Poet heal thyself

Poet Robert McDowell's biography took a bizarre turn about five years ago, when he stumbled into four different potentially fatal situations, what he calls "high adrenaline surprises," and acted decisively to save lives. Later, he experienced a personal crisis when his publishing house closed.

Taken together, the heroics and the failure left him desperate and confused. McDowell writes that he felt like a "crazy man banging around in the dark" seeking a door. The door back to peace and happiness turned out to be poetry.

McDowell's new book, "Poetry as Spiritual Practice," seeks to show others how to achieve a sense of personal vitality and significance through poetry.

MJ: How does poetry function to reveal and address emotional and psychological troubles? Would you consider this function comparable to the catharsis Aristotle attributed to drama?

RM: Poetry triggers wholeness, in ourselves and with others in acts of building community. Poetry is a divine expression of empathy. Poetry is able to do this by reconnecting the tuning fork of our core being to our speech, which allows us to "hear" ourselves being, and to make a connection with someone else. Poetry is our deepest truth and the music of our souls. Poetry does function in much the way that Aristotle describes in his Poetics, though he is rather excessively left-brain about it, if I read him right. By this I mean he sees a linear goal in the experience — smoothing out unruly emotions and organizing them in a benign sun room. Poetry does more, much more.

MJ: Your book explains the structure of poetry starting with simple rhyme and meter and progressing through more complex forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, and the sestina. Why is it important to understand these forms?

RM: These and other forms are already inside us. All forms of poetry and music are based on the neurological systems that make us the unique creatures we are. Through these starting points, these forms, one gains confidence in emotional self-expression, collaborating, in a way, with everyone, even the great poets of the past and present, who excel in them. I hope understanding the forms will clear obstacles and encourage discovery and play.

MJ: What do you mean when you speak of poetry as practice? Do you mean it in the sense of perfecting an art?

RM: I place a great deal of value on perfecting an art. But in a truer sense, poetry as practice perfects one's life, and nothing is more important than that. Daily poetry deepens and enriches life experience. It helps us know ourselves better, and better understand our relationships in this life. It's the one conversation, with yourself, you'll never get tired of or be able to avoid.

MJ: Your book contains lots of wonderful poems. One of my favorites is "Juvenile Court," which depicts Hansel and Gretel facing charges for burning up the Witch. Do you think there's any subject that lies beyond the scope of poetry?

RM: No. Every subject can be most beautifully and most unerringly perceived through poetry.

MJ: In every chapter of "Poetry as Spiritual Practice," you include exercises that individuals or groups can use to loosen up their poetic muscles. Do you feel that having a partner or group is the best way to go about weaving poetry into daily life?

RM: It's the best way for some, not all. That's why I include exercises for groups and individuals. The act of writing is so often solitary, but sharing poetry is communal. And often, writing poetry alone or with others is a lot of fun!

MJ: "Poetry as Spiritual Practice" is meant for a wide audience, not necessarily regular readers of poetry. Do you feel you have reached this wider audience?

RM: Reading the e-mails and letters I receive every day from people all over the world, I believe the book's outreach is making progress. I hope approving readers will share the book with others. An audience builds one blessed person at a time.

Co-founder of Story Line Press, Robert McDowell has lived in the Rogue Valley since 1998. While located in Ashland, the press went into hiatus, but has been revived at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. No longer a publisher, McDowell is writing a new book on sacred partnering and a novel.

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