The Poem I Turn To

“In the aftermath of the spectacular collapse of the twin towers on September 11, 2001, the act of turning to poetry enjoyed a revival… In times of crisis, poems, not paintings or ballet, are what people habitually reach for… The formalized language of poetry can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus… Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others, some of them long dead, have felt what we are feeling.”

The excerpt above was written by Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate (2001-2003) from the introduction to The Poem I Turn To: Actors and Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them. Sadly, poetry books tend to stand forlorn on dusty bookshelves, often relegated to the back of whatever bookstores are still in business. In general, most people don’t read or buy poetry; paradoxically people have an insatiable appetite for songs — poetry set to music — as evidenced by the enormous success of Apple’s iTune store. Nevertheless, Collins is correct in stating that during special events in our lives — whether tragic or joyful — we inexorably turn to poetry. One of the greatest students of the human psyche, Sigmund Freund, expressed it this way: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.”

The editors of this book have tapped 42 well-known actors, like Alan Arkin, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Horrman, and asked them to identify and discuss the poems that inspire them. The book also includes a CD so that you can hear the actors reading those poems. The book includes some classics, like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and some not so well known, like Jon Silkin’s “Death of a Son.” Although one might legitimately disagree with the inclusion — or exclusion — of some of the poems, the overall concept of the book is extremely laudable.

During the course of their lifetimes, every individual should assemble such a book, or collection of poems that sustains them during life’s peaks and valleys. Rather than filling their smart phones with ridiculous cat videos or forgettable selfies, perhaps individuals should challenge themselves to start collecting something more meaningful, enduring, and thought-provoking — like the poems they turn to…

For further reading: The Poem I Turn To: Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them edited by Jason Shinder, Sourcebooks (2008).

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