You hear it said: “Poetry saved my life.” There are books with that in the title.
I’ve said it myself.
It’s usually meant figuratively. When I’ve said it, I know I meant it figuratively.
But when author Vendela Vida says it, she means it literally.
As the novelist told NPR Fresh Air host Terri Gross on June 30, 2015, she owes her life to poetry.
During the course of the interview, Gross asked Vida about her novel, “And Now You Can Go,” in which a woman is confronted by a man with a gun intent on suicide.
And he because he doesn’t want to die alone, he poses a mortal threat to the woman.
In the novel, a young woman is walking through a park in Manhattan, when a man calls out to her using the word “ma’am,” and she turns around.
The man is suicidal and has a gun. And, he doesn’t want to die alone. The woman is terrified, and in her desperation to find a reason to give him to go on living, she tells him about her love for books.
Interviewer Gross is skeptical. As Gross says, “she does it by trying to convince him that there’s, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I’m thinking, like, are you kidding?”
Well, it just so happens that this vignette in Vida’s novel is based on an actual event in her own life. As she told Gross, “I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia, and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I was approached – like the protagonist in the book – by a man who didn’t want to die alone, and he had a gun.”
What Vida told Gross next is so good I want to quote her directly.
“And so I started saying to him, you know, there’s so much great stuff out there,” said Vida. “There’s poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point, and I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man.
“I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another – anything. I said, let’s go to the bookstore and let’s go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn’t know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man’s eyes, and he said, OK, let’s go to the bookstore.
“And so we started walking up to Broadway Street. And when, you know, as we were getting near, he said, you know, he said, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, and he put his gun away, and he ran.”
When Gross heard the explanation, she was apologetic for suggesting that the scene in the novel was unbelievable.
“Oh, there’s no need to apologize, Terri,” said Vida. “No, it seems – it is – it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone’s life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.”
I love that story.
I also love the fact that Vida contacted poet Mark Strand and told his the story.
Strand served a term as the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, and it turned out was delighted by Vida’s story.
And who wouldn’t?
Here was a poet … a poet who had been honored with the highest honor his country could bestow … and finally, he had some assurance that he had made a difference in someone’s life.
His poetry had actually SAVED a life. Maybe two.
We poets go through life playing a game of Marco Polo. You know, the swimming pool game. We poets are perpetually coming to the surface and hollering “Marco!”
Whenever we hear a “Polo” in reply we are surprised and gratified.
In this case, Mark Strand heard a resounding “POLO!” from Vida.
Poetry has saved my life in figurative ways.
Poetry has allowed me to turn heartbreak, grief, despair, and tragedy into small bouquets of beauty.
If that’s “saving my life,” great. I’ll take that.