Good Poems for Hard Times is the first anthology I’ve chosen for this Year of Poetry, and it made the list as a direct response to a couple of challenging weeks, when life proved (once again) the truth of Shakespeare’s line: “When troubles come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
As I get older, I’m more and more convinced that all the truth of the world lurks in Hamlet.
I’m also increasingly sure that a part of the answer to those battalions of sorrows, a reality for all of us at some point or another (they are, as that mopey Dane reminds us, just the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”) can be the humanity and perspective poets capture in words.
Edited by Garrison Keillor, and delivered with the ease of an episode of The Writer’s Almanac, Good Poems for Hard Times collects a diverse mix of poems and poets in service of Keillor’s belief that “the meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader are obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention…”
Some of the poems in this collection do just that. “Things” by Lisel Mueller shines light on one way we cope with the world around us.
What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.
We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,
and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.
Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.”
Other poems invite us to slow down, see the humanity in others, and understand that we are part of a greater pageant of humanity that stretches back for centuries. Clipped from Marvell’s “Thoughts in a Garden,” for example:
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.”
And some, like Gregory Djanikian’s “Children’s Hospital, Emergency Room,” use a specific subject to inspire the more universal emotion shared by parents now then and always.
You do not want to be here
You wish it were you
The doctor is stitching up
It is a cut on the chin, fixable
This time but deep enough
To make you think of gashes
Puncture wounds flesh unfolding to the bone
Your child is lying on the table
Restrained, You must be still
The nurse who cradles her head is saying
And the doctor is embroidering
Delicately patiently like a kind aunt
But there is not enough solace in that
To make you stop thinking of other children
Whose hurt blooms like a dark interior bruise
In other rooms there is hysteria
The sound of glass shattering
And in the next bay there is the child
Who is sleeping too soundly
You do not want to hear such silence
The evidence which convicts, puts away
Wake up, you whisper, wake up
You want to think of water
A surface with no scars
You want the perpetuity of circles
A horizon clear and unbroken
And the sky a flat blue immensity
Without sides or depth
But there is nothing you can do
When you daughter calls out It hurts
And things regain their angularity
The vulnerable opaqueness, I’m here
You say, Be still, I’m here
Though you wish none of you were
And if anyone offered you now the life
Of the spirit you would take it for all of you
The child asleep or your child
Those in pain or mercifully out
You would take it and fly though never
Would you feel this rush of joy
As you do now when your daughter
Is returned to you unhealed but whole
Your lips pressing against her cheek
And your hands hovering
Like two shy birds about her face.”
“Unhealed but whole.” Good Poems for Hard Times doesn’t promise resolution, few poems do, but it does give something else, something captured in poems like Galway Kinnell’s “Prayer.”
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.”
The selections in Good Poems for Hard Times do “give courage” and provide hope. Reading the book on my back deck, leaves turning fall color around me and sailing to the ground on November winds, poets like Dickinson and Nemerov gave me reprieve from the stresses of the moment.
I know that those falling leaves will need to get raked soon, a Sisiphysian task if there ever was one, but reading poems like Robyn Sarah’s “Riveted” reminded me that that too is part of this greater adventure of life.
It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.
Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.
It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious denouement
to the unsurprising end- riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.”
Sure, a book of poetry isn’t the only answer to hard times. It would be silly to suggest such a thing. And…
…and this fall Good Poems for Hard Times was the book I needed to read.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars.