One of my favorite things about poems is that one always seems to speak to whatever it is you’re going through at the moment. For me, they’re also an opportunity to embrace mindfulness in a world of constant hurry. It’s impossible to read a poem quickly and absorb it fully. You have to take a breath, slow down, and read line by line.
Right now, we’re all going through a very confusing and anxious time, but there’s also a lot of hope in it. Here are three poems that I especially think speak to the moment where in:
The night the world was going to end
when we heard those explosions not far away
and the loudspeakers telling us
about the vast fires on the backwater
consuming undisclosed remnants
and warning us over and over
to stay indoors and make no signals
you stood at the open window
the light of one candle back in the room
we put on high boots to be ready
for wherever we might have to go
and we got out the oysters and sat
at the small table feeding them
to each other first with the fork
then from our mouths to each other
until there were none and we stood up
and started to dance without music
slowly we danced around and around
in circles and after a while we hummed
when the world was about to end
all those years all those nights ago
W. S. Merwin, “In Time” from The Pupil. Copyright © 2001 by W. S. Merwin, available on PoetryFoundation.org
One day, years from now, we’ll look back on these few months the way people look back on wars and other life-changing events. When this first started, none of us knew how many people would be affected. We didn’t know if we would make it through. But Merwin’s poem teaches us to embrace the unknown – dance in it, even. Get out your good silverware. If there isn’t music, make some.
The Iraqi Nights
By Dunya Mikhail
after a thousand and one nights,
someone will talk to someone else.
Markets will open
for regular customers.
Small feet will tickle
the giant feet of the Tigris.
Gulls will spread their wings
and no one will fire at them.
Women will walk the streets
without looking back in fear.
Men will give their real names
without putting their lives at risk.
Children will go to school
and come home again.
Chickens in the villages
won’t peck at human flesh
on the grass.
Disputes will take place
without any explosives.
A cloud will pass over cars
heading to work as usual.
A hand will wave
to someone leaving
The sunrise will be the same
for those who wake
and those never will.
And every moment
under the sun.
Dunya Mikhail, “The Iraqi Nights” from The Iraqi Nights. Copyright © 2013 by Dunya Mikhail, available on PoetryFoundation.org
Mikhail’s poem is an ode to the beauty of ordinary life; only when it’s taken away do we understand how precious it is. In the U.S., we’re not used to a completely disrupted life the way people in other countries, that have seen times of war, may be. Even World War II didn’t make it to American soil except for Pearl Harbor. 9/11 affected the whole country, but life didn’t change much for those outside New York. And so for all of us, we are realizing that our lives, and our country, aren’t as untouchable as they seemed before. But when it’s all over, and we emerge from our homes, we won’t take for granted the birds and the grass and our neighbors and all the things we didn’t have time to stop and notice before.
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798
By William Wordsworth
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
I learned this classic Wordsworth poem many years ago, in high school, but it has taken on new meaning for me now. When most things created by man – stores, restaurants, nail salons, movie theaters, gyms – are closed, nature is really the only thing still open. I find it very hard to slow down and really notice everything. But when I read this poem, it becomes a little bit easier. Imagine Wordsworth sitting “under this dark sycamore” scanning the view, the rolling hills and farms and woods. All these years later, we can also “connect the landscape with the quiet of the sky.”