GOOD POEMS FOR HARD TIMES

 

img_4182During 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.

vicissitudes-005-jason-decaires-taylor-sculpture.jpg
vicissitudes-005-jason-decaires-taylor-sculpture.jpg

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.

Illustration by Jon Han
Illustration by Jon Han

 

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?

 

7f67c3ae92d74663b54868d530f2d98e

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.

 

I. NOTHING IS LOST

Noël Coward

 

Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told

Lie all our memories, lie all the notes

Of all the music we have ever heard    memory_opener

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,

The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears maxresdefault

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.

Noël Coward
Noël Coward

II. IT IS RAINING ON THE HOUSE OF ANNE FRANK

Linda Pastan

 

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

Anne Frank Hause
Anne Frank House

somewhere else

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

of continents.

And across Amsterdam it is raining

Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh Museum

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

Muriel Spark

 

Where do we go from here?

Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark

We left our country,

Bore gifts,

Followed a star:

We were questioned.

We answered.

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 say they don’t need the Kings any more.   journey-of-the-magi-by-james-jacques-joseph-tissot-1836-1902

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

Patricia Hampl

 

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

nylon stockings—no, silk stockings still.  250px-briefencounter-trainwindow

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

Patricia Hampl
Patricia Hampl

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”

X.J. Kennedy

 

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.

 

Einstein was right. That would be too intense. 67974068-368-k710735

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

Edward Field

 

“Old age is the most unexpected

of all things that happen to a man.”

—Leon Trotsky

 

 

“Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,  

by George Gammon Adams, plaster cast of death-mask, 1852
by George Gammon Adams, plaster cast of death-mask, 1852

Their fear…”

—T.S. Eliot 

1

 

In the mirror now,

what I see

reminds me

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,

not me.

Whose grandfather is that?

I don’t want him.

 

2

 

Ah, memory, memory…

terrible,

to be losing

the words.

 

3

 

How do you get from here to there—

I mean, from where I am

to the nursing home?

In a snap of the fingers,  mte1oda0otcxndcxnzaxnte3

the blink of an eye.

 

Like my mother said,

as she was being loaded

into the ambulance,

It went so fast.

 

4

 

Life

A lazy buzz

Then

the quick sting.

A long inward breath,

then

the sudden

exhaling.

 

 

screen-shot-2014-09-25-at-12-22-09-pm
Poet Jack LaZebnick

VII. THE DAY THE TREE FELL DOWN

Jack LaZebnick                                      

 

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,

daily mathematics. The tree held    tree-5

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  

Susan Cataldo

 

 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

tapping against the window, enough      tree-at-my-window-838x1024

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    

Barbara Crooker

 

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,

one of those jobs that never gets done,  ginger-tea

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,

but this has been a day of grace   waxing-new-moon

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,

order themselves

into the winter night.

 

X. JUST NOW

W.S. Merwin

 

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

believe

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

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor


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)

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