Certain images of my mother stick in my head, the earliest being her reading to me from a tall green edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Other images crowd in: holding me in her arms as we watched the dogcatcher take our Boston terrier away (no treatment for mange existed at the time); her as the room mother bringing cupcakes when I was in third grade; the expert manager of garage sales; the long weekend when I visited during her recovery from surgery when she was 89, and how she talked about her life before she married my father.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, I realized that she was a person who was more than just my mother—I began to see her as a person with hopes and dreams, challenges and disappointments, happiness and grief.
That realization permeates The Joy of Poetry: How to Keep, Save & Make Your Life with Poems by Megan Willome. It’s a book about poetry, yes, but it is also a book about how poetry becomes an important facet of the large and small events of one’s life.
And, yes, it is a book about life. I hesitate to call it a memoir, although it is that. But to call it only a memoir would be a disservice. The Joy of Poetry is a meditation, a collection of memories, an understanding of what poetry can do, and a quiet working through of grief.
When Willome was 11, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Through treatment, determination, and a lot of grit, she survived it; the cancer went into remission. But the remission wasn’t permanent; decades later it returned and was eventually fatal.
Willome, an editor and writer living in Texas, tells her mother’s story through poetry. In so doing, she tells her own. And while she’s telling these intensely personal stories, she’s also explaining what poetry is and what it does.
We discover poetry in the everyday; we learn about how it uses symbols; we find there is such a thing as a poetry “buddy”; and then, even if you don’t like what you think poetry is you can always find it in song. There is poetry in crisis, and there is poetry in fiction. There is weird poetry, good and bad poetry, old poetry, and dream poetry.
Willome is at once theoretical and practical, emotional and metered. Poetry has infused her life but she understands the people who tend to run from it. She provides resources and helps, and she includes poems, some wonderful poems, some of which she has written and others which were written by the famous and not-so-famous.
And when she is done, we understand something obvious and yet still profound: poetry is life. Poetry is the life of Willome’s mother, and her own life. And in the common humanity we all share: the poetry of our mothers’ lives, and our lives, too. The Joy of Poetry tells all of our stories.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish