Poetry Will Save Your Life

In Poetry Will Save Your Life, poet, novelist, and New York Times bestselling author Jill Bialosky takes a wholly original approach to memoir, refracting her life through the prism of poems that have shaped, inspired, and helped her make sense of the world around her. At once highly personal and marked by keenly observed universal themes, Bialosky’s probing exploration touches on both familiar poetic classics and lesser-known gems that have had special significance.

“Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought,” Bialosky writes. “Like a map to an unknown city, a poem might lead you toward an otherwise unreachable experience, but once reached, you recognize it immediately….This memoir is also a form of mythmaking, for experiences are heightened, altered and shaped by the form in which they are told….and the poems I present provide to a certain extent a window into my way of thinking and associating. Such is the mystery and wonder of a poem.”

Bialosky’s lifelong immersion in poetry began in the fourth grade with the discovery of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” An awkward child whose father died before she was old enough to remember him, Bialosky finds that the poem speaks to her of an alternative life where her father had lived and her mother was happy and offered her a way to think about her own path she might forge. As her life progresses from girlhood to adolescence to adulthood and motherhood, poems bear witness to her experiences, large and small, to the ways in which we live in the world and to our shared humanity. Emily Dickinson provides insight into questions of faith, Sylvia Plath illuminates the mysterious pull of depression, Louise Gluck on envy, James Wright and Keats on first love. Poems offer signposts for the significant moments in a life—sexual awakening, leaving home, the loss of a parent and the deaths of a child, the joys of motherhood, a sister’s suicide, a mother’s aging, the day in New York City when the Twin Towers fell.

Bialosky frames each poem with its Life and Afterlife—chronicling how the poem spoke to her at a formative time and also how its meanings and implications have deepened for her over time. As an acclaimed poet and editor herself, Bialosky moves beyond the personal to investigate the essence of what makes these poems more widely significant, explicating the art of poetry for readers who will surely find their own connections to these poems—and to others and in doing so demystifies poetry and makes a compelling argument for its necessity in our lives.

With equal parts candor, empathy, and passion, Jill Bialosky shows how intricately tied poetry is to our own experiences and, at the same time, offers a celebration of the power of an enduring art form. Poetry Will Save Your Life is a singularly moving and illuminating work from “a fearless and clear-eyed and compassionate writer” (George Howe Colt, author of November of the Soul).

Praise for Poetry Will Save Your Life

“A lovely hybrid that blends [Bialosky’s] coming-of-age story with engaging literary analysis. … Adults and mature teens will find much to love in this book, which demonstrates how poems can become an integral part of life.  It also suggests, on every page, the wisdom and deep compassion that make [Bialosky’s book] a tremendous asset both to readers and other writers.”

The Washington Post

“An executive editor at W.W. Norton, Bialosky’s own poems are precise, spare and emotionally acute. She writes memoir scenes with a poet’s eye, recalling the immediate sensations of childhood: three little girls building a snowman, ‘licking the rusty taste of snow from our mittens.’ She grieves her father, who died when she was 2, and chronicles the loneliness of her widowed mother, alone in Midwest suburbia with three daughters. Sharon Olds’ poem ‘The Sisters of Sexual Treasure’ clarifies Bialosky’s own erotic awakening, a charged encounter in a blue Corvette. Later, Lucille Clifton and Adrienne Rich help her to hone her ambition and challenge the myth of female sacrifice… Bialosky is at her best when writing about Plath — that ‘heightened and intense awareness of the evolving self.’ Plath’s poems shed light on the miracle of new motherhood and distill meaning from the horror of her younger sister’s suicide.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“Bialosky provides a refreshing tonic to the periodic, exaggerated and self-indulgent reports of poetry's death, difficulty or irrelevance…she takes the genre's worth as a given and leaps joyfully into sharing her admiration of the art form…thanks to Bialosky's erudite and instructive approach to poetry itself, you'll probably want to start your own scrapbook of lifesaving poems by the time you're through.”

— Kathleen Rooney, Chicago Tribune

“unusual and affecting…using 51 poems, ranging broadly from nursery rhymes to a Shakespeare sonnet, {Bialosky} sets out to demonstrate how reading and remembering poetry can provide a kind of salvation…Like the weather and politics, the human condition isn’t altered by poetry, but this lovely memoir poignantly and credibly shows how it can inspire our acceptance of life.”

—Hilma Wolitzer, East Hampton Star

“Bialosky, a poet and novelist, sees her life broken up not by years, but through poems. Her moving memoir …. shows how poetry can be a powerful tool to for healing and understanding.”

Real Simple

“An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.”

Kirkus

“An intimate rendering of a poet's passion for words.”

Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“This is the only textbook you will ever need on poetry.  It tells you not only how to read poetry, but why to read it, lovingly illustrated by portraits from Bialosky’s life so intimate that every passage feels like a private gift, tenderly crafted for the reader’s memory, to be cherished for years to come.”

—Hope Jahren, bestselling author of Lab Girl

Poetry Will Save Your Life is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read, but it’s so much more. Bialosky does something miraculous: as she shares stories from her life, she shows how specific poems can help all of us make sense of our own lives and the world. Here are classic and contemporary poems that help us see and hear one another more clearly; that speak to us in times of loss and grief; that guide us through our every days. If you’ve always loved poetry, this book will captivate you. And if you want to love poetry, then this book will open worlds. Poetry Will Save Your Life is itself a life-saving book.”

—Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living

“Time and again she proves her thesis of survival through the arts. But it is not a work of an essayist but one of a person who believes in the power of art to connect us in our shared humanity.”

New York Journal of Books

Poetry Will Save Your Life is a remarkable and compulsively readable book, one that combines the poignant moments of lived life and the reflected life of words in a wholly original way. Jill Bialosky writes with as much pristine skill about her personal story as she writes about the poems that nurtured and inspired her. The intersection of art and life has rarely been so vividly rendered.”

—Daphne Merkin, author of This Close to Happy

“This charming and captivating book ties each moment of the author's development to the transformative verses she read.  She allows these poems to organize her deliberate candor about a complex and compelling life.”

—Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree

“Jill Bialosky writes with a sincerity that would have made Dickinson herself weep. She fights to keep poetry from being lofty and academic, she takes it out of the clouds and brings down to earth. Having an expert guide you to a subject with the humility and enthusiasm of a beginner is as moving as her prose in which she reminds us that she has also been a woman who needed saving, and poetry swept in and gave her back a pulse. She achieves something remarkable in that it feels as though she is revealing herself for our sake, the readers: basically what all the best poetry strives for.”

—Mary-Louise Parker, author of Dear Mr. You

“Empathic, wise, humane, and consoling, Jill Bialosky's Poetry Will Save Your Life is an engrossing celebration of poetry for any curious reader. Bialosky tells us about the poems that have kept her company over the years--and along the ways she joyfully illuminates both poetry and life itself.”

—Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye

“Bialosky's attention to detail and love of language serve the reader well. This is a book to savor.”

Library Journal

“Should you be looking for proof that poetry is balm for the wounded soul, you’re likely to find it here.”

The Forward