Poems to remind us of our strength during quarantine

Why We Wrote This

Robert Frost wrote that poetry provides “a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” We asked the Monitor’s staff what poems they’ve loved over the years that offer calm and a respite and also an opportunity to reset. 

Karen Norris/Staff

When life feels difficult or bleak, where do you turn for comfort and inspiration? For many people, good poetry is an obvious choice.

[Have you found poetry comforting right now? Email us at books@csmonitor.com with your favorite poem and what you love about it. We’ll be in touch if we want to publish your submission.] 

That’s not surprising, since oral poetry predates written language in cultures around the world. Both spoken and written verse have always expressed people’s hopes and fears, their desire to understand life and to connect with something immutable.

“Poetry is indeed something divine,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the finest English Romantic poets, in 1821. “Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed ...” and “a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

Roughly a century later, Robert Frost, who won four Pulitzer Prizes, described poetry in less lofty terms: Poetry provides “a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” He argued that a poem “begins in delight but ends in wisdom.” 

Regardless of how one defines the art form, poetry requires lively, memorable language that leads to new perceptions or even new roads of understanding.

Sometimes the understanding we need most is that we are not alone in our struggles. Others have felt what we are feeling and found a way to articulate their complex, amorphous thoughts.

Poetry that comforts and consoles also lifts our gaze beyond current circumstances – or reminds us that we have the grit, strength, and grace to persevere, just as generations before us have done.

If perseverance sounds exhausting or days blend together during this strange time, poems can jolt us out of inertia with their imagery, metaphor, color, and rhythm. 

“I dwell in Possibility,” wrote Emily Dickinson, who chose to live most of her life in isolation so she could focus on her writing. 

The poems that follow, which Monitor staff members have loved for years, are intended to spark hope and encouragement. As one of Dickinson’s most famous poems notes, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” Let those feathers lift you now.

Favorite poems of Monitor staff

[Due to copyright constraints, we are publishing full poems only when they are in the public domain or we have permission. We’re including links so you can find the others elsewhere on the internet.]

Francine KieferWest Coast bureau chief

My mother wrote poetry, and she started feeding me poems when I was in high school. I fell in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay – her passion, her acute observations of life, her lyricism. “Recuerdo” is one such poem, singing to the world about two companions, presumably lovers, who have not much between them except enough money to buy fruit and ride the ferry back and forth all night. Their youthful exuberance is infectious, too strong to keep to themselves, and at dawn, they end up sharing what they have left over with a mother, a “shawl-covered head.” It reminds me of how love is too big to be contained.

Recuerdo

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

***

Scott Armstrong, Weekly cover story editor

Sometimes you just need to laugh. And “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg works for me.

Arithmetic

By Carl Sandburg

Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your head.
Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how many
         you had before you lost or won.
Arithmetic is seven eleven all good children go to heaven—
         or five six bundle of sticks.
Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand
         to your pencil to your paper till you get the answer.
Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice
         and you can look out of the window and see the blue sky—
         or the answer is wrong and you have to start all over and
         try again and see how it comes out this time.
If you take a number and double it and double it again and then
         double it a few more times, the number gets bigger and bigger
         and goes higher and higher and only arithmetic can tell you
         what the number is when you decide to quit doubling.
Arithmetic is where you have to multiply – and you carry
         the multiplication table in your head and hope you won’t lose it.
If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you eat one
         and a striped zebra with streaks all over him eats the other,
         how many animal crackers will you have if somebody offers you
         five six seven and you say No no no and you say Nay nay nay
         and you say Nix nix nix?
If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she gives you
         two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is better in arithmetic,
         you or your mother?

***

Timmy Broderick, Contributor

Autumn” by T.E. Hulme describes what is surely a cold fall evening – a portent of nights to come. And the image of a “ruddy moon” has stayed with me for nearly a decade. Reading the poem leaves me feeling impossibly warm. I’ve always personified that ruddy moon as the benevolent stranger who stops to help you fix a spare when you’re stranded on the highway.

Autumn

By T.E. Hulme

A touch of cold in the Autumn night–
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

***

Ryan Lenora Brown, Johannesburg bureau chief

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” by Nazim Hikmet is a poem I’ve come back to many times in my life. It’s about recognizing and appreciating the small things around us, and about marveling at being alive. I’ve found this message especially helpful in the past couple of weeks.

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved (excerpt)

By Nazim Hikmet

it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked 
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long
         as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
                   and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
                   and will be said after me

...

Nazim Hikmet, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, from “Poems of Nazim Hikmet.” Copyright © 1994, 2002 by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, Inc (New York), www.perseabooks.com. All rights reserved.

***

Patrik Jonsson, Georgia bureau chief

I come back to “Happiness” by Raymond Carver for comfort because it explains how much of life is feeling beyond words. The image of two boys delivering newspapers in the early morning light is a beautiful one – simple, yet resounding. The line “and they are doing this thing together” caught me when I reread recently.

***

Kendra Nordin Beato, Intern coordinator and staff writer

I spotted “Saint Francis and the Sow” by Galway Kinnell printed on a signed poster at the Boston Book Festival years ago during a difficult time in my life (shortly after my dad had passed away unexpectedly). For some reason it resonated with me so much I bought it, had it framed, and hung it on my bedroom wall, where it’s been ever since. To me, this poem speaks to the hope and gratitude we all hold in our hearts, despite any disappointments, and the kindness we feel when someone appreciates our hard work.

***

Yvonne Zipp, Daily Edition editor

I first read “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry at a particularly tough time in my life. It was like a hush descended. No matter how many times I come back to it, I feel that same sense of quiet abiding and emerge grateful for Berry and his understanding of what lasts.

And “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins is a touchstone in our family. In fact, when I dropped our then-10-year-old son off at summer camp for the first time, it was with one request (besides have a great time): Could he make me a lanyard? He delivered. It was blue and red, and I loved it.

***

Melanie Stetson Freeman, Staff photographer

Teddy Bear” by A.A. Milne, from the 1924 book “When We Were Very Young,” was one of my favorites when I was a child. I even had it memorized at one time. It’s not highbrow, but I love it! The bear in the poem goes on to become very famous as Winnie-the-Pooh. 

***

Amelia Newcomb, Managing editor

I first learned of Wallace Stevens as a high school senior. In “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” I loved the sense Stevens conveys of the journey around seeking and creating meaning. To me, the poem gave power to embracing that journey, and the task of weighing ideas and testing outlooks over time. There’s a quiet confidence, even amid the search, that I found reassuring. And still do.

***

Greg Fitzgerald, Communications manager

Children’s poems have been my favorites because my kids (now in their late 20s) absolutely loved us to read them. Shel Silverstein, who also illustrated his own poems, was the best to read because you could always throw in a tickle in the middle of “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too.” In fact, if you didn’t throw in the tickle somewhere in this poem, you had to read it over again until you did.

***

Whitney Eulich, Latin America editor

In “normal” times, I’m not much of a worrier. But in recent weeks the opportunity to worry about just about everything and everyone has been overwhelming. I came across “I Worried” by Mary Oliver; it has helped settle my heart and reset my outlook repeatedly.

[This poem has not been cleared for web publication, but you can find it in the book “Swan: Poems and Prose Poems,” by Mary Oliver.]

***

Linda Feldmann, Washington bureau chief

I was recently reminded of “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams, a poem that makes me laugh. I find humor to be comforting in times of stress. 

Here’s the backstory: A friend posted a photo on Facebook of the “quarantine biscuits” his tween daughter had made. On top of the plastic-wrap-covered plate of biscuits was a handwritten note that said: “Dad, DO NOT eat all my biscuits! If you do, everyone in this house will shun you!” 

Someone responded to the post with this comment: “My roommates used to leave William Carlos Williams-type poems whenever we had anything worth taking from the fridge in college.” 

“This Is Just To Say” could certainly be the model!

***

April Austin, Deputy Weekly editor and books editor

This Inwardness, This Ice” by Christian Wiman might strike some people as a bit gloomy at first glance, but I find it compelling and mysterious. Sometimes we all feel as if the ice is cracking under our feet. I see it as encouragement to live with bravery, to keep going, to not look back. And especially to not let our perceived flaws stop us. I particularly like reading this poem aloud, because the sounds fit with the wintry mood. I, too, want to “learn a blue beyond belief.” I don’t know what that line means exactly, but it gives me chills every time. 

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