Saved by a Poem–conversation with Kim Rosen

There is this status update symbol on fb that goes –feeling happy, feeling sad. When I talked to Kim Rosen I was feeling blessed.

Let me tell you about her voice- there’s so much clarity in there and an understanding of a subject that she loves to talk about and use as a tool to heal. Her subject being my favourite–poetry–it only made sense to try to connect with her and subsequently have a long conversation.

Kim talked about many aspects of poetry I haven’t dealt with on this blog. How for instance do you memorize a poem? What does forgetting the lines or maybe a few words of the poem mean? What does it mean to learn by heart? She furnishes every answer with a poem that she recites with so much sincerity, it makes me want to stop my cursory reading and become involved in a deeper way with what I read and write as well.

Kim Rosen, MFA, is the author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Word. In the darkest moment of her life, when even the most profound psychological and spiritual teachings could not reach her, she found poetry. Now she combines her love of speaking poems with her background in spirituality and psychotherapy, offering poetry as a transformative agent for individuals and communities throughout the world. She has delivered poems in a spectrum of settings from conferences to cathedrals to a Maasai Safe House in the Great Rift Valley. She is the co-creator of 4 CDs and has been a featured TEDx speaker and her work has been featured in O Magazine, The Sun Magazine, The New Yorker and Spirituality & Health Magazine among other publications.


You say in your lectures ‘dare not to understand’….how do you reconcile the idea of close reading a poem, a great way of appreciating a poem, with this idea?

Poetry is like music. When we listen to a piece of masterful music without analyzing, we are actually listening to ourselves in the presence of this music– we are listening to our feeling, our thoughts, maybe the associations, memories or visions we have as the music unfolds. The same thing happens we watch a movie—we go on a journey with the characters. The journey happens within. My journey will be different that the person next to me, even though we’re watching the same movie. When you look at a painting, particularly an abstract painting, you are actually observing what comes up inside of you in the presence of that painting. People often forget this.

Since a poem is made of words, people think it has to be processed like a newspaper and not like a beautiful song. But MRIs scientifically prove that when a poem is read, what lights up is the music part of the brain as well as the language part. Poetry needs both parts of the brain- linear and non-linear. Some kind of understanding happens to you when you listen to a special poem- an understanding that comes from beyond the pragmatic mind. Tears spring out of your eyes. The hair stands up on your arms. You feel a sudden rush of joy or revelation.

 These kind of responses don’t happen when you interpret the world in a linear way.

It’s different when you are studying  poetry. You need to learn the craft that made the poem. You need to analyze it. I have a Masters in poetry myself and I love analysis.  But I also like the feeling of simply experiencing a poem and listening to what comes up inside me as i allow it to move me. 

 Your talks are very inspiring- is it poetry that urges you to inspire or your experience as a practitioner of healing?

I love this question.

Up until now, my talks have been for the purpose of awakening people to how they can be changed, healed and transformed by a  poem.  Reading, listening, or learning a poem open’s people’s minds like nothing else.

My note in the symphony of the world seems to be about how poetry can open us, both psychologically and spiritually. Sometimes only poetry can speak to the depth of ineffable feeling within us. In a profound life passage– be it loss or celebration.  How do we understand the big moments in our lives and the big questions that come to us after a loved one’s death? How do we deal with the disintegration of our bodies through disease and even how our bodies change during the process of birthing? How do we understand marriage and then separation? Great poets have asked and journeyed through all these questions. No text-book ever has.

Peruse these lines:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.  As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away —
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between  stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind each face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing —
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

~Four Quartets, East Coker, T.S.Eliot

See how this poem invites us so tenderly into the inner space we fear.  It lets us know that we are not alone. It opens us to look at new possibilities.

It is said that memorizing a poem is much harder than memorizing numbers or catalogues. So how do you do it?

In my book ‘Saved by a Poem’ I’ve spent a couple of chapters on how I learn a poem by heart.

Here in the West there is a lot of stigma when it comes to learning by rote.It’s as though you are being forced. Everything you memorize in childhood is stored somewhere in your brain. In the U.S there is an epidemic of Alzheimers, and yet patients are able to recite the poems they learnt in their childhood. Learning by rote or using techniques like the memory palace are things that I don’t believe in. I like learning the poem by heart.  It is a function of INTIMACY with the poem, not conquest. It is not about me mastering the poem, but rather surrendering to it, allowing it to become my Teacher, with a capital “T”. It is a beautiful process of discovery. I get to know the poem and by reading it again and again I make it more and more personal. I go deeper and deeper into the feelings it brings up. I notice how the poem triggers memories and how reading a poem even changes my breathing, my heart rate, my brainwaves. When you read the poem deeply, it leaves the page and enters your body. The ancient Buddhists called this “writing on the bones.” 

In school you learn about the meter and lineation of the poem. I call these properties of the poem the “shamanic anatomy”. Indigenous cultures emphasized the importance of chanting. Christian and Muslim and Hindu cultures know the power of chant and prayer. Poetry can be prayer, and all prayer is poetry. When I visited Varanasi and Delhi, I saw poetry inscribed on walls of holy places. 

The best part of learning a poem is what I call the Gift of forgetting. The places you forget  are windows into aspects of yourself that you haven’t explored. Learning a poem is not a Conquest or an Achievement. It’s counter-intuitive, but the more places you forget the poem, the more doorways you have to explore yourself. The places of forgetting are the arrows pointing to the path to deeper to knowledge of yourself.


Take this poem by Rumi:

Love Dogs
One night a man was crying
                                                    “Allah, Allah!”
His lips grew sweet with the praising
until a cynic said,
                                 “So!  I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praising and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
                                            “Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”           
                                                                              “This longing
you express is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. 
That whining is the connection.
There are love-dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
                        –Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks


I would always forget two words in this poem. The poem says Your pure sadness/ that wants help/is the secret cup. But I would always say Your pure sadness is the secret cup.

Why did I forget those words “that wants help”?  I was always afraid of wanting help. My mother never wanted to see my need so I worked very hard not to be vulnerable. I suppressed reciprocity and I was always giving. When I realized that I couldn’t ask for help, it took me on a journey with my self. When I remembered to say those words, it made me feel so vulnerable and transparent. That is my greatest aspiration- to be as open and vulnerable as possible.

Do you memorize contemporary poems?

This is so important. Many people in my world only read Kabir, Rumi, and Hafez.  But living modern poets can speak to us in a way that is important. Take Naomi Shihab Nye,  Marie Howe, and Ellen Bass. Their poems deal with the nitty-gritty of life, the parts that are not so pretty.

The Gate
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made.  He was
a little taller than me:  a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This — holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
                                                            —Marie Howe

Howe’s poetry always reminds me how I have to face the ‘human catastrophe’ of my life and discover redemption and healing in the midst of it, not in some idealized setting.



How do you create a relationship with the poem you love and how does that poem become your teacher?

Right now I’m working on a poem called ‘What binds us’ by Jane Hirshfield. Even when I try to stop working on it, it follows me around. For me, a poem happens to me. I make these long lists of poems I want to learn by heart, but the ones I end up learning are the ones that find me. Something involuntary happens- I feel sad, burst into tears, have goosebumps when that kind of poem enters my life.

The poetry of the inner life attracts me the most. These poems choose me as their student. Sometimes I’m obedient, sometimes I’m not.It’s like I’m personally in a relationship with the poem. So even when I try to leave, it won’t let go off me and tells me to stay with it. Like this poem…


For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down —
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
as all flesh
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest —
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
            – Jane Hirshfield

Thank you Kim! Utterly utterly lovely having you here!

neelthemuse@ 2013


2 thoughts on “Saved by a Poem–conversation with Kim Rosen Leave a comment

  1. Despite being a poet and having a deep love of language and all things poetic, I had not thought of it as a resource to help me through the difficult times I put myself through by worry about aging and health or lack of it. I needed to see this post today, and to read it with intention. Thank you both.

  2. Thank you so much Carol. This post is a special one for me too. Writing is so therapeutic…it can heal like nothing else. Wish you a lovely year ahead!

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