“Through poetry, the unspeakable can be spoken, the unendurable endured, and the miraculous shared.”- Kim Rosen
Kim Rosen has spent decades deeply immersed in studying, writing, learning by heart, living, and performing some of the world’s most sublime poetry. Author, poet, inspirational teacher, and champion of the revival of oral traditions, Kim spoke to us about the power of poetry to break open the mind, and leave us unexpectedly free.
Harriet: What I want to know is why poetry? What is it about poetry that has the power to cut through?
KIM: Poetry, literally and scientifically, is the only way to use language that engages the whole brain in such a way that it cancels itself out. I am not sure scientists would say that exactly, but what I like to say is that poetry is a way, maybe the only way, of using the mind to break open the mind.
When a poem touches you, when tears spring unbidden to your eyes, or you get goose flesh, it is not something you can plan or think about. In that moment something pops open. For a second you are in life beyond the mind, whatever name you give that: beingness, presence, true self. A poem has the power to bring your attention to the space that is before, between, and after thought.
Poetry has been called the language of the soul. In order to enter poetry’s language, your grip on habitual, left-brained ways of processing information needs to soften. Poems are made of words, so the linear part of our brain, which houses our capacity to understand language, wants to take over. But poems are made of words arranged in a non-linear way, and this forces us to relax the rational part of our brain and open. Poetry is primarily received by the artistic, impressionistic, feeling part of the brain. Yet the whole brain is activated and, in a way, exploded for a moment. The linear brain collides with the non-linear brain and thought itself breaks open to something vaster. Poetry has the power to interrupt the rodent wheel of thought.
This is why people who think they don’t even like poetry can be completely taken unawares at a funeral, for example, and break open when somebody reads a poem. There is a way that a poem – and this is both conscious and unconscious on the part of the poet – can snap the cage of your mind open, and you experience freedom for a moment.
Harriet: How is it that freedom, or awakening, or truth, can be expressed in poetry when it is so difficult to speak about directly?
KIM (laughing): I wish I knew the answer to that one. If I did I would probably write more poetry.
Poetry is a language that can lead to freedom, but it is also perhaps the only language in which you can speak from freedom.
You can’t speak of truth with the linear mind. One of my favorite poets, W. S. Merwin, who is a teacher of poetry and deeply immersed in his own spiritual practice and wisdom, says that prose speaks what we know, but poetry arises from the unknown, and it leads into the unknown.
Writing poetry is an ability to express life, using words, in a way that embodies our own outpouring of freedom. Gangaji does it all the time. If you put line breaks in her words you have poetry.
Harriet: It strikes me you have taken spoken poetry to the level of an art form. How would you describe that?
KIM: When I speak a poem, or you speak a poem, it is not just the structure and meaning of the poem or the sound of our voices that makes it powerful. The voice is literally breath moving through the physical cellular structure, the way the sound moves through a cello. The shape of the sound, and the way air vibrates inside the cello, is contained in the sound of the music. So when I speak a poem, what I have lived, the shape of me if you like, is encrypted into my voice. This is nothing that I need to try for. In fact, I can’t avoid it. That is true of anyone’s voice, whether their voice is held back or free.
With Gangaji, I first fell in love with the sound of her voice. There are teachers out there who have very real awakenings and I can’t stand their voices. It’s hard for me. Gangaji’s voice has the resonance of the whole cello. There are not parts of the cello that have been quarantined. She hasn’t said, “to speak truth I need to come from here, and not here.” That is part of the transmission that comes through her because she is embodied. That may not be important to everybody, but it is important to me.
When I speak a poem, my intention is to be as naked as possible, to allow myself to pour into the poem – the human struggles, as well as the vastness. To let it be alive in my voice, unhidden. There is also the fact that I have lived with this poem. I have allowed it to be my teacher, to take me into myself in a way that no other can. It is very different for me to read a poem flat from the page (there is value in that too.) But when I know a poem by heart, I have really lived it in my own way. I like to say, I have let the poem slay me in every way that it can.
I use that phrase a lot, “to be slain by a poem.” Right next to being saved by a poem. They are the same thing. To be slain by a poem is to take it in and let it slay who I think I am in every which way. The more I live with a poem, the more I am slain by it.
Harriet: I know what you mean by being slain by a poem, but I don’t really necessarily recognize what is happening. It’s like recognizing the perfection of a fern in the forest as it unfurls itself in the Spring. I am slain by the brilliance of a poem, by which I mean the artistry and perfection in the poet’s choice and placement of words, outrageous and humbling in their beauty.
KIM: What is at play there is what I call the anatomy of a poem. A poem has a medicine bag of elements that create the circumstances for revelation in the reader, speaker or listener. Often we constellate our attention around the meaning of the poem, which is just part of the medicine bag. There is also the rhythm, the sound, the way the words play to each other, the music of the poem. All of this affects the way it makes our breath move, which in turn changes the rhythm of our heart, which can literally change the biochemistry of the brain, the pulsations of the cerebrospinal fluid, the brainwaves. All of these various entrainments can have a transformative, liberating effect.
Reciting a poem to someone is like getting in an elevator and going down eight floors together that you didn’t even know were down there. You are moving into a radically different increment of intimacy. To move from an everyday conversation into speaking a poem is a revolutionary act.
For instance, what is the effect if I suddenly just say to you…
Inside this new love, die
Your way begins on the other side
Become the sky…
Harriet: I am floored, thrilled, even slightly embarrassed by the shift into an intimacy that points to something so close I feel suddenly naked.
Kim: Yes! If I go there (and one can say a poem without going there) you are coming with me. You may not like that, but it is happening.
Harriet: So I think what you are saying, and this is the essence of what this magazine is about, is that speaking poetry can be the backdoor, in a certain way, to all of us going down in the elevator (if that is not too mixed a metaphor!)
KIM: Yes, that is what it is. In speaking anything, but in particular, words that point to truth, you get to be responsible, as consciously as possible, for what is being put out into the space. If you hear someone read their poems and most of their attention is on, “Do you like me?” it is a different experience even if it is a great poem. But if they are actually going there, to the immediacy in the direct experience of the poem… you go there with them.
My punch-line to all my students is, never deliver a poem for someone else. Always speak it for yourself. Make sure that you are completely vulnerable to being slain by every moment of that poem, and whoever else is there will come with you. Because when you hear someone speaking a poem with an intention to put something across, it is really different. It is like a performance or a lesson. They are doing it to make a point or have an effect. That can be alright, but it is different from the intimacy I am interested in.
What I am actually interested in is the process of being completely present with others in the dissolution of the mind.
This conversation would not be complete without the opportunity to hear Kim reciting a poem, and in her own words, telling us how profound an experience learning a poem can be. Here is Love After Love By Derek Walcott, with Kim's story that was sparked by this poem.
Kim was a guest of Hillary Larson for an episode of Epiphany: Saved By A Poem. Listen Here
Kim Rosen, M.F.A., has awakened listeners around the world to the power of poetry to heal and transform individuals and communities. She is the author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. Combining her devotion to poetry with her background in psychotherapy and spirituality, she offers lectures, workshops, retreats and Poetry Concerts in retreat centers, conferences, universities, professional trainings, churches, corporations, and hospices. She has delivered poems in a spectrum of settings from the crypt of Chartres Cathedral to the New Orleans Superdome to a Maasai Safe House in Kenya. In 2012, she founded the Poetry Depths Mystery School, a multi-dimensional immersion in the power of poetry to nourish and heal oneself and others. In 2015 she founded the Safe House Education (SHE) College Fund to give Maasai girls who are courageously changing the world an opportunity to go to college. Co-creator of four CDs of spoken poetry and music, Rosen has been on the faculty of the Omega Institute, Kripalu, Rowe Conference Center, Wisdom University and the International Pathwork Foundation. Original poetry and commentary © 2017 Kim Rosen.
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