poetry recommendations for the broken-hearted, please
October 31, 2013 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Mefites: will you please recommend to me memorizable poems that I can use as a salve when I find myself slipping in to destructive thoughts as I wade my way through the aftermath of this break-up?

Ideal candidates would be generally positive (I have enough negative thoughts and energy in my head these days) and would serve to remind one that the world is a big, exciting, fascinating place. I'm not looking for Hallmark-y, uplifting, motivational writing - something more substantial and, dare I say it, intellectual, please. If that's not too snobby and/or makes sense. A sense of humor wouldn't be the end of the world either.
posted by fingers_of_fire to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't quite poetry, but I always find it comforting and it doesn't have that motivational Hallmark-y quality.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:11 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know the desiderata is kinda hokey, but it works for me -- mostly this part:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
posted by empath at 10:28 PM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

~Wendell Berry
posted by charmedimsure at 10:29 PM on October 31, 2013 [11 favorites]

Adrienne Rich, Song ("You're / wondering if I'm lonely: / OK then, yes, I'm lonely / as a plane rides lonely and level / on its radio beam, aiming / across the Rockies.")

W.H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts ("About suffering they were never wrong, / the old Masters: how well they understood / its human position.")

Pablo Neruda, Tonight I can write ("I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.")

Alice Walker, Expect Nothing ("Expect nothing. Live frugally, / on surprise.")

Elizabeth Bishop, One Art ("The art of losing isn't hard to master.")

Rudyard Kipling, If ("If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, / And lose, and start again at your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss.")
posted by willbaude at 10:36 PM on October 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

The Song
by Robert Creeley

It still makes sense
to know the song after all.

My wiseness I wear
in despair of something better.

I am all beggar,
I am all ears.

Soon everything will be sold
and I can go back home

by myself again
and try to be a man.
posted by Mender at 10:50 PM on October 31, 2013

Louis MacNeice

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

posted by pont at 11:48 PM on October 31, 2013

I am not sure how memorizable this is, but "Falling and Flying" by Jack Gilbert is a favorite of mine on this subject.
posted by not that girl at 12:16 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This may be too spiritual for you, but I repeat it to myself whenever I have a break up and it does the trick.

I am brave, I am strong.
Perfume of success thought
Blows in me, blows in me.
I am cool, I am calm
I am sweet, I am kind
I am love, I am sympathy
I am charming and magnetic
I am pleased with all
I have no enemy
I am the friend of all.

-- Paramahansa Yogananda
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:26 AM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


a winged seed makes its way
to the ground
the strange beauty
of my own crooked path

posted by Quilford at 12:48 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice Through the Looking Glass; it's a little silly and has a strong rhythm which helps me focus on it instead of whatever my awful brain is trying to do, and, it's got this fairly classic bit which might feel uplifting even though the whole thing is not necessarily:

"The time has come", the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things. Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings,
And why the sea is boiling hot,
and whether pigs have wings."
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:05 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]



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 Kinnel
posted by third rail at 5:09 AM on November 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

Thinking more about it, a classic empowering literary poem would be Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night which is pretty solid.

In a similar vein, I have been debating with myself about whether to post this because it feels a little silly (okay, yeah, it's very silly) but it's something that maybe feels a little helpful if you need something to repeat to yourself when you're feeling down. It's, um, from the TV show Charmed and it's something Phoebe Halliwell says to banish a childhood terror that lives in their basement (this makes perfect sense in the context of the series. Also it's why the name "Halliwell" is in there. The woogieman is trying to possess her and also make everything dark or whatever.). Anyway, feel free to ignore this but I thought I'd throw it out there in case there's any chance it actually will make you feel any better to have it in your arsenal of positive recitations when you just need something immediate to help you overcome the dark feelings:
I am light. I am one too strong to fight.
Return to dark where shadows dwell.
You cannot have this Halliwell.
Go away and leave my sight.
And take with you this endless night.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:22 AM on November 1, 2013

There is an entire poetry anthology on this very theme.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:35 AM on November 1, 2013

Look to the never ending sky:
Dust evolving, gas aglow;
Fits of birth too far to eye,
Pits of death too dark to show;
Mass and motion ever churning,
Shine and shadow ever turning.
Look to the ever silent sky:
Be cured of earthly woes.
posted by fix at 6:46 AM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fix, what is that from?
posted by HotToddy at 7:07 AM on November 1, 2013

I find James Wright very comforting when I need someone to remind me that the crappy or banal parts of life are in fact just as much of a crazy miracle as the supposed high parts.

A Blessing
As I Step Over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor
Northern Pike:
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:10 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks for the responses! just to focus this maybe a little - what i'm looking for is something to counter the negative not by asserting it's opposite but by changing the conversation altogether. put more simply - if i'm thinking "i miss her", i don't want to hear "you're better off without her", i want to hear "which number is bigger, grains of sand on the earth or stars in the universe?"

i want to be reminded that there are much bigger things to be thinking about and that, all things considered for my little existence, most of them are good.

does that make sense?

(on preview, my example is pretty Hallmark-y, but hopefully it conveys the right idea.)
posted by fingers_of_fire at 7:22 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sometimes - 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 will 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 for you.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 7:36 AM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

WB Yeats
'Ah, do not mourn,' he said,
'That we are tired, for other loves await us;
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.'
posted by billiebee at 7:45 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe Thanks by W. S. Merwin is more what you're looking for?
posted by not that girl at 8:05 AM on November 1, 2013

Not to be self-link-y, but you should read my book JUVENILIA, which is half composed of break-up poems! (I actually said this at a bar once and the woman I was talking to said, excitedly, Yes! A friend of mine told me You've just had a break-up. You should read this.)

This is a poem that people seem to like, which is in a way about the way in which the devastation of a break-up co-exists with the sense that time will go on and this will be forgotten. It's influenced by logical propositions and forms a series of self-referential questions (rather like an LSAT logic game); the title is all the answers to the questions. It's called Yes, No, Yes, The Future, Gone, Happy, Yes, No, Yes, Cut, You.
posted by johnasdf at 8:48 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Edward Carpenter - The Sun Shines, as of Old (an excerpt from "On Democracy".
posted by diamondsky at 9:36 AM on November 1, 2013

I recommend Epistle to be Left in the Earth by Archibald MacLeish.
posted by tuesdayschild at 9:37 AM on November 1, 2013

Response by poster: Friends - I hope my last comment didn't come across as unappreciative or snitty - I wasn't passing judgement on the quality of the posts thus far, especially considering that I hadn't read the suggestions yet (still haven't, in fact). The clarification I offered was as much for myself as anything else. I am immensely grateful for all the suggestions (even if they don't precisely fit the vague bill that I have set forth) and humbled by the time y'all have spent to in the hopes of cheering me up.

Metafilter ftw, as always.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:09 AM on November 1, 2013

HotToddy: I wrote it myself five years ago. The title is A Remedy.
posted by fix at 10:36 AM on November 1, 2013

Two poems from Shane Hawley, one about breakups and the other about striving for new goals:

Robot Parts

I can see it now

The Sun will shiver off of my glistening skin in rainbows

My eyes will glow bright

Illuminating with energy

Electricity will course through my veins

And baby

You’ll be sorry

When I get my robot parts

We’re only decades away,

Years maybe from the exponential acceleration of technology

Running rough shot over our brittle bodies

How soon until Steven Hawking and Bill Gates hover over us with built in jet packs

Cyborg gods


As we are marched into the machines they feed on us for fuel

I will not be left behind

Lamenting more mistakes

I have lost the girl I love

But I will not be robot food

So bring on the testing and angry experiments

Torture me like an adorable lab animal

While I’m bleeding nanobots and vomiting silicone,

I will not call for you

And when the day comes

Right before the surgeons finally pull me under

I will tell them blissfully to take it

Take all of me

Turn my fingertips into industrial magnets or shock panels

Replace my tear ducts with laser ducts

Sear your name from my throat with battery acid

Tear out my guts and line my stomach with led so it no longer growls for you

Scrape off my taste buds and wire my incisors

To interface with power cords and electrical sockets

But leave my tongue

Because provided I come out of this alive

I’ll have some things to tell you

Not the least of which is

Check me out now, baby! I got robot parts!

I will emerge a core of wire war machine

Bloodless and calculating

And when I talk about what I used to be

I will refer to this sickly sack of flesh

Not an artist

Or your lover

Or a young man afraid of the future

Because we humans are too organic

Too wet and tactile

Too soft and warm against chests and cheeks

We’re presented to our mothers without manuals

Absent walk-throughs and trouble shooting guides

No warnings about where to store us

Or how to turn us off

And right now, I would like to know how to delete you

How to sleep soundly

How to be a man about all this

Without pistons and cooling gel

Without a reactor core and linch pins

Without the interlocking teeth of grinding gears that propel me forward without you

It’s impossible to transcend this broken biology

With only today’s primitive technology

So whatever the cost

However long it takes

Make me beautiful

A twinkling mash up of teeth and train tracks

Of boiling blood

And gold foil of whatever basic pieces I’ve had to sacrifice to dig you out of me

And when I smile, let it sparkle like evolution

And when I laugh, make it jar like conquest

And when I purse my lips, it will look nothing like a kiss

And my memories of you

Will be wiped clean

Overridden and buried


Haunting the parts of this machine too human to let you go

Wile E Coyote
It will work this time.
It has to.
I spent the better part of 19 hours
crafting this mural on bedrock
and three full days before that
laying pavement
redirecting the winding desert road
so that it would end abruptly
at the foot of my masterpiece
a rock wall
painted to look like a tunnel
an optical illusion
a way out
but there is no way out of here.

my name is Wile E Coyote,
and I am so fucking hungry!
Inexplicably stuck
in this lifeless desert
my only companion
a mindless blue bird
whom I am forever doomed to chase
to whom all laws of the universe bend then break
this is my existance
compulsively ordering
one ridiculous contraption after another
even though
I am onto the people at ACME
I know
you are fucking with me!

I am hours of flight suits
or a working magnet
or a lit wick short of supper
And I deserve it.
I left my imprint
all over this desert
I’ve been pancaked, incinerated
run over, diced
and buried
I’ve accepted my failure
with only simple signs
pulled from invisible back pockets
begging for your empathy
as if it will cushion what comes next

And whoever fancies himself my maker
was cruel enough to imbue upon me
the knowledge of how things are supposed to be
fire upon ignition
roll when the pull is great enough against them
The trajectory of catapults is not arbitrary

Can you imagine how it feels?
Your best-laid plans
Crumbling around you
Peering into the mouth of fate only to have it

It’s enough to make you wonder
If it’s better to be a perfect physical specimen than it is to be bright.
If all the time you spent lost in thought has been a waste
When all along it’s been easier
To just
I am a super-genius.
And I cant capture a flightless bird
Who grins as I drool for his flesh.
I keep at it
As if the next bow will fire the arrow
instead of me
As if the poisoned birdseed
Will somehow end up in his mouth
Instead of mine.

It is the curse of an addict to chase the thing that destroys you.

But until you’ve done it…
Until you’ve launched yourself
off a thousand foot cliff
for that thing that you love
You will never
understand the gravity
of my plight.
This is it
The culmination of my mania
This fake, fucking tunnel
Is the best I can do.
And when the dust settles.
I will stand firmly on red sand
His broken blue neck
Clenched beneath my teeth.
This time
It will work.
It has to.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:51 AM on November 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

My favorite poem (and the only one I've ever memorized), Edgar Lee Masters' "George Gray," from Spoon River Anthology (all the poems are ghosts' musings):

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.
posted by limeonaire at 12:00 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I rather like Gerard Manley Hopkin's "Spring and Fall". Its epigraph states that it's "to a young child," but I think it's poignant for anyone who sees their perspective begin to change. I think of it as a poem for the moments in life that jar us and leave us seeking some direction or comfort in the form of spiritual or philosophical guidance.

Spring and Fall
to a young child

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
posted by krakus at 3:08 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

HotToddy: I wrote it myself five years ago. The title is A Remedy.
posted by fix at 10:36 AM on November 1 [+] [!]

Well I love it.
posted by HotToddy at 9:10 PM on November 1, 2013

Well, I know you want poems that will distract you from the mundane by focusing on the infinite, but I hope you'll forgive Stevie Smith for pointing out how good it is and how right it is to be caught up in this life:

Distractions and the Human Crowd

Ormerod was deeply troubled
When he read in philosophy and religion
Of man's lust after God,
And the knowledge of God,
And the experience of God
In the achievement of solitary communion and the loss of self.
For he said that he had known this knowledge,
And experienced this experience,
Before life and after death;
But that here in temporal life, and in temporal life only, was permitted
(As in a flaw of divine government, a voluntary recession)
A place where man might impinge upon man,
And be subject to a thousand and one idiotic distractions.
And thus it was that he found himself
Ever at issue with the schools,
For ever more and more he pursued the distractions,
Knowing them to be ephemeral, under time, peculiar,
And in eternity without place or puff.
Then, ah then, he said, following the tea-parties
(And the innumerable conferences for social rearrangement),
I knew, and shall know again, the name of God, closer than close;
But now I know a stranger thing,
That never can I study too closely, for never will it come again, -
Distractions and the human crowd.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:10 PM on November 1, 2013

um, maybe Ben Okri? I read this for the first time when I was going through a difficult time, and it always reminded me to take deeper breaths and look at the world with a braver heart and more gentle gaze.


We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.

There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things

And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.

That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.

And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here

And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.
posted by anitanita at 11:15 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would recommend the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, especially his long poems (Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound). They are very cosmic, very beautiful, full of big ideas, and if you can get into them, very absorbing. Shelley always transports me when I am feeling really shitty.
posted by désoeuvrée at 1:40 PM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh! And Lawrence Ferlinghetti, too... Generally more upbeat and more accessible than Shelley. These Are My Rivers is a great collection.
posted by désoeuvrée at 1:54 PM on November 2, 2013

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