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A scary season looms; poems can steel the spirit, or offer a distraction. Our writers and editors offer nine selections for exactly those purposes. Store them in your heart’s cellar, and retrieve as needed.
“SO PENSEROSO” BY OGDEN NASH (AUDIO VERSION)
I do not wish to be blithe, / I wish to recoil and writhe. / I will revel in cosmic woe, / And I want my woe to show. This one will straighten you out. The great Ogden Nash, 1902–71, was a fiercely innovative poet who consecrated his art to the entertainment of the masses—and carried on being fiercely innovative. No one was wittier, no one was more verbally adroit, yet he had no meanness or spikiness; he was adored by that shy beast, the general reader. “So Penseroso” is a loving, piercing send-up of a certain strain of indulgent melancholia—to which we’re all prone right now, let’s face it. You will feel both accurately diagnosed and much, much better.
— James Parker, staff writer
“MY HOUSE” BY NIKKI GIOVANNI
I’ve always loved the rhythm of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry, how she seems to punctuate her flow with whispered asides. Throughout “My House,” she wonders aloud whether it might be a silly poem but keeps going anyway. That gentle musing mirrors her conclusion about the titular house and the warmth of the domestic sphere: Flawed or inconsequential though it may seem to others, this space is all Nikki’s—and being invited into it is no small thing.
— Hannah Giorgis, staff writer covering culture
“CALIFORNIA WINTER” BY KARL SHAPIRO
One of my forever favorites is Karl Shapiro’s “California Winter,” a marvelous ode to the land of the oldest living things, / trees that were young when Pharoahs ruled the world, / trees whose new leaves are only just unfurled. I like best to read it through the eyes of Joan Didion, who writes about California like no one else, and who mentions Shapiro’s poem in The White Album. She rightly points out that its last stanza possesses the rare and quiet power of a prayer.
— Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor
When I was a kid, my mom taught me Mandarin by having me recite classical poetry. I understood little and memorized a lot, and two decades on, I find I remember most of what I learned. But I now revisit these verses with an added layer of nostalgia: The lonely sail, a faraway shadow, against an endless blue / I only see the Yangtze flowing into the horizon, goes one. The permutations of translation are infinite, frustrating, time-consuming (this one is mine; I’m no scholar and no poet). This pandemic winter, go memorize some stuff as an exercise. Translate, if you can, for fun, and for no one but yourself.
— Shan Wang, senior editor
“WILD GEESE” BY MARY OLIVER
Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” is my ultimate comfort poem; I go back to it again and again when I’m feeling despondent or defeated. You could argue this isn’t the right moment for the first line—You do not have to be good. (You do have to be good! Cancel Thanksgiving!) But the poem doesn’t feel indulgent to me as much as it feels merciful: Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on. It reminds me that this long pandemic winter will be only a blip in the vast span of the Earth’s history.
“AFTER ABOLITION” BY KYLE CARRERO LOPEZ
In a social and political moment in which more people are discussing what role, if any, prisons and police should have in our society, I find that art can help us move our thinking away from what we believe is possible, and toward what we believe we deserve. Kyle Carrero Lopez’s poem “After Abolition” helps me dream of what it might mean to build the sort of country in which the instruments of our carceral state are pushed toward obsolescence. I will be rereading it for years to come.
— Clint Smith, staff writer and the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent
“THOSE WINTER SUNDAYS” BY ROBERT HAYDEN
I raise the blinds. I lower the blinds. I raise. I lower. My son and I rise; my son and I set. I run school, I work, I single parent. I think of my single mother’s thankless hours; I call: What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices? As days shorten, how do we keep going? Hayden’s poem of winter mornings seems bleak, yet his last line answers: love.
— Jennifer Adams, associate director of production
“FIRST FALL,” BY MAGGIE SMITH
You might know Smith from her poem “Good Bones,” which went viral in 2016 and gets shared on social media whenever the world’s feeling particularly grim. My favorite of hers is “First Fall,” in which a mother shows her newborn the changing leaves. The first time you see / something die, you won’t know it might / come back, she says. As this hard winter sets in, the poem reminds me that I’m old enough to know leaves grow back. But I’m most comforted by the fierce hope of the narrator, speaking to the baby on her chest: I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here.
— Isabel Fattal, assistant editor
“SORROW IS NOT MY NAME,” BY ROSS GAY
When happiness feels out of reach, I turn to this Ross Gay poem. I love how the title boldly sweeps away feelings of heaviness before moving into a tender meditation on life’s delights. I want to look at the world as Gay does: appreciating the two million naturally occurring sweet things instead of just pondering the skeleton in the mirror. Sometimes, making that choice seems impossible, but Gay reminds me that there is a time for everything—including joy.
— Morgan Ome, assistant editor
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