Poetry has the ability to give us strength in our darkest times and reflect our joy in our happiest moments. For evidence, just look at the outpouring of gratitude for Amanda Gorman — President Biden’s inaugural poet — and the virality of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” The line “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it,” seemed to encompass both the despair and the hope so many Americans were feeling on that day, just two weeks after armed rioters stormed the capitol. That is the power of poetry. So if you feel like you’re living through an apocalypse — the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic, political turmoil, deep divides in American society, threat of war, climate change, police brutality, a collective mental health crisis or whatever other calamity you can think of — here’s some poetry to help carry you through.
“Dearly” by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is perhaps best known for her 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a searing criticism of Western rape culture and restrictions on reproductive freedom. She turns that same keen eye to her poetry — though in the several decades that have passed, it has been molded, not dulled, by age’s wisdom. Now 82, Atwood speaks to today’s crises in her most recent poetry collection, “Dearly,” with both her characteristic wit and anger and a sort of gentle, pleading hope. Her poetry encapsulates what this era is and could become: the ongoing fight for women’s rights, the looming climate catastrophe, the grief of losing a loved one and our current political situation. But despite its heavy topics, her poetry does not produce a helpless feeling; instead, it makes you want to fight even more.
“What the Living Do” by Marie Howe
“What the Living Do” tells the fragmented story of youth, how our childhoods shape us into who we are and how we come to learn what living is all about. Written for her brother, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1989, “What the Living Do” is imbued with a sense of wonder for life — all of its pain and joy and in-betweens. It does not attempt to make everything rosy; it knows how difficult this all is, how tiring it can be to keep going day after day with the small frustrations and regrets piling up. But it also shines light onto the underside, the part that we often let collect dust as we alternate between slogging away and sleeping: the heartwrenching beauty of this short, short time we have together. Howe’s poetry speaks best for itself: “We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. / We want / whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then / more of it. / But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the / window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so / deep / for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m / speechless: / I am living. I remember you.”
“Unearth [The Flowers]” by Thea Matthews
“Unearth [The Flowers]” is a book for today’s moment of collective outrage and action. Matthews, a Black Indigenous Mexican poet, does not shy away from the grief and anger born from colonization, militarism and patriarchy. This is not an easy read — the violence she describes left a sickening feeling in my stomach. But the poems are, at their roots, vignettes of survival and resilience. How does one heal when the injuring is ongoing? How does one reclaim their body, their life? With each poem named after a flower, Matthews shows how people can bloom even through the darkest moments, how we will always plant our roots and reach towards the sun: “My roots now / strengthened my bones in formation / I emerge slowly uprising in the night. I rise / in the glimmer of untamable waters / I live.”
“Devotions” by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver is the poet you go to when you want peace and quiet. Her poems often find her among nature, kindly observing the trees, the animals, the water and herself. She speaks with a simple sort of self-compassion, as if the human is no more deserving of judgment or capable of failure than the owl is, or the moss. “Devotions” is a posthumous collection of her work, and shining throughout is her perpetual amazement at the world around her. Reading this book is an act of mindfulness and an exploration of the internal harmony and stillness it can create. Open up to any page, and feel yourself heal just a little bit. “You do not have to be good,” Oliver tells us, “You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
“Kyrie” by Ellen Bryant Voigt
“Kyrie” is a 1995 book about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which swept through America during and shortly after the end of World War I. Although it was written more than two decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, “Kyrie” eerily echoes our experiences from 2020 to today. Perhaps depressing to some, this can also be very comforting. We have used the word “unprecedented” a lot in the past couple of years. We have all heard that “we are living through unprecedented times” — that no one has ever been through what we are going through. As terrible as the subject matter of “Kyrie” is, as much as its characters suffer, it is comforting to know that we have been through this before. There has been a generation of Americans who would understand us and the loss so many of us feel, who made it through a similar situation and emerged stronger.
“Aimless Love” by Billy Collins
Billy Collins is one of America’s most popular contemporary poets. Throughout his 19 poetry books, he has developed a distinct, conversational style that mixes lighthearted wit with the profound. In “Aimless Love” — both the book and its titular poem — Collins explores the power and joy of the mundane, the little things, the infinite capacity of the human heart. It is a romantic book, but not in a dating-and-marriage way. Rather, the romance comes from life itself: A wren he sees from the lakeshore, a seamstress in her window, a mouse the cat caught, soap in its dish. “My heart is always standing on its tripod,” he says, “ready for the next arrow.” Collins’s poetry makes you wish you could look at everything with the wonder he does, and with that wish in your heart, you start to do so.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.