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Bearing witness, celebrating strength: How poetry has changed lives for NPR's audience

The last photo Trisha Fountain took with her mother in May, 2006. Fountain's mom died the week after her graduation. She said the poem "Epitaph" has helped offered her comfort.
Trisha Fountain
The last photo Trisha Fountain took with her mother in May, 2006. Fountain's mom died the week after her graduation. She said the poem "Epitaph" has helped offered her comfort.

Last month, we asked NPR readers what poetry means to them. We received nearly 500 responses, from lifelong poetry fans to those who have only recently come to enjoy the genre. From sparking the imagination to helping with mental health, listen to poems read by NPR readers and see how poetry has affected their lives.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Poetry to heal from grief

Dozens of readers shared stories of how poetry helped them process grief. Trisha Fountain of Ann Arbor, Mich., lost her mother to cancer the week after she graduated from college. "The months that followed were filled with feelings of confusion, anger, sadness, emptiness and lack of purpose," she said.

Six months later, Fountain spent her first birthday without her mother at the funeral of her friend's mother, who died of the same cancer. She heard Merrit Malloy's "Epitaph" read at this funeral. Now 40 years old, Fountain still remembers the poem. "This poem allowed me to feel seen, held, directed and connected to my mom in a way that my grief didn't allow me to process before that moment," she said. "Throughout the last few decades, I have shared that poem with countless others during the loss of their loved ones as a way to 'pay it forward' and attempt to gift others with the same comfort and life affirmation it gave to me.

Many readers shared their love for "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop. Melissa McNabb of Michigan said it was the first poem that made her gasp aloud when reading it. Aerie Treska of Baltimore, Md., said the poem took her breath away, "both because of the rawness of the speaker's grief and the poem's deceptively simple, yet elegantly complex structure, rhythm, and diction." Treska calls it a "master class in the power of poetry to bear witness."

Poetry for mental health

For many readers, poetry has been a transformative force in their lives as they battle various mental health struggles.

"Poetry has been an outlet for my emotions in stressful times, most often while I was depressed," said Evan De Back of Johnston City, Tenn. The 39-year-old sometimes feels like he can't express himself to others because his emotions are too raw. "[Writing poetry] helps me process and move past emotions that would otherwise mire me in rumination." De Back reads a poem he wrote called "The Things I Didn't Do."

Poetry to inspire confidence

Some readers said they always have a poem they reach for when they need a reminder of everything they are capable of achieving. "In poems, we readers see our mirrored reflection and gain new insight into ourselves," Lara Cowell of Honolulu, Hawaii, said. Cowell read Kimberly Blaeser's "About Standing (in Kinship), because of how it "celebrates our collective strength and power when we work in synergy, harmony and friendship."

Evan Wang of King of Prussia, Pa., said poetry helped both him and his community blossom. Once a self-described "timid student," Wang now performs his poetry as a Youth Poet Laureate. "Poetry found me — a first-generation American living in the quiet suburbs — in this vastness, took my hand, and helped me find myself. He shares his poem, "Muse for Night."

Poetry to rouse the imagination

Hayley Kelsey of Florida calls poetry the highest literary art. "It comes closer to rendering the world around us than any other," she said. "It has opened my eyes and ears to the wonders of the world again and again: sound, images, perception."

Many other readers agreed that poetry sparks their imagination and stimulates their senses. Coel Whitemab of Honolulu, Hawaii, believes "poems are for everyone and everything" because everyone will interpret a poem differently. "Poetry sets me free...to imagine my life as a bird soaring on the breeze of imagination and thoughtfulness," he said.

Nina Laubach of Lawrenceville, N.J., shares her favorite poem, "Absence, Presence," by Luisa A. Igloria. "I love how this poem moves through time, seasons, and generations and also returns us to our present, daily mundane lives," she said. "It is...as if imagination was not some alternate, secondary path, but rather the very essence of expressing the experience, memory and longing to be human."

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