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By David Canfield
April 09, 2020 at 07:30 AM EDT
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Poetry
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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.

We could all use a bit more of that nowadays. So we asked some authors with new books out this month to share a poem, with some thoughts on why it's worth spending a few minutes with.

Veronica Roth (author of Chosen Ones)

Poetry Month
Credit: Nelson Fitch; John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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)

Poetry Month
Credit: Ray Kachatorian; Abrams Image

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)

Poetry Month
Credit: Tai Power Seeff; Crown

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)

Poetry Month
Credit: Nina Subin; Knopf

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)

Poetry Month
Credit: Jessica Keaveny; Catapult

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.

Memory,

what can I make of it now

that might please you—

this life, already wasted

and still strewn with

miracles?

Emily Gould (author of Perfect Tunes)

Poetry Month
Credit: Sylvie Rosokoff; Avid Reader Press / Simon and Schuster

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

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