Poetry Can Heal
Soothing words for work.
Published: April 9, 2011
by Kim Rosen
Poems bring heart to any environment.
I have heard story after story about the countless ways poetry can be a medicine that heals and sustains. Maya Angelou, Guy Johnson, and C. C. Carter called on poems to see them through times of extreme trauma. My optometrist’s assistant told me that poetry brought her back from a nervous breakdown, when she was “hanging by a thread” after the untimely death of her brother. “I memorized almost all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. They literally saved my life.”
At 15, John Muir, who grew up to be one of the founders of the environmental movement, sneaked out behind his tyrannical father’s back to a neighbor’s library where he secretly read the works of Wordsworth, Blake, and Keats, seeding his romantic view of nature. Others, like Sonja Franeta, discovered that poems can give protection and guidance through soul-battering hours of mindless labor.
Sonja was a dedicated Socialist who took a series of jobs on assembly lines when she was in her 20s. Though she had a master’s degree in literature, she held a vision that the Labor movement could transform society. Her chosen job was an expression of her identification with the working people as well as a connection to her own immigrant Eastern European background.
In the cacophony of clanging metal, dull repetitive tasks, and abusive interactions, poetry saved her. Years later, she wrote a short story called “The Can Factory Sonnets” based on her experience there:
The noise was unbearable in the can plant. It was like jackhammers but more metallic and hollow sounding. Constant clamor of machinery and can tops—the drive was to keep the place going one hundred percent all the time. Monotonous, mechanical, assembly-line work! . . . Fewer workers meant fewer variables. All alone at my station, I got their strategy but was pretty much a slave.
Reflecting on the experience three decades later, she said, “Everyone had their own way of surviving. Some people did it by drinking, drugs, music, fantasy, and many things I never found out about. I survived by doing political work and my poetry.”
Before she left for work every morning, Sonja would choose a poem she wanted to learn by heart. Sometimes it was from the work of W. H. Auden or Emily Dickinson. Sometimes it was a sonnet by William Shakespeare. She’d write it in letters as small as she could manage on a tiny piece of paper. It had to be tiny because she couldn’t risk being caught by her abusive foreman.
I tucked it into my jeans and reached for it whenever I had a hand free—to bask in the next line. Sometimes I’d lay the paper in a strategic position at my station; while I worked I could see it—on the shelf above my rows of can lids or near the pile of paper bags stamped with a big old number. “When my love swears she is made of truth, / I do believe her, though I know she lies.” Over and over I’d say the lines, till Will’s rhythms overpowered the ugly clamoring machines.
Sonja’s first assembly-line job, before she worked at the can factory, was at the Ford automobile plant in Milpitas, California. She was the only woman in her section, surrounded by men who were terrifying to her with their abrasive banter and hurtful, crass comments. As time went on, though, she realized that this was the only way they knew to counteract the harshness of their working conditions. Many had been at the same mechanical job for 30 years and were just holding out for retirement.
There, in the din of clanging car parts and shouting men, it was to the rhythms and sensibilities of Walt Whitman that she turned. At this job she didn’t even have time to glance at a piece of paper because the huge metal chunks of automobiles kept moving relentlessly overhead. Nor did she want to risk being teased by the men around her.
But the ride to the factory was a long one. Sonja discovered she could use that time to immerse herself in “Song of Myself” or “I Sing the Body Electric,” planting Whitman’s words inside her so that, in the midst of the assembly line, she could recall and meditate upon them.
“It was the rhythm of Whitman’s lines that saved me,” she told me as we drank tea together in her Oakland home. “Those long lines of verse counteracted the terrible push. It was a powerful paradox. I was being forced, by the movement of the assembly line, to work very fast. At the same time, meditating on those verses was making me human.”
A working-class poet, Whitman sings the praises of all the different people who provided the labor force in the industrial age. In “I Hear America Singing,” he honors the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker, the hatter, the woodcutter, the ploughboy, the mother, the young wife, the girl, “each singing what belongs to him or her and no one else.” Whitman’s poems were the gift that connected Sonja to her heart in that heartless environment. I can only imagine that Sonja’s awakened heart, infused by Whitman’s poetry, was a gift to the people she worked with, even though they would never know the medicine that was sustaining her.
Kim Rosen, MFA and author of Saved by a Poem, is a spoken-word artist, a teacher of self-inquiry, and an award-winning poet.