The Poems That Help With Sudden Change, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

After my colleague Julie shared the poems that have helped her and some of our readers cope with loss and process change, many more of you sent in your suggestions. Ramya writes that after last week’s election, she immediately turned to “Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou (embedded above):

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Full poem here.

***

Becky suggests W.B. Yeats’s “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?”

Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

Full poem here.

***

When I’m frustrated and exhausted, “The Lotos-Eaters” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson comes to mind:

Hateful is the dark-blue sky
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labor be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence—ripen, fall, and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

Full poem here—though after reading it, you may want to turn to “Ulysses,” Tennyson’s other take on the Odyssey, for this reminder:

Come, my friends.
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Read and listen here.

***

In the meantime, there’s dreamful ease to be found in “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry—reader Michele’s favorite poem in times of stress:

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.

Read and listen to it here.

***

Tom recommends “The Darkling Thrush,” by Thomas Hardy:

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom. ...

Just thought it captured the mood of darkness and anxiety. But with a note of hope, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.

Full poem here.

***

Sloane writes:

I go back to Richard Siken often in times of upheaval and crisis; his writing conveys a sense of determination through panic that is deeply soothing. “Driving, Not Washing” tells a story of the aftermath of violence, and this line has stuck with me for many years:

Every story has its chapter in the desert, the long slide from kingdom
         to kingdom through the wilderness,
                    where you learn things, where you’re left to your own devices.

Full poem here.

***

Ileana recommends “I, Too” by Langston Hughes:

This poem gives me hope to continue fighting against racism in the U.S. It validates the sense of longing present in my life as a Latina American, longing to finally be considered equal as I know I am.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

Full poem here.

***

Finally, “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith, available here. Susan finds hope in the last few lines:

Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.