Your Favorite Poems on Hard Times

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

Many readers are joining our staff in sharing favorite poems this month. Alba writes:

I could never take Charles Bukowski seriously. His books always seemed to be props for a certain type of guy I was endlessly attracted to. These guys were never into Wallace Stevens, say, or Lucille Clifton, just Bukowski. So Bukowski ended up being shorthand for pretentious guys who wanted to seem cool, and edgy, and arty.

Fast forward a few years: I’m done with those guys, living a life I hadn’t planned on—my choice, yes, but still difficult. I woke up this morning wondering how to keep going today with my responsibilities, with the to-dos, with all the work of a life that feels at this moment so constricted. I opened YouTube and “The Laughing Heart” appeared as a suggestion. I’m not sure why I clicked on it, but I did. It was the poem I needed—the poem that told me why and how to be today.

The opening lines:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.

Read the rest here.

***

“For those down and hard times,” Norris sends “Don’t Quit” by John Greenleaf Whittier:

When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

Full poem here.

***

To Brennan, “one of the most beautiful poems ever written” is Mark Strand’s “My Mother On An Evening In Late Summer”:

and as she gazes,
under the hour’s spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

Full poem here.

***

Ellen, who’s a poet herself, writes:

During tough times, William Stafford’s strong, clear voice comforts me. Among my favorites is “The Way it Is.” Its strength comes from its straightforward, declarative simplicity:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.

Full poem here.

***

Kate Rogers writes, “The poems I usually enjoy are from the 20th century, so it surprised me to find such an emotional response to one from 1784.” It’s Sonnet XII, by Charlotte Smith:

O’er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl;
The screaming sea-bird quits the troubled sea:
But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me,
And suits the mournful temper of my soul.

Full poem here.

***

Finally, Stephanie Salinas points to “Radiance versus Ordinary Light” by Carl Phillips:

There is something comforting in reading a poem and seeing your fears, irrationalities, questionable choices, anxieties, reflected—seeing a poet articulate what you thought was inexpressible, and in that invaluable moment feeling a little less alone.

An endless list of poems resonate with me for this reason, but there’s something about Phillips’s 3rd-5th stanzas in this particular poem, with their depiction of the speaker’s relentless return to what he knows isn’t good for him:

            We dive in and, as usual,
                                                                      the swimming
feels like that swimming the mind does in the wake
of transgression, how the instinct to panic at first
slackens that much more quickly, if you don’t
look back. Regret,
                                 like pity, changes nothing really, we
say to ourselves and, less often, to each other, each time
swimming a bit farther

I must have read this poem a hundred times, yet these lines are still as arresting as the first time I heard Carl Phillips read them. That rising panic, our conscience, the initial fear—all our natural senses that tell us to stop, go back, to turn around for the love of God—seem to dull when we habitually ignore them. And the the infinitely relatable questions, “Why should it matter now and Why shouldn’t it” echo too loudly for comfort.

But that’s just it for me and this poem: finding comfort in discomfort, being slapped in the face with the questions and reasons I too often choose to ignore, and the unexpected sagacity in having a poem act as the friend who calls you out on your shit.

To me, this poem is a constant reminder to be more self-aware, to hold myself accountable for my choices—but in the collective “we” that points to the universality of our weaknesses, I like to think (maybe selfishly), that there’s an implied reminder to forgive ourselves woven in Philips’s lines, too.

Read and listen to the full poem here. And if you know a poem that articulates the inexpressible, tell us about it via hello@theatlantic.com.