, she has facilitated a poetry discussion group at the Falmouth Public Library. Alice is the author of a chapbook, Death of Teaticket Hardware. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals, including, the Aurorean, Cape Cod Poetry Review, Comstock Review, Off the Coast, and Salamander. Alice’s first poetry collection, Bourne Bridge, is forthcoming in March 2016 (Turning Point Press).