Each chapter opens with a beautifully described memory. Then Bialosky seamlessly shifts to a famous poem (or two) that expresses what she felt at that time — or that allows her to reflect on the experience. The result is a lovely hybrid that blends her coming-of-age story with engaging literary analysis ... Adults and mature teens will find much to love in this book, which demonstrates how poems can become an integral part of life. It also suggests, on every page, the wisdom and deep compassion that make Bialosky, a longtime editor at W.W. Norton, a tremendous asset both to readers and other writers.
The poems she chooses are mostly well known. I did not catalog them, but I wondered whether they were not all cross-referenceable in a Norton anthology. That isn’t a dig. These poems were lovingly chosen — treasures — and I soften toward the book’s conceit when I consider that. We are comrades in our sense that poetry is a kind of gift, there for anyone to take. Still, the notion that generates such an anthology-memoir, the idea that poems must be filtered through a scrim of ordinary language and life in order for us to commune with them, in order that they be 'understood' in some definite way, is wrongheaded and, indeed, condescending. Bialosky gets it, but you don’t? When I was really mad reading the book, which I was frequently, it was because I was quite sure Bialosky doesn’t get it, or quite sure at least that we don’t get any of the same stuff of life from being in poetry ... How does the life work to make words mean differently? What is the relationship between meaning and experience? These questions are posed by the book and dropped when they get hot.
Poetry Will Save Your Life proves an inconsistent read. Bialosky’s own poems are precise, spare and emotionally acute. She writes memoir scenes with a poet’s eye, recalling the immediate sensations of childhood ... Poetry Will Save Your Life wants the reader to believe in poetry as ardently as the author does. Occasionally, its tone verges on preachy, and the structure feels contrived. But Bialosky is at her best when writing about Plath.