Literary therapy: Poems have power to soothe

Okay, she was the woman of your dreams, the paragon you envisioned rocking the cradle of your son and heir, the glorious creature you imagined by your side through life's good times and bad... the helpmate you cherished to dodder with you into the sunset.

Uh-oh. Turns out she's really the faithless hussy who just decamped with the milkman.

Who you gonna call?

If Mary Esselman has her way, the first thing you'll do is reach for a book– a poetry anthology, to be exact– where you'll find fuel for your fury, solace for your shattered dreams, and the courage to face another day.

Poetry when your world implodes?


Charlottesville resident Esselman– the author with her friend and fellow heartbreak survivor, Elizabeth Velez of three little books (published by Warner) tracing a lover's path from the misery of rejection to the sanity and comfort of mutual love– believes that poetry is a great healer. She calls it "literary therapy."

"Self-help books are so clinical," Esselman says. "People in pain can get great comfort from knowing that others have felt the same way."

She knows whereof she speaks. A few years ago, reeling not only from a devastating romantic breakup but also from the death of a close friend, Esselman found she needed something intimate and immediate to help her over the heartbreak.

"I had these intense, dramatic things going on in my life," she says, "and I needed words to express how I felt." Poetry was the answer.

"People are intimidated by poetry," she says, "but they should see that it can help. Wherever you are, you can read a poem– and it can console you or it can make you mad enough to change."

Esselman and Velez's books do both those things. The first volume, The Hell with Love, sprang from the disappointment and rage both women were experiencing as relationships were ending. The book's chapter titles tell the story: "When Hatred Isn't Strong Enough," " Sadness," "Relapse," and "Moving On."

Having, in fact, moved on, they issued a second volume, Poems to Set You Free, which Esselman says helps recovering romantics "fall in love with themselves." And this month sees the publication of the third and last volume in the series, celebrating the hypothetical happy ending everyone yearns for: You Drive Me Crazy, Love Poems for Real Life.

 "Poetry purists think our books are crude and jarring," Esselman says with a laugh, quoting a reviewer in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But readers obviously think differently.

Sales have been brisk– spurred by plugs on Lisa Ling's talk show "The View," as well as glowing reviews in USA Today, People magazine, and Playgirl– evidence that there might indeed be a place in heartbreak recovery for "literary therapy."

Under the Esselman-Velez treatment plan, for example, the pauvre homme betrayed by his faithless lover and the milkman will turn to Wallace Stevens instead of Wellbutrin, to John Donne instead of Johnny Walker, to a sonnet instead of a shotgun.

And who can deny that the consolation those writers provide, like the satisfying love described in You Drive Me Crazy, is a consummation devoutly to be wished?

Mary Esselman