What are some life-affirming poems?
March 1, 2013 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What are other life-affirming poems like Derek Walcott's "Love After Love"? I don't like really New Age-y or nature-oriented poetry, but poetry about food, wine, children, celebrations, etc are all welcome. More examples and context inside.

I'm in a group for social workers in which we discuss self-care in the face of handling clients who have dealt with deeply upsetting issues. Thus far our discussions have centered on yoga, meditation and breathing exercises, which is great, but I'm trying to think outside the box.

My personal favorite, after "Love After Love," is Siduri's advice from The Epic of Gilgamesh:

For when the gods created man, they let death be his lot
Eternal life they withheld
Humans are born, they live, and then they die
But until the end comes
Let your every day be full of joy
Let music and dancing fill your household
Savor your food, wear bright clothes
Love the child that holds your hand
Let your wife delight in your embrace
For these alone are the concerns of humanity

To a lesser extent, I also like Mary Oliver's Wild Geese and The Journey. Given the extremely Buddhist/New Age-y vibe of previous discussions, I'd like to stay away from poetry heavily influenced by those factors.
posted by Viola to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Some of the poems in this book (which I have at home and will check in a few hours) would definitely suffice.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:07 AM on March 1, 2013

Tennyson's Ulysses is a bit bittersweet, but the last part reminded me of these poems
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Keats' Endymion comes to mind too, Galway Kinnell's First Song, and Wendell Berry's The Country of Marriage. I really like this poem as well and find it very life-affirming:
Vladimir Mayakovsky
Listen, if stars are lit
it means - there is someone who needs it.
It means - someone wants them to be,
that someone deems those specks of spit magnificent.
And overwrought,
in the swirls of afternoon dust,
he bursts in on God,
afraid he might be already late.
In tears,
he kisses God’s sinewy hand
and begs him to guarantee
that there will definitely be a star.
He swears
he won’t be able to stand
that starless ordeal.

He wanders around, worried,
but outwardly calm.
And to everyone else, he says:
it’s all right.
You are no longer afraid,
are you?’
if stars are lit,
it means - there is someone who needs it.
It means it is essential
that every evening
at least one star should ascend
over the crest of the building.
posted by melissam at 10:26 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.
posted by wwax at 10:33 AM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't know much about poetry to help people deal with trauma per se, but I have a couple (women-specific) go-tos when I'm feeling down. I'm a fan of the poems in Marge Piercy's "The Moon is Always Female", especially "For Strong Women". In the song rather than poetry category, the first song (in particular) off of Sinead O'Connor's "Faith and Courage" album is also good.
posted by eviemath at 10:43 AM on March 1, 2013

"The Thing Is" by Ellen Bass

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.
posted by yasaman at 10:52 AM on March 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


How mobile is the bed on these
nights of gesticulating trees
when the rain clatters fast,
the tin-toy rain with dapper hoof
trotting upon an endless roof,
travelling into the past.

Upon old roads the steeds of rain
slip and slow down and speed again
through many a tangled year;
but they can never reach the last
dip at the bottom of the past
because the sun is there.

(1956, Vladimir Nabokov)
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:31 AM on March 1, 2013

Sweet Darkness
by David Whyte
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.
posted by simulacra at 12:06 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Good question! I haven't found much, but I've been enjoying the search, and the other answers.

It might be a little too Victorian in style, but A. E. Housman's "The chestnut casts his flambeaux... is pretty good. "The troubles of our proud and angry dust / Are from eternity, and shall not fail / But bear them we can, and if we can, we must / Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale." In general, Housman's good on putting up with the tribulations of the world, but he tends to do it with a stiff upper lip (and a lot of archaisms) rather than a smile.

Louis MacNeice is good on enjoying the world -- Snow being probably his best-known along those lines. Unfortunately for your purposes, he usually likes to end in a minor key -- e.g. Sunday Morning.

Also: The Card Players by Philip Larkin is a really enjoyable evocation of boozy companionship.
posted by pont at 12:57 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Robert Haas, Meditation at Laguanitas

Pretty much all of Whitman's "Song of Myself," but in particular, Part Five.

Less straightforwardly life-affirming, but nonetheless the poem I recite to myself as a form of self-soothing: Stephen Crane's "In the Desert"

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.
posted by munyeca at 1:03 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Ithaka," by C.P. Cavafy. Here's a snippet:

"As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body."

The snippet doesn't really do it justice, but the poem as a whole is life-affirming without being super-cloying.
posted by chicainthecity at 1:41 PM on March 1, 2013

"Still Here", by Langston Hughes.

I been scared and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
Snow has friz me,
Sun has baked me,

Looks like between 'em they done
Tried to make me

Stop laughin', stop lovin', stop livin'--
But I don't care!
I'm still here!
posted by skye.dancer at 3:16 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

(apparently I have a little collection of poems where food is a main player)

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
—David Whyte

So Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn't need you to hold it down.
It doesn't need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.
--Naomi Shihab Nye

For the Buyer of Breakfasts in Salem

I wish for you a lifetime of eggs
over easy, poached, sunny side up
on a raft, scrambled with Vermont cheddar

I wish for you that every time you walk
into the diner on Washington St.
somebody says, “What do ya know, Jo.

You’re that guy, the one who secretly
shelled out to strangers. Just ‘cause.
Hot ticket. Mayor of the counter.”

I wish for you that when the story gets
english muffin dry and day old stale
you will still be known as a lumber jack.

Pass him the sports page, pass him the syrup
give him a warm up, little creamers on ice.
No, bring him the real milk from the cooler.

Every small generosity is now yours to pocket:
parcels and postcards, secret santas,
the resurrection of men’s hat departments.

All those hats worn by other nice men
who will search for you on sidewalks
just for the opportunity to tip a brim in your direction.

I wish for you full satisfaction:
not from the silver-dollar pancakes
which are on the house at my thank-you counter,

but because, when I took your cue
and bought dessert for the couple two tables over,
it tasted sweeter than cannoli.
By Colleen Michaels
posted by biscuits at 4:58 PM on March 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Three poems, two kinda smart-assy.

Be Drunk, by Charles Baudelaire (translated by Louis Simpson)

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.

Resumé, by Dorothy Parker

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Weathering, by Fleur Adcock

My face catches the wind
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush
that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for a year among the lakes and vales
where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.
posted by facehugger at 12:44 AM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always found the poem How To Be Alone (read by the author on the link) to be extremely life affirming, especially in the midst of a big breakup or tragic loss.
posted by El_Marto at 5:19 AM on March 2, 2013

Friedrich Hölderlin, "When I Was A Boy"

When I was a boy
A god would often save me
From the scolding and switches of men,
And I would play safely and beautifully
With the flowers of the grove,
And heaven's soft breezes
Played with me.

And as you delight
The hearts of the flowers
When they extend
Their tender arms to you

You delighted my heart,
Father Helios! and, like Endymion,
I was your favorite,
Holy Luna!

O all you faithful
Friendly gods!
If only you knew
How my soul loved you!

Then I did not call you
By your names, and you
Did not call me as men do,
As if they knew each other.

But I knew you better
Than I've ever known mankind,
I understood the silence of the sky,
But never men's words.

I was raised by the melody
Of the murmurming grove
And to love I learned
Among flowers.

I grew up in the arms of the gods.
posted by ageispolis at 11:29 AM on March 2, 2013

I don't know that "life affirming" in a fist-pump kind of way comes to mind, but Gerald Stern is really, really good at describing what it's like to be a living animal in the city amid cityish things, yet where somehow the feeling of living creatures finds a way to assert itself. Even if it's just a dead bird on the highway.

When I Have Reached the Point of Suffocation
Gerald Stern

When I have reached the point of suffocation,
then I go back to the railroad ties

and the mound of refuse.
Then I can have sorrow and repentance,

I can relax in the broken glass
and the old pile of chair legs;

I am brought back to my senses
and soothed a little.

It is really the only place I can go
for relief.

The streets, the houses, the institutions,
and the voices that occupy them,

are too hard and ugly
for any happiness

and the big woods outside
too full of its own death---

I go to the stone wall,
and the dirty ashes,

and the old shoes,
and the daisies.

It takes years to learn how to look at the destruction
of beautiful things;

to learn how to leave the place
of oppression;

and how to make your own regeneration
out of nothing.


and some of his favorite poems...

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature's bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, | joyless days, dejections.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an immortal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.


On Living
Nazim Hikmet

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example--
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people--
even for people whose faces you've never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees--
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Let's say we're seriously ill, need surgery--
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see if it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast. . .
Let's say we're at the front--
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
but we'll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind--
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet--
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
--you have to feel this sorrow now--
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say "I lived". . .


and then randomly:

Allegro Ma Non Troppo
Wislawa Szymborska
translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Life, you're beautiful (I say)
you just couldn't get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaily,
more anthillful or sproutsprouting.

I'm trying to court life's favor,
to get into its good graces,
to anticipate its whims.
I'm always the first to bow,

always there where it can see me
with my humble, reverent face,
soaring on the wings of rapture,
falling under waves of wonder.

Oh how grassy is this hopper,
how this berry ripely rasps.
I would never have conceived it
if I weren't conceived myself!

Life (I say) I've no idea
what I could compare you to.
No one else can make a pine cone
and then make the pine cone's clone.

I praise your inventiveness,
bounty, sweep, exactitude,
sense of order--gifts that border
on witchcraft and wizardry.

I just don't want to upset you,
tease or anger, vex or rile.
For millennia, I've been trying
to appease you with my smile.

I tug at life by its leaf hem:
will it stop for me, just once,
momentarily forgetting
to what end it runs and runs?


Agreed that Naomi Shihab Nye does these kind of poems pretty well. Ondaatje too, perhaps.
posted by ifjuly at 12:01 PM on March 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Edna St Vincent Millay is my go-to for this. One suggestion is Renascence - my feeling is that it takes you through despair and helplessness and then finding meaning/life again. Another is maybe a bit of an odd choice, but Dirge Without Music, which (to me) is looking at anguish full in the face, but with anger at it, and refusing to accept it, refusing to just go along merely because painful things are inevitable. And for whatever reason, those are life-affirming to me. Just not staying down when you get knocked down. Not becoming apathetic and nihilist as a (natural) response to powerlessness in the face of shitty things. Lots of others of hers probably fit the bill as well.

Also Wendy Cope, but I don't have any of my books with me just now and can't think of any off the top of my head that aren't more on the delightful than the life-affirming end of things, although I suppose delight is life-affirming.
posted by you must supply a verb at 1:58 PM on March 5, 2013

Ah. Of course. Still I Rise. Maya Angelou.
posted by you must supply a verb at 2:07 PM on March 5, 2013

Lyrics to a song first -

You can never hold back spring
You can be sure I will never stop believing
The blushing rose, it will climb
Spring ahead or fall behind
Winter dreams the same dream, every time

Baby you can never hold back spring
Even though you've lost your way
The world is dreaming, dreaming of spring

So close your eyes, open your heart
To the one who's dreaming of you
And you can never hold back spring
Remember everything that spring can bring
Baby you can never hold back spring
Baby you can never hold back spring

...From Tom Waits.


I also have found Anne Sexton's Courage:

It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you'll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you'll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

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