poetry for the hard times
July 4, 2012 6:14 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for 'healing' poetry: poems that 1) urge you to keep going, 2) tell you that yes, life is hard, but you can do it, 3) remind you to keep your shit together, 4) embrace you and say that you are not alone in this, or 5) just say that this too shall pass.

How do I say this -- it's more about growing up, kindness, making decisions, or just finding yourself really. Being human. Making mistakes and being okay with that. Living with who you are. Something that you can post on your bedroom door and read every day like a prayer.

Somewhere along the softness of Mary Oliver's Wild Geese or the intimacy of To Myself by Franz Wright or the spirit of Lucille Clifton's won't you celebrate with me.

Thanks in advance.
posted by pleasebekind to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
The desiderata.
posted by empath at 6:20 AM on July 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Harlem Hopscotch by Maya Angelou
Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Apple Blossom by Louis MacNiece
The Oak by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
posted by JoannaC at 6:29 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

At the depths of despair, nothing matters, I can't do anything, got to get out of here, walls falling in, throw me a rope, I can't move, can't stand it, nothing, throw me a rope...

And one day, like any other day, finally tired of waiting for help that never comes, make a rope, tie it to a rock throw it up pull yourself out and walk away...

And it took all that time
just to find yourself.

And that's how long it had to take;
and it was well worth every moment.

Das Energi by Paul Williams.
posted by crackingdes at 6:32 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

David Talamantez on his last day of Second Grade by Rosemary Catacalos has some of this, although it's not a meditation or a prayer.

The Man Watching by Rilke is good for this.

The final lines of Tennyson's Ulysses are pretty solid, beginning with the words "Come, by friends." Especially so if you know the story of Odysseus.

If you are religious, or if you're not but can be comfortable addressing it to the universe or to yourself or whatever you feel appropriate, the St. Francis Prayer has some lines that may contain what you're looking for.

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye is good, if maybe a bit intense.

OP, take care of yourself.
posted by gauche at 6:50 AM on July 4, 2012

There's a poem anthology called Good Poems for Hard Times. It's a collection put together by Garrison Keillor, and even though I'm not a fan of his radio persona, it's got a lot of poems in it that have been truly helpful to me in the past.
posted by colfax at 6:51 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Anything by Tennyson, anything by Larkin. In particular, I have found great comfort in Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters" and "In Memoriam A.H.H." and Larkin's "Aubade" and "Faith Healing." Matthew Arnold's "The Buried Life" and "Dover Beach" are also good. W.H. Auden's "In Praise of Limestone," T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." But these might not be quite what you're looking for, since I tend more towards doleful, god-help-us-all type poems, rather than motivational or hopeful. I find more comfort in commiseration.
posted by désoeuvrée at 7:00 AM on July 4, 2012

Lines for Winter
By Mark Strand

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.
posted by Seppaku at 7:07 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Finish each day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day; begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered by your old nonsense.
posted by headnsouth at 7:10 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's a lovely poem called, "After a While" which I have found very handy http://www.scrapbook.com/poems/doc/2380/223.html

another which I have searched for but cannot find so I can give attribution is the following -

The Candle

I dim, I dim
I have no doubt
If someone blew
I would go out

I did not
I must be stronger
Than I thought.
posted by eleslie at 7:38 AM on July 4, 2012

This Emily Dickinson poem is one I tell myself when troubled, now and then. That page links to some others on this theme that you might like.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
posted by katie at 8:03 AM on July 4, 2012

Also, more specific suggestions:

W.H. Auden, the first stanza of "Musée Des Beaux Arts":

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
 dully along.
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

And Robert Hass, "Our Lady of the Snow":

In white,
the unpainted statue of the young girl
on the side altar
made the quality of mercy seem scrupulous and calm.

When my mother was in a hospital drying out,
or drinking at a pace that would put her there soon,
I would slip in the side door,
light an aromatic candle,
and bargain for us both.
Or else I’d stare into the day-moon of that face
and, if I concentrated, fly.

Come down! come down!
she’d call, because I was so high.

Though mostly when I think of myself
at that age, I am standing at my older brother’s closet
studying the shirts,
convinced that I could be absolutely transformed
by something I could borrow.
And the days churned by,
navigable sorrow.

And David Ignatow, "For Yaedi":

Looking out the window at the trees
and counting the leaves,
listening to a voice within
that tells me nothing is perfect
so why bother to try, I am thief
of my own time. When I die
I want it to be said that I wasted
hours in feeling absolutely useless
and enjoyed it, sensing my life
more strongly than when I worked at it.
Now I know myself from a stone
or a sledgehammer.
posted by colfax at 8:44 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here are two poems meant to be read together. Don't get bummed out by the first.

By Bei Dao

Everything is fate
Everything is clouds and mist
Everything is beginnings without ends
Everything is a search for something that always escapes
Every mirth is without smiles
Every misery is without tears
Every utterance is mere repetition
Every encounter is merely a first meeting
Every love lies hidden in the heart
Every memory lives only in dreams
Every hope has a footnote
Every faith is full of grief and groaning
Every moment of peace contains tumult
Every death is a boring echo that goes on and on

By Shu Ting

Not every big tree breaks in the storm
Not every seed fails to find soil and root
Not every true love vanishes in the desert of human hearts
Not every dream wishes to have its wings clipped
No, everything is not as you say

Not every flame burns only for itself
without illuminating others
Not every star only points the way in the darkness
without ever predicting the dawn
Not every song visits your ear
without leaving a gift in your heart
No, everything is not as you say

It's not true that every appeal has no echo
It's not true that every loss remains forever a loss
It's not true that every abyss means destruction and death
It's not true that every catastrophe falls on the heads of the weak
It's not true that every heart is trampled underfoot
It's not true that everything ends in tears and blood stand with no
trace of joy
The present is the embryo of the future
To hope and to fight for one's hope ---
Please put this on your shoulders
posted by daikon at 9:00 AM on July 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here's another of my favorite poems, On Living by Nazim Hikmet.
posted by daikon at 9:10 AM on July 4, 2012

I have a folder of poems along the lines of what you're looking for. Here are 3 poems, I think you would also enjoy others by these poets.

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye.

I said to the wanting-creature inside me by Kabir.

Sweet Darkness by David Whyte.
posted by daikon at 9:24 AM on July 4, 2012

I adore Derek Walcott's "Love after Love".

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

posted by WidgetAlley at 9:33 AM on July 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

For your #4:

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
And emptiness above--

Know that you aren't alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

Vikram Seth
posted by martianna at 9:46 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Galway Kinnell's Wait is written out on a scrap of paper I keep in my wallet. Andrew Bird wrote a song based on the poem, and the song reached me at a point in my depression where I desperately needed it. It is about making it through the worst moments because things will improve if given time.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 9:53 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Rotten Lake Elegy" by Muriel Rukeyser. It ends on a note of soaring hope.
posted by mermayd at 9:55 AM on July 4, 2012

Here is an excerpt from Rukeyer's Rotten Lake Elelgy:

When you have left the river you are a little way
nearer the lake; but I leave many times.
Parents parried my past; the present was poverty,
the future depended on my unfinished spirit.
There were no misgivings because there was no choice,
only regret for waste, and the wild knowledge:
growth and sorrow and discovery.

When you have left the river you proceed alone;
all love is likely to be illicit; and few
friends to command the soul; they are too feeble.
Rejecting the subtle and contemplative minds
as being too thin in the bone; and the gross thighs
and unevocative hands fail also. But the poet
and his wife, those who say survive, remain;
and those two who were with me on the ship
leading me to the sum of the years, in Spain.
posted by mermayd at 10:02 AM on July 4, 2012

To your request for poetry that "1) urge[s] you to keep going", here's the 2003 piece "My Friend Yeshi", by Alice Walker.
posted by simulacra at 11:05 AM on July 4, 2012

Mother to Son
By Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
posted by littlecatfeet at 11:20 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen to you
posted by colfax at 11:45 AM on July 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sorry, I just remembered another one:

Ask Me
by William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
posted by colfax at 11:51 AM on July 4, 2012

I have a huge collection of these. The following have all been comforting to me for one reason or another during difficult times.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

- Derek Walcott

I Am Running into a New Year

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

- Lucille Clifton

The Orange

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave -
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park
This is peace and contentment. It's new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all my jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I'm glad I exist.

- Wendy Cope

God Says Yes To Me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

- Kaylin Haught

Danse Russe

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,-

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

William Carlos Williams

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

— Jack Gilbert

Be Nobody's Darling

Be nobody's darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody's darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

- Alice Walker
posted by triggerfinger at 2:34 PM on July 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I sent you this bluebird of the name of Joe
with "Happiness" tattooed onto his left bicep.
(For a bluebird, he was a damn good size.)
And all you can say is you think your cat got him?

I tell you the messages aren't getting through.
The Golden Gate Bridge is up past its ass in traffic;
tankers colliding, singing telegrams on strike.
The machineries of the world are raised in anger.

So I am sending this snail of the name of Fred
in a small tricolor sash, so the cat will know him.
He will scrawl out "Happiness" in his own slow way.
I won't ever stop until the word gets to you.

--William Dickey
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:13 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gerald Manley Hopkins, "My own heart let me have more pity on."

Wislawa Szymborska, Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition

Joseph Brodsky, 25.XII.1993
posted by Perodicticus potto at 3:31 PM on July 4, 2012

Another poem by Mary Oliver The Journey, also serves this purpose for me, and reminds me to keep going.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 10:51 AM on July 5, 2012

This is a poem that got me through one of the darkest times in my life. I've no idea if it would work for other people.


IF but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan....
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Thomas Hardy

Best read loudly, angrily, and defiantly, in my experience.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:24 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find a lot of comfort in Lucille Clifton's Blessing the Boats.

(at St. Mary's)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
posted by MsMolly at 3:59 PM on July 6, 2012

Wait (by Galway Kinnell)

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don't go too early.
You're tired. But everyone's tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
Galway Kinnell
posted by sb3 at 8:08 PM on July 9, 2012

I've just stumbled on this post, so this is a late reply.

This is one of my favorites - partially because it acknowledges the exact way that grief feels, in such an exquisitely lovely way. Wild Geese is such a perfect selection, too - I went to see Mary Oliver read some of her work a year or so ago, and she was just as gentle and kind in person as her work suggests. It's healing to read her poetry and to be in her presence! Hope that you enjoy this one, too.

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Ellen Bass
posted by red_rabbit at 1:10 PM on September 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

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