Poetry is Self-Help for the Soul

Originally published at Maria Shriver’s blog.

“Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World.” My heart began palpitating as I read the title of this poem.

My friend, Cathy, made me read it because a few months before, a White Bull had stormed into my world and I didn’t have any poetic language for what looked like a huge, messy disaster.

Jane Hirschfield’s poem described my feelings precisely, and shed light on my confusing love drama.

Her poem was solid self-help and spiritual guidance that spoke directly to my soul. Hirschfield helped me understand that this lover stormed into my rather sedate life for a reason, and that I should accept the gift.

And later, when my lover departed just as suddenly as she swept in, Hirschfield’s poem reminded me that the love I felt belonged to me.

The poem goes like this:

If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen.

Say the accustomed prayers,
oil the hooves well,
caress the small ears with praise.

Have the new halter of woven silver
embedded with jewels.
Spare no expense, pay what is asked,
when a gift arrives from the sea.

Treat it as you yourself
would be treated, brought speechless and naked
into the court of a king.

And when the request finally comes,
do not hesitate even an instant –

stroke the white throat,
the heavy, trembling dewlaps
you’d come to believe were yours,
and plunge in the knife.

Not once
did you enter the pasture
without pause,
without yourself trembling,
that you came to love it, that was the gift.

Let the envious gods take back what they can.

– “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World,” by Jane Hirschfield

I always thought poetry was for the highbrow, for people smarter than me who had the patience to wade through inscrutable lines of verse.

And honey, I’m no highbrow. Hirschfield’s poem, along with my other new poet pals, showed me that poetry is soul-food that goes beyond the intellect and stirs our emotions.

Poetry took me out of my head and into my heart, exactly where I needed to be to navigate the tricky waters of love—and life.

Poetry carried me through that stormy affair. Hirschfield encouraged me to embrace what I felt and go for it.

In “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver called me to action with her famous battle cry of the hopeless romantic:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Rumi’s “Zero Circle” bolstered my faith with,

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
to gather us up.

When I felt lost after the love affair went south, Derek Walcott helped me return to myself with his poem, “Love After Love”:

The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

I realized that a poet’s calling is to attempt to capture our full human experience in mere words—our senses, feelings and thoughts articulated in a way that moves and enlightens us.

Poetry came into my life on the heels of my stormy love affair.

And while that romance blew over, poetry is here to stay–a lifetime love.