Creative Stuff, For Readers, For Writers

How Poetry Can Help During Tough Times

Last week was World Poetry Day, so it seems an opportune time to examine the effect this powerful art form can have on our lives.

When I was five years old, I wrote my first (and only) poetry book.

A copy was given to each member of my family and it featured such stunning literary compositions as “Red Ladybug” and “The Black and Furry Cat“.

(I think I was channeling T.S Eliot with that last one).

Though that collection has vanished into family memory, my love of poetry stuck around…and it’s something I’ve been very grateful for during life’s ups and downs.

But most especially the downs.

In poetry, I’ve found a balm for most of life’s troubles.

Here are some of the verses I turn to when things get tough.

Grief

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My father died a few years ago and I found myself unable to read, lacking enough concentration to get through a novel.

With my usual escape unavailable, I turned to poems. They reflected, validated and soothed my pain.

But, most importantly, they made me feel less alone.

1. When I am asked by Lisel Muller

Muller writes about sitting in a garden, shortly after her mother’s death, and noting the abundance of life about her.

In the face of nature’s indifference she turns to language for comfort – language that she uses so beautifully in the poem with her sometimes stark words masking deep pain.

“I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.”

2. Japanese Maple by Clive James

Terminally ill Clive James faces down his mortality in Japanese Maple.

Despite the dark subject matter, it’s a surprisingly uplifting ode to “a world that shone so brightly at the last”.

“This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.”

3. How It Is by Maxine Kumin

A big part of grieving is acknowledging the sheer loneliness of being left behind.

Kumin explores the every day clutter the dead leave in their wake, with a poem that’s full of longing and loss.

“I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.”

Heartbreak

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1. Magnificat by Michele Roberts

The best cure for heartbreak is a friend like the one in Magnificat.

This poem isn’t just a portrait of a relationship gone sour, it’s a powerful hymn to the people who help you pick up the pieces afterwards.

“oh this man
what a meal he made of me
how he chewed and gobbled and sucked

in the end he spat me all out

you arrived on the dot, in the nick
of time, with your red curls flying
I was about to slip down the sink like grease.”

2. Coming To This by Mark Strand

Strand grabs you from the first verse with a perfect summary of relationships: “the heavy industry of each other”

The relationship in the poem is never explicitly defined, but it feels very much like an older couple, pondering their choices and trying to remember what brought them together.

“We have done what we wanted.
We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry
of each other, and we have welcomed grief
and called ruin the impossible habit to break.”

3. No Second Troy by W.B. Yeats

Yeats shows his vicious side here with a bitter verse about a women he clearly loves and despises in equal measure.

It’s a good choice if you’re fresh from a bad break-up and nursing your anger.

“Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?”

Homesickness

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I’m an Irish expat who hasn’t actually lived in Ireland for over a decade so there are times when thoughts of Northern Ireland’s stunning northeast coast make me teary-eyed.

When that happens, I’ve a few poets to keep me company.

1. Deep Ulster by Harry Clifton

Admittedly this one will only help with the homesickness if you’re actually from Ulster, but it’s a beautiful poem nonetheless and a great introduction to the wonderful Irish poet, Harry Clifton.

“Nowhere but here
In the high right hand of Ireland, do the weather fronts
Give way so slowly, to such ambivalent light.”

2. The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats

Another Yeats (I can’t help myself) and another Irish poem.

But this isn’t just about Ireland. It’s about something universal – a weariness of the soul and desire to escape to somewhere you can call home.

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

Loneliness/Depression

1. Try to Praise the Mutilated World by Adam Zagajewski

Finding beauty in the world when you’re at your lowest isn’t easy. But Zagajewski’s poem points out that while there’s pain, there’s also joy.

“Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.”
A classic for good reason, this poem encapsulates the tenacity of the human spirit.

It’s a rallying call not to give up when things are hard, to plod on and use hope as a restorative force.

“I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.”

 

Laux aims to give the reader some perspective here by opening our eyes to the sheer volume of life around us – from the lowliest housefly to “squirrel-burdened trees”.

 

The universe is one, unceasing, cycle of abundance…so don’t sweat the small stuff.

 

“Everywhere the good life oozes from the useless
waste we make when we create—our streets teem
with human young, rafts of pigeons streaming
over the squirrel-burdened trees. If there is
a purpose, maybe there are too many of us
to see it, though we can, from a distance,
hear the dull thrum of generation’s industry”
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