Alumni Profiles

The Poetry of Hope

Lesley Wheeler

American poet and Rutgers alumna Lesley Wheeler RC’89 debuts an essay collection on poetry’s power to help us heal and navigate our emotions, grief, and trauma.

By Elizabeth Sudit

In 1985, Lesley Wheeler RC’89 found two of the loves of her life while working for Anthologist Magazine. One was the staff co-editor, Chris Gavaler, who later became her husband. But the second was poetry itself, an art form that gave Wheeler new insight and calmer headspace to approach crises in her life.

“I’m transported by short works of poems,” says Wheeler a devotee of Emily Dickinson, Tracy K. Smith, and Diane Suess, among other writers. “Brevity can sometimes be an asset because it’s a smaller commitment of time, so it’s good for people who are upset and stressed out. Also, the qualities of sensory imagery and the rhythm in poetry are meant to entrance readers. And when they work, they work powerfully.”

In her debut essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, Wheeler takes a deep dive into the healing effects of poetry in navigating emotions and trauma. She tells the story of how her father caused grievous events to unfold within her family, and how she turned to poetry to help navigate her affliction.

“It’s a book about the restorative power of reading, and particularly reading contemporary poetry during a time when my life was very rocky and I was trying to sort out how to manage a family crisis,” says Wheeler.

Witnessing the soothing effects of poetry firsthand, she gained an interest in the cognitive science of reading. In her collection, she writes about the research conducted by scientists and narrative theorists who focus on the experience of absorbed attention in literature.

“This experience that cognitive scientists talk about is literary transportation, where you lose track of time reading,” explains Wheeler. “There’s a correlative of it for other activities, which is often called ‘flow,’ a state of absorbed attention.”

During her poetic journey at Rutgers, Wheeler says, her honors thesis advisor, Harriet Davidson, and English professor Barry Qualls influenced her greatly.

“The honors thesis process was particularly exciting for me because it made me realize that not only did I love reading and thinking and writing about poetry, but that I love teaching it and leading conversations about it, too,” says Wheeler. “That was part of the honors thesis program, as run by Barry Qualls. Back when I was there, he would set up this small class of people writing honors theses, and they would teach bits of their projects to each other. That was a revelation.”

Wheeler is now working on research investigating creative criticism and the autobiographical turn in literary criticism. She is interested in seeing how personal narrative can blend with scholarship. And she plans to continue using poetry as therapy and informing others that it can do the same for them.

“Everybody needs art in their lives. And poetry won’t be the focal art for everybody, but our lives would be terrible if we didn’t have a love for poems or music or movies or whatever art delights us most. It enriches our lives.”