Roger Housden has written a series of books about poems, all with the theme of reading and using poems to help a person change themselves for the better. Housden writes with energy and sincerity and he picks great poems by good poets. Unfortunately,Ten Poems to Set You Free reads too much like a self-help book and contains too little of what Housden does best, which is give us one man's personal experience with poetry. Mary Oliver, Stanley Kunitz, and Miguel de Unamuno are poets I've read for a long time with joy and pleasure and I will be sure to read Jane Hirshfield now that Housden has introduced her work to me.
As much as I believe that great good comes from reading great books, and of course this includes great poetry, I have trouble with the self-help and self-knowledge and self-focusing that Housden uses in discussing the works of the ten poets he chooses. He knows poetry well; he discusses and uses many more poems and poets than just the ones listed in his table of contents. He is also well-versed in religious traditions, particularly eastern ones and seems very comfortable aligning those philosophies with the dictates he finds in the ten poems he's chosen to "set you free."
Poetry and prose inevitably have at least two meanings: there will always be what the author meant to say and convey, and what the reader gets out of the words. The more readers, the more meanings. It is not fair really to say a reader did not "get" a certain writer; every reader is free to interpret as he/she wishes. But in making an argument for the meaning of a poem, a reader has to be able to support his/her argument. I was not convinced by Housden's rather literal undertakings of the poems, nor was I comfortable with his generalizing application of the words. One person's interpretation of a text is interesting to me, and especially when that one person is thoughtful and intense. Housden makes good and sound arguments for himself; he deeply feels the poetry that he reads and is genuine in his essays about them. But when he strays from himself and starts giving general advice to the reader, he loses me completely. I just am not convinced by the language of self-awareness and self-knowledge: too much generic "self" and too little that is interesting or unique.
Poetry is great for how it brings you out of yourself and to someplace new. Even when you recognize where you are (in a place of love or despair or obsession or loss) it is the new - and shared with the poet -- experience of it that changes you forever. Sometimes poetry is just about the beauty of a line, the way one line can resonate with you and make your heart actually vibrate with understanding. That is where poetry sets you free (to use Housden's title), by taking you out of yourself and bringing you to someone else's private outlook, like going to a tree house with its new special view over the yard you may have known (and mowed) for years. Because you are seeing everything from a new and different angle, you are freed from old interpretations of life and love, goodness and strength, what is worth it and what is not. It is the same with great works of art: seeing a painting can change the whole way you look at, for example, nighttime, after looking at the night paintings of Van Gogh.
Housden has chosen great poems for delivering the message of joy and the mandate of getting up and doing whatever it is that you need to do or want to do. Live authentically, as told in David Whyte's poem: "you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand." Live with commitment to your living, from Unamuno: "to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts is the work; start then, turn to the work."
But I disagree with Housden that Unamuno is talking about one's life work. Housden says a lot in this book about how important it is to find out what our work is meant to be and to discard the easy or stable job and go for the gusto. But I think Unamuno's point is that whatever the job you get paid for is, the only important job is the actual act of living; what is important is to live fully committed, no matter what our job or our labor is, and our reason for living is the living itself. Get out there and live, throw the seed of active, engaged, committed living everywhere you go, in everything you do: "the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant." Many of us will live with jobs that are just jobs but our lives are full and rich because we are committed to fully living (appreciating) the moments of each day. Our life is abundant when within ourselves we see the abundance of life.
As Mary Oliver asks, in the poem used by Housden: "Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it life?" This is an amazing line and I appreciate Housden sharing it with me; I appreciate him sounding the warning bell of half-lived lives and using the beauty of poetry to ring the message home. I just wish that he would stick to his own personal experiences in bringing us this wonderful poetry and leave the jargon of self-help to the preachers.
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