The Power of Poetry

inside cookie box poem 1

Over the holidays, we received a lovely gift basket from my husband’s aunt. It was beautifully wrapped and overflowing with cookies, crackers, pasta, popcorn, and the most delicious salted caramels. This was not something she picked up at a supermarket or specialty store. She had to make it herself because we are gluten free.

The phasing of that last line struck me. We are gluten free, as if we are what we eat, or rather what we don’t eat. But changing it to, we only eat gluten free, doesn’t sound quite right. The first rings more true. We ARE gluten free. We’re not trying it out to be trendy or lose weight (what a joke!), but because our daughter has celiac. It’s our life.

So, needless to say we were quite grateful. This box of cookies caught my eye right away…

best cookies

Bart & Judy’s The Best Sweet Potato Cookies In The World

Even before I tasted them, I loved the flavor combo, in part because I knew my kids wouldn’t touch them. They were mine, all mine, ha! Though I must admit a little wariness regarding their claim, “the best,” which is one of the most overused, and rather annoying, phrases on the web these days.

That said, these cookies are good. Really good. I love how they’re sweet, but not cloyingly so, how there is only a handful of ingredients, all natural. They are about as close to homemade as you can get, in a box. Plus they are so adorably petite, you don’t feel bad if you eat a dozen a couple.

As I happily munched away I checked out the box, whose surface was peppered with stories and quotes. As a kid my parents used to joke that I’d read anything, even the back of a cereal box. Some things don’t change. But what I never expected was what was inside… and I’m not talking about cookies.

Poems. POEMS!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Poems printed on the inside of the box. Are you kidding me?! Bart, the cookie maker, is quite clear what he wants eaters to do:

arrow to read

He includes three poems: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Billy Collins’ “Aristotle,” and John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Later when we bought more flavors at HomeGoods – cinnamon sugar and chocolate chocolate chip – I’d hoped for different poems, but they were the same. Still. Poems with cookies. When does that happen?

Now before you shrug and say, well, I’m not that into poetry (because I’m assuming you’re into cookies, I mean, I hope so), you should know: neither am I.

In fact, I have a history of what I call SPI: severe poetry intimidation.

Of course I’ve read plenty of it; you have to when you major in English lit and get an MFA. But reading poetry always struck a nerve of self-doubt. Still does. Without the familiar footholds of narrative storytelling beneath me, I falter and lose my confidence. Often I start with the best of intentions, but my attention tends to wander at the first roadblock. A phrase I can’t unlock, an obscure reference. It’s kind of what happens when I try to meditate. I lose focus.

Well. Clearly, I need to work on this, because if it weren’t for this box of cookies, I’d never have read “Aristotle” by Billy Collins, now one of my favorite pieces of writing.

He spans a lifetime in a poem. I wept through it, and not only because we were in the midst of dealing with poor Mimi, our dearly departed cat.

Though I do believe reading poetry during times of grief can help. Now, come to think of it, that’s when I’ve been most drawn to poetry. After my mother’s death, a friend sent me W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and I read it repeatedly, as did my father. My novel-in-progress (perhaps I should stop calling it an albatross?) has themes of death, grief, and survivor’s guilt, and I found this poem on Lindsey Mead’s wonderful blog, A Design So Vast.

Perhaps the answer for me, and anyone else suffering from poetry intimidation, is to take one poem at a time and release yourself from pressure to “get it” or even like it.

Maybe, if you’re feeling so inclined, check out some of my favorite lines from “Aristotle.”

From, This is the beginning.

Think of an egg, the letter A,

a woman ironing on a bare stage

as the heavy curtain rises.

As I read these lines, between bites of cookie, I thought, I can see that. I heard the hush of the audience as the curtain rose. The skin on my arms rose up and I continued.

From, This is the middle.

This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,

where the action suddenly reverses

or swerves off in an outrageous direction.

Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph

to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.

I love how right this feels, the messy middle, when there is still possibility, though the shine of it has rubbed off.

From, And this is the end,

the car running out of road,

the river losing its name in an ocean…

This is the colophon, the last elephant in

the parade, the empty wheelchair,

and pigeons floating down in the evening.

I was understandably flattened by the wheelchair line, since my mother was in one for the last decade of her life, but I could barely get through this last section without weeping. It felt like The End, more than just the end of a poem.

But that, I’m realizing, is the power of poetry, one that has eluded me over the years. A phrase lights up in your mind, dives down and burrows in your heart, where it beats and bleeds.

Not every poem will have this effect, just like not every book or cookie will, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read lots of books or try lots of cookies.

I’d like to know if you consider yourself poetry fluent, averse, or somewhere in between. What poems have left their mark on you?

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36 thoughts on “The Power of Poetry

  1. That is the silliest-looking box and made me laugh out loud. Completely forgiven because of the yummy cookies and, of course, the poetry. That is so cool. I love that company now. I’m not too into poetry but have always been a fan of Emily Dickenson and some scattered classics. Lindsey’s blog always makes me want to run out and buy books of poetry, though. And my youngest son loves studying poetry so I’ve been reading it with him for years now. I love ‘The Road Not Taken’ but have never read ‘Aristotle’. That poem is absolutely stunning.

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    • The box is funny, I agree! I wasn’t expecting much when I opened it, which is perhaps why I was so blown away by the poetry. I’m really so grateful to Lindsey for her quotation posts.

      I have a handful of poetry books on my shelf, but not much sticks, though I do love Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and have a soft spot for Anne Carson who twists myth into her poems. I think taking sips of poetry is key for me, I can’t just dive into it and swim for hours like I can with a novel.

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      • And you can tell what a big fan I am by the fact that I spelled Emily’s name wrong. O_o

        Yes. Sylvia Plath. I know I read quite a few of the “famous” poets in school a lifetime ago. I’m the same way. When I read poetry, it’s a cup of tea, not a mug of coffee. I have to look up Anne Carson now. Myths. Can’t help myself.

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  2. Oh yes, Anne Carson is pretty fantastic. I loved “Autobiography of Red” which is like a novella/poem. Also, her introductions in “Grief Lessons” (she is also a translator of Greek plays) were very moving.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this Dana – I just googled the poem and happened upon a spoken word version (by Billy Collins himself) that I listened to as I simultaneously read it. It was one of those poems that really pulls you in and becomes an immersive experience. The imagery is vivid and it really spoke to me as a writer because of the way it is about all the different stories that go on in life. By the ending I had tears in my eyes. I LOVED the last verse about the end. Very moving.

    I’m a bit funny about poetry – I often feel like I don’t quite ‘get’ it (I’m more of a novel-reader really) but sometimes a poem just speaks to me and somehow seems to capture something that a whole book could not achieve! I love Invictus by William Ernest Henley (which has more meaning when you know what was going on in his life when he wrote it). Well, that was one thought-provoking box of biscuits!

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    • Oh my goodness, I will have to check that out! I think you’re onto something re the poem and fiction readers – it’s not opaque at all, and it encompasses so much of life and story telling with such gorgeous evocative language.

      I am loving the expression, “one thought-provoking box of biscuits”! It really was 🙂

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  4. Wonderful post Dana! Cookies and poetry are you kidding me!!! just throw in a cup of tea and I’m in heaven! Firstly I LOVE Billy Collins and recently bought his latest collection which I am savoring for a day when I can relax by the fire with tea and cookies 😀 I’m also a huge fan of Sylvia Plath and have spent countless (futile) hours wishing I could write like her. I do write poems but I’m with you on the whole SPI thing – sharing my poems has been liberating but I still break out into a cold sweat.

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  5. I love that last part and was also eating a cookie while reading it! I do love poetry but haven’t read much of it. Poems and short stories can be so inspiring and so good though – like those little bites of chocolate. If you like cranberries by the way, I highly recommend chocolate covered cranberries. As for poems, the ones that have stuck with me are by people like Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Emily Dickinson, and William Blake – the usual people probably because I haven’t read enough of it. Thank you for inspiring me to read more poems (and eat more cookies)!

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    • Exactly like nibbling on chocolate! And yes to chocolate cranberries, and really, chocolate covered anything (including cherries, yum). I’m very pleased to inspire poetry reading and cookie eating 🙂

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  6. I had the opportunity to meet Billy Collins and hear him read his poems and discuss his craft this past summer at the Southampton Writers Conference. He really is amazing. Here’s one I love:

    “…I am the sound of
    rain on the roof
    I also happen to be the
    shooting star,
    the evening paper
    blowing down an alley,
    and the basket of
    chestnuts on the kitchen
    table.
    I am also the moon in
    the trees
    And the blind woman’s
    tea cup.
    But don’t worry, I am
    not the bread and the
    knife.
    You are still the bread
    and the knife.
    You will always be the
    bread and the knife,
    not to mention the
    crystal goblet and –
    somehow-the wine.”
    ~ Billy Collins

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    • Wow, how wonderful that you met Billy Collins and heard him speak! That sounds like a fantastic conference. And thank you for including that beautiful poem, I love love love it. Clearly, I need to get his latest collection.

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  7. I’ve never come across poems in a box of cookies, I like the idea you can sit down eating the cookies and read! I’m not a big reader of poverty but just recently I’ve been thinking about poems I learnt at school or resounded with me at certain points in my life. It’s made me think I’d like to get a few poetry anthology books, nothing too heavy though!

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    • Me either, but maybe it’s for the best since if more cookies had poetry inside their boxes, I’d be eating waaaaay too many cookies… A poetry anthology sounds good, or just sign up for one of those a poem a week/day emails. I find that smaller doses to be easier to swallow. Also, Leslie Mead posts wonderful poetry quotes on her blog, A Design So Vast, every Friday.

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  8. I used to love attending the Dodge poetry festival in NJ when it wasn’t in Newark. Listening to some of the great poets give voice to their work was hard to compare. But, while I appreciate good poetry, I too find myself mentally wandering if the thread isn’t clear. My mentor in college, Stephen Dunne, has fantastic poetry. I always found much of his work to be cyclical in nature, in that you would reach the end of the poem and realize something poignant about what was said in the beginning. It was also very easily digestible as it was often a small vignette of life, or based on one. (You can find a small sample of his work here: http://www.poetrysoup.com/famous/poems/best/stephen_dunn).

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    • Thanks Scott! How great that you studied with Stephen Dunne. I just read some of those poems and WOW, “I was just whispering into her mouth” that is good stuff. Thanks for sending me his way.

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  9. Those are some fun cookies, and I’m glad they taste good too!
    I’ve only written a handful of poems in my adulthood when the mood struck. I have no idea where they came from, and if anymore are swirling around in there!

    A little secret? I like poems that rhyme. I really need to write a children’s book.

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  10. Poems written on the inside of a box of cookies? That is so cool!! And wonderful poems as well. In a way it’s shame there aren’t different poems in different products, but we can’t be too picky here. I’m like you, I’ll read anything from instructions to cereal boxes so I can imagine how excited you were!

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  11. What a novel presentation of these cookies. I remember staring at the cereal box as a kid and reading the mindless chatter on the back. What a treat to read poetry… I appreciate poetry as I’ve gotten older. Mary Oliver, David Whyte and Billy Collins are some of my favorite poets.

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    • It was a treat! Billy Collins seems to be a favorite for many, and I can see why 🙂 And I love that you were also a cereal box reader as a kid. I knew I couldn’t be the only one.

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  12. I sometimes say that poetry is my lingua franca, the language I’m most comfortable in, the place I feel truly at home. My favorites are Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Stanley Kunitz, Adrienne Rich, Jane Kenyon, Wordsworth, oh, I could go on and on and on … I adore poetry. There’s a great quote about how prose is walking and poetry is flying … yes. xox

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    • Ooooh, I like that quote Lindsey.

      I think it’s wonderful that poetry is your language. For me, it’s the opposite. I have to work so hard to hear and understand, much like foreign language, which I’ve never had a knack for. But just because it doesn’t come easily doesn’t mean I should avoid it, and sites like yours help me with that. I will take a look at those authors you suggest.

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  13. I used to be an English teacher and was into teaching poetry and went through a (very short) phase when I would write some, too. Those days seem so far behind me. It would do me well to take a new look at poetry new and old.

    What a fun post!

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    • Wow, an English teacher! I can see that 🙂 I suspect I’d have a hard time teaching poetry, but I’d love to teach novels and short stories. Maybe someday. I think it’s worth looking back at old loves. You never know what might happen.

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  14. Sorry I’m so late to this wonderful post, Dana.
    Poetry is not my strong suit so I don’t seek it out. I find that it can be difficult to interpret which frustrates me. One poet I love is Mary Oliver. Her phrases and themes make sense to me. Have you read any of her work?

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    • Thanks so much Jackie. Poetry often frustrates me too, which is why it was so nice to connect with Billy Collins. I haven’t read Mary Oliver, but I will definitely check her out!

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