National Poetry Month: April's biggest authors share poems to bring you solace
April is National Poetry Month, and this year it's taking on some new resonance, with most of the world stuck indoors, anxious for the future and antsy about the present. Poems can be a lot of things — educational, profound, confounding, funny — but some of our favorites, the ones we return to again and again, are pieces that bring relief and solace.
Veronica Roth (author of Chosen Ones)
Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of my favorite poets, particularly her sonnets. She has a wry sense of humor and writes particularly beautifully about grief. This poem is ostensibly one of those about grief — which means it could be viewed as a morbid choice for right now… .but I don't think so. That last line — "I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned." — is what gives me solace. Loss and difficulty and grief are facts of life. But we don't have to like it. We don't have to surrender.
"Dirge Without Music," by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Laura Prepon (author of You and I, As Mothers)
In the early days of motherhood I felt completely lost. My husband said to me, “How can you be lost, when you’re the lighthouse of the family?” I wrote this as a reminder to myself and a love letter to all mothers.
A mother is a lighthouse
And there are rocks everywhere.
She will guide you the best way she knows how.
A mother is there when you need light
And will throw it in your direction.
But the weather shifts and the winds still change;
There will be sunny days and impossible storms
And life will happen to you
And your little boat.
The mother stands as tall as she can
Through the fog.
Nina Renata Aron (author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls)
One poem I turn to when I'm having trouble — in writing or in life — is "The Poet's Occasional Alternative," by Grace Paley. Just the first lines — "I was going to write a poem, I made a pie instead" — give me permission to let go of trying to figure anything out. Like Paley, I also enjoy baking my way through distress, but if I'm trawling through "unreportable sadness," I might forget that. This poem is a joyful reminder that when things feel overwhelming, we can often find gratification in simple everyday activities. I also really like the idea of a baked good as a "final draft," destined to be consumed unedited, though I must admit I have wondered whether a pie containing dried apricots could really be that delicious.
"The Poet's Occasional Alternative," by Grace Paley
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper
the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership I do not
want to wait a week a year a
generation for the right
consumer to come along
Rufi Thorpe (author of The Knockout Queen)
There is something about the scantiness of the solace Czeslaw Milosz offers that makes it more credible to me. If he were promising that life was beautiful, I would have to hit him. But he is not saying that, he is saying something so much smaller and yet so miraculous. I feel grateful that he made these little cloud rafts of his thoughts that we can clamber up onto when we are too exhausted from perpetually drowning in life’s river.
"Faith," by Czeslaw Milosz
Faith is in you whenever you look
At a dewdrop or a floating leaf
And know that they are because they have to be.
Even if you close your eyes and dream up things
The world will remain as it has always been
And the leaf will be carried by the waters of the river.
You have faith also when you hurt your foot
Against a sharp rock and you know
That rocks are here to hurt our feet.
See the long shadow that is cast by the tree?
We and the flowers throw shadows on the earth.
What has no shadow has no strength to live.
Chelsea Bieker (author of Godshot)
This poem is one of my all-time favorites. I keep it where I can see it and it’s served as a sort of guidepost for any writing I do about my mother. Though it speaks of a “wasted” life, I find immense comfort in reading it. My definition of “wasted” depends on the day — most days I like to imagine it represents the basic harshness of time passing for us all. As time passes, things inevitably change, and with that passing there is new joy, but there is also inevitable loss. As a child, I always wanted time to stop so that my mother could find her way back to me. Now as an adult, the possibility of that happening has left. So what to make of life and memory once the promise of what you hoped for is gone? The time, gone. But yet — Ruefle gives us hope and agency at the end: Life is still strewn with miracles. It’s up to us to find them.
"Voyager," by Mary Ruefle
I have become an orchid
washed in on the salt white beach.
what can I make of it now
that might please you—
this life, already wasted
and still strewn with
Emily Gould (author of Perfect Tunes)
This isn't a comforting poem, exactly. But it feels true, and also reassures me because poets like Ariana are mystics with access to truths that regular people can't comprehend or articulate. This was published a year ago but seems like it comes from the future to describe now.
"A Partial History," by Ariana Reines
Long after I stopped participating
Those images pursued me
I found myself turning from them
Even in the small light before dawn
To meet the face of my own body
Still taut and strong, almost too
Strong a house for so much shame
Not mine alone but also yours
And my brother’s, lots of people’s,
I know it was irrational, for whom I saw
Myself responsible and to whom
I wished to remain hospitable.
We had all been pursuing our own
Disintegration for so long by then
That by the time the other side
Began to raise a more coherent
Complaint against us we devolved
With such ease and swiftness it seemed
To alarm even our enemies. By then
Many of us had succumbed to quivering
Idiocy while others drew vitality from new
Careers as public scolds. Behind these
Middle-management professors were at pains
To display their faultless views lest they too
Find censure, infamy, unemployment and death
At the hands of an enraged public
Individuals in such pain and torment
And such confusion hardly anyone dared
Ask more of them than that they not shoot
And in fact many of us willed them to shoot
And some of us were the shooters
And shoot we did, and got us square
In the heart and in the face, which anyway
We had been preparing these long years
For bullets and explosions and whatever
Else. A vast unpaid army
Of self-destructors, false comrades, impotent
Brainiacs who wished to appear to be kind
Everything we did for our government
And the corporations that served it we did for free
In exchange for the privilege of watching one
Another break down. Sometimes we were the ones
Doing the breaking. We would comfort one another
Afterward, congratulating each other on the fortitude
It took to display such vulnerability. The demonstration
Of an infirmity followed by a self-justificatory recuperation
Of our own means and our own ends, in short, of ourselves
And our respect for ourselves—this amounted to the dominant
Rhetoric of the age, which some called sharing, which partook
Of modes of oratory and of polemic, of intimate
Journals and of statements from on high issued by public
Figures, whom at one time or another we all mistook ourselves for.
Anyway it wasn’t working. None of it was working.
Not our ostentation and not the uses we put our suffering
To, the guilt- and schadenfreude-based attention
We extracted from our friends and followers, and even the passing
Sensation of true sincerity, of actual truth, quickly emulsified
Into the great and the terrible metastasizing whole.
To the point it began to seem wisest to publish only
Within the confines of our own flesh, but our interiors
Had their biometrics too, and were functions not only
Of stardust, the universe as we now were prone to addressing
The godhead, but also of every mean and median of the selfsame
Vicious culture that drove us to retreat into the jail of our own bones
And the cramped confines of our swollen veins and ducts in the first place
Our skin was the same wall they talked about on the news
And our hearts were the bombs whose threat never withdrew
Images could drop from above like the pendulum in “The Pit
And the Pendulum” or killer drones to shatter the face of our lover
Into contemporaneous pasts, futures, celebrities, and other
Lovers all of whom our attention paid equally in confusion
And longing, and a fleeting sense like passing ghosts
Of a barely-remarked-upon catastrophe that was over
Both before and after it was too late. We were ancient
Creatures, built for love and war. Everything said so
And we could not face how abstract it was all becoming
Because it was also all the opposite of abstract, it was
Our flesh, our mother’s bloodied forehead
On the floor of Penn Station, and wherever we hid
Our face, amid a crowd of stars for example as Yeats
Once put it, and for stars insert celebrities
Or astrology here, your choice, and even when
We closed our eyes, all this was all we looked at
Every day all day. It was all we could see.
We were lost in a language of images.
It was growing difficult to speak. Yet talk
Was everywhere. Some of us still sought
To dominate one another intellectually
Others physically; still others psychically or some
Of all of the above, everything seeming to congeal
Into bad versions of sports by other means
And sports by that time was the only metaphor
Left that could acceptably be applied to anything.
The images gave us no rest yet failed over
And over despite the immensity
Of their realism to describe the world as we really
Knew it, and worse, as it knew us