The end of the semester comes with a wide variety of emotions attached to it. Personally, I couldn’t be more excited to go home and take a break with my family — so I’m happy, and soon I’ll be relaxed — but I’m also experiencing a whirlwind of stress in the frantic, last-minute rush to get everything done that needs to be done. And while I know that everyone’s school experience is different, with this semester in particular, it seems to me that most people by now are pretty similarly fed up and ready to get finals over with.
I tried to reflect that high-strung mishmash in this week’s Poetry Playlist. Most of these poems are admittedly probably meant for purposes different (and maybe more profound) than final exams. Hopefully, though, the mix of enthusiasm, relief and tenacity will be a welcome catharsis and will resonate with anyone out there who’s interested in turning to poetry as a way to get through finals.
“Poems From An Email Exchange,” by Hanif Abdurraqib
I mentioned this poem in my column last week about titles. Abdurraqib — a master not only of poetry, but also of essay writing and criticism — uses an interesting form in “Poems From An Email Exchange,” structuring the poem as a literal exchange of emails between Abdurraqib himself and the editor of a literary review. At its heart (at least the way I read it), this poem is about the struggle to preserve one’s authenticity in the face of the world. This resonates for me during times when I’m feeling very stressed or overwhelmed with tasks to complete, because it feels like a reminder of the heart that drives everything else.
“How to Triumph Like a Girl,” by Ada Limón
Not everyone is a girl, but the feeling of defiant triumph and determination that Limón engages with in this poem is one that no doubt many of us can understand. Times of struggle can feel like a race to the finish line, and it’s kind of cathartic to read about a heart “that thinks, no, it knows, / it’s going to come in first.”
“Small Fantasia: Light Years,” by Ishion Hutchinson
This poem touches on a specific but significant feeling: the intimidating, or, as Hutchinson puts it, “terrifying” nature of happiness. If you spend a lot of time preparing for tests or meetings and striving to check accomplishments off your list, any time spent idle can feel like some kind of transgression. Yet Hutchinson’s poem is in truth an ode to that very brand of idleness, “God’s idleness.” Hutchinson slices cleanly to the heart of the “pure, inexplicable love” that lies at the heart of this complication, a feeling of true and waiting peace underlying everything.
“Let there be new flowering,” Lucille Clifton
I have loved this poem ever since I first read it, and I think it holds a universality that makes it useful for a variety of circumstances. The poem is very short, but quietly, powerfully stirring. The way that Clifton unravels the idea of tension and struggle makes these things feel retroactively simple. Her plain request at the close of the poem, “let love be / at the end,” is one of the simplest yet most necessary messages that poetry can give.
“Sleeping in the Forest,” by Mary Oliver
I believe that “Sleeping in the Forest” is one of the most beautiful and applicable nature-focused poems I have ever read. A poem about exactly what the title suggests: Spending a night sleeping in the forest. It describes a feeling of peace and restoration that feels like exactly what I’m pushing myself toward through the thick of finals. I would quote the entire poem here if I could, but suffice it to say that the closing lines are nearly as healing as a rest itself: “By morning / I had vanished at least a dozen times / into something better.”