During the September 11th broadcast of “What to Read When the World Has Gone Mad” (on CBC’s Sunday Edition), Michael Enright mentioned Good Poems for Hard Times, a poetry anthology painstakingly put together by Garrison Keillor, consisting of poems previously read on his public radio show “The Writer’s Almanac”, and published in 2004.
It was one of only a couple of books that Enright personally recommended at the episode’s end, and I got the feeling that it was an important book in his life—maybe even a cherished book. It’s the one that I immediately looked up in the Library catalogue. I’ve since spent a couple of weeks reading through it lovingly.
Good Poems for Hard Times is the follow-up to Good Poems, a stouter anthology published two years earlier.
Side by side, these two titles are interesting because they imply that poetry has a value beyond the aesthetic or the intellectual and that it can be approached and read with intention and expectation: that its effect is modulated by context and circumstance.
In the introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times, Keillor writes that:
“Poetry is a necessity as simple as the need to be touched and similarly a need is hard to enunciate. […] The meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader are obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right.”
It didn’t take long for me to find critics and poets who were unsettled by Keillor’s opinions and worse, by some of the poems he chose for his second anthology. And while I read some of these debates with interest, I soon backed away because, well, I’m out of my depth in such company and it isn’t where I want to take you.
With Garrison Keillor’s lovely anthology, we’re well within the parameters of bibliotherapy, and on this point, I’m prepared to duke it out with just about anyone—provided they actually enjoy poetry.
I was caught off guard by the fervour of Keillor’s introduction—which is completely unlike the introduction of Good Poems. There’s an unexpected vehemence and sense of urgency in his description of poetry as a “[…] miracle of incantation in rendering the gravity and grace and beauty of the ordinary world and thereby lending courage to strangers. This is a necessary thing.”
I agree that this is so, but I also think that literary scholar Nick Mount was on to something when, towards the end of the discussion on “What to Read When the World Has Gone Mad”, he explained that:
“In times of genuine trauma, long form writing is not the answer but…poetry is. What we read at funerals, at weddings…what you write when your first girlfriend or boyfriend dumps you.
In a moment of grief, what you need to do is to stop […] stop the world for a moment and try to understand this, and that’s what poetry does, especially if you expand poetry into including popular music […]; whereas a novel is about moving through time.”
I remembered these words because they struck me as true, and reminded me how many times I’ve turned to quotes and poems—usually found online after long searches—to help me sort through events that overwhelmed me in some way.
And what I think Nick Mount was talking about was something more than just stopping—though we can be stopped in our tracks with a sharp Oh! by a poem’s truth and beauty at any time. I think that he was also describing poetry’s specific way of embodying emotional truth.
Garrison Keillor writes in his introduction that:
“ […] rarely in conversation do people speak from the heart and mean what they say. How often in the past week did someone offer you something form the heart? It’s there in poetry. Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn’t matter—poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart.”
I think it’s the reason why so many poems still me.
What types of poems are featured in this second compilation?
What does a poem that gives courage and elevates the ordinary world sound like?
Good Poems for Hard Times features a few hundred poems sorted into thematic sections, like “SUCH AS IT IS MORE OR LESS”, “HERE IT COMES”, or “I FEEL OUR KINSHIP”; titles that were borrowed from a chosen poem.
The ones that I’ve included here— ten in all—are among those that I responded to immediately and which brought me to a stop. Poems whose message immediately reached me.
I hope you enjoy them. I hope they stir you to borrow the book and sift through its pages until you find your own favourites. I hope these bring you courage.
Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of our wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies,
Forgotten debris of forgotten years
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the loneliness of night.
II. IT IS RAINING ON THE HOUSE OF ANNE FRANK
It is raining on the house
of Anne Frank
and the tourists
herded together under the shadow
of their umbrellas,
on the perfectly silent
tourists who would rather be
but who wait here on stairs
so steep they must rise
to some occasion
high in the empty loft,
in the quaint toilet,
in the skeleton
of a kitchen
or on the map—
each of its arrows
a barb of wire—
with all the dates, the expulsions,
the forbidding shapes
And across Amsterdam it is raining
on the Van Gogh Museum
where we will hurry next
to see how someone else
could find the pure
center of light
within the dark circle
of his demons.
III. THE THREE KINGS
Where do we go from here?
We left our country,
Followed a star:
We were questioned.
We reached our objective.
We enjoyed the trip.
Then we came back a different way.
And now the people are demonstrating in the streets.
They did very well in our absence.
Everything was all right without us.
They are out on the streets with placards:
Wise men? What’s wise about them?
There are plenty of Wise Men,
And who needs them? —and so on.
Perhaps they will be better off without us,
But where do we go from here?
IV. THIS IS HOW MEMORY WORKS
You are stepping off a train.
A wet blank night, the smell of cinders.
A gust of steam from the engine swirls
around the hem of your topcoat, around
the hand holding the brown leather valise,
the hand that, a moment ago, slicked back
the hair and then put on the fedora
in front of the mirror with the beveled
edges in the Cherrywood compartment.
The girl standing on the platform
in the Forties dress
has curled her hair, she has
Her shoulders are touchingly military,
squared by those shoulder pads
and a sweet faith in the Allies.
She is waiting for you.
She can be wearing a hat if you like.
You see her first.
That’s part of the beauty:
you get the pure, eager face,
the lyrical dress, the surprise.
You can have the steam,
the crowded depot, the camel’s-hair coat,
real leather and brass clasps on the suitcase;
you can make the lights glow with
strange significance, and the black cars
that pass you are historical yet ordinary.
The girl is yours,
The flowery dress, the walk
to the streetcar, a fried egg sandwich
and a joke about Mussolini.
You can have it all:
You’re in that world, the only way
You’ll ever be there now, hired
for your silent hammer, to nail pictures
to the walls of this mansion
made of thinnest air.
V. “THE PURPOSE OF TIME IS TO PREVENT EVERYTHING FROM HAPPENING AT ONCE”
Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home. Suppose you crash
Your car, your marriage—toddler laying waste
A field of daisies, schoolkid, zit-faced teen
With lover zipping up your pants in haste
Hearing your parents’ tread downstairs—all one.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping.
Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?
VI. DEATH MASK
“Old age is the most unexpected
of all things that happen to a man.”
“Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
In the mirror now,
what I see
I won’t be here forever.
I don’t feel like
That face at all.
Inside it, I protest,
I’m quite different.
It’s somebody’s grandfather,
Whose grandfather is that?
I don’t want him.
Ah, memory, memory…
to be losing
How do you get from here to there—
I mean, from where I am
to the nursing home?
the blink of an eye.
Like my mother said,
as she was being loaded
into the ambulance,
It went so fast.
A lazy buzz
the quick sting.
A long inward breath,
VII. THE DAY THE TREE FELL DOWN
crumbling. It died of old age,
I tell you, like a man. We wept.
We had worn our time upon it, put
our arms around to touch fingertips
and we measured ourselves, our feelings
on the years. We made our calculations
pay, then. Now, the fears, age,
the green. Birds, squirrels, coons
made memory there until the day it fell.
They got out. It groaned twenty minutes.
I tell you, it sighed as it bent,
its branches catching the dull fall,
the soft turning in wet dissolution.
The body lay exposed: a gut of grubs,
a lust of hollowness. We wept,
as I say, more than was called for.
VIII. POEM FOR THE FAMILY
Before I went to sleep, the soft lamplights
From the tenements across the street,
Still, in the night, resembled peace.
There is something I forgot to be grateful
for. But I’m not uneasy. This poem
is enough gratitude for the day. That leaf
music for the night. My love’s even
breathing, a lullaby for me.
Gentle is the sun’s touch
as it brushes the earth’s revolutions.
Fragrant is the moon in February’s
sky. Stars look down & witness,
never judge. The City moves
beneath me, out of sight.
O let this poem be a planet
or a haven. Heaven for a poet
homeward bound. Rest my son’s head
upon sweet dreams & contentment.
Let me turn out the light to rest.
IX. ORDINARY LIFE
This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch’s little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa’s ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken’s diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
into the winter night.
X. JUST NOW
In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks
“If you commit yourself to the art of poetry, you commit yourself to the task of learning how to see, using words as elements of sight and their sounds as prisms.”
—Archibald MacLeish, Academy of American Poets Chancellor (1946–1949)