Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing
your place in the family of things.
——from The Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
There are a large number of poems that could be offered as potentially healing. I’m offering here a handful that I’ve chosen, and written about briefly, because they seem to me to resonate especially well with the process of healing, and because any one of them seems like it could be a springboard—a trampoline?—to one’s own writing.
I. Poems that conjure a healing place
Last Night As I Lay Sleeping by Antonio Machado
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats
Island of the Raped Women by Frances Driscoll
Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda
What I Want by Alicia Ostriker
II. Poems about a quest
The Journey by Mary Oliver
Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich
III. Poems that might offer company during a difficult time
The Guest House by Rumi
A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford
Satellite Call by Sara Bareilles
The Armful by Robert Frost
The Spell by Marie Howe
Talking to Grief by Denise Levertov
Sweetness by Stephen Dunn
My Dead Friends by Marie Howe
III. Poems for looking at the world in new ways
The Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens
Eighteen Ways of Looking at Cancer by a group of women in a writing workshop
Report from a Far Place by William Stafford
who knows if the moon’s a by e.e. cummings
The Snowman by Wallace Stevens
Notes in Bathrobe Pockets by Raymond Carver
A New Path to the Waterfall, a collection by Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
IV. Poems about the process of reading
Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins
V. Poems for considering purpose
Every Craftsman by Rumi.
This is the world I want to live in. Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there. I’m rereading the beginning of this poem now, and I know how it ends—and I realize this is the moment that sets the story of the poem in motion. The...
I’ve been thinking about poems as prayers—or poems that could be prayers—and what that might mean. Prayer for Joy by Stuart Kestenbaum Prayer for the Dead by Stuart Kestenbaum I found these lines from the prologue to a volume of poetry, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, by Marie Howe: the men who’d hijacked the airplane prayed where the dead pilots had been sitting, and the passengers prayed from their seats —so many songs went up and out into the thinning air . . . It’s a...
Kestenbaum’s poem begins: The light snow started late last night and continued all night long while I slept and could hear it occasionally enter my sleep, where I dreamed my brother was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware that he would be leaving again shortly I have had that dream—where I was with someone who is no longer here and inside the dream I knew that it wasn’t going to last. It was so lovely but at the same time the whole dream was shot through...
I love that Kestenbaum’s poem begins with a question: What was it we wanted to say anyhow? There’s so much we could say, and perhaps there’s something ready to emerge—be spoken—but what was it exactly? What word or string of words out of all the ones we’ve learned? There’s so often some external condition to consider—to remind us—something happening in the world—in the case of this poem a bowl of alphabet soup! And the letter J floating up the surface—that letter so often-neglected and thus surprising— Kestenbaum writes: The ‘j’, a letter...
Not long ago I noticed that I was afraid of something—I can’t remember what now—and the words that came into my head—unexpected—as if dropping into my mind—were from Robert Frost’s poem, “Desert Places”: You cannot scare me with your desert places . . . I have it in me so much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places. I misremembered that first line—but still I found the lines oddly comforting—a feeling I haven’t always associated with this poem. Oh. It’s my inner landscape where the terror...
I’ve for a long time been interested in poems and excerpts that can invite writing and I’ve recently come across this poem by Neil Gaiman that seems especially well suited for this. The poem is a set of instructions for “what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale.” It begins: Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before. Say “please” before you open the latch, go through, walk down the path. I like the way the poem begins with such direct instructions—we’re in this...
There’s something about this poem. A haunting kind of repetition. It’s a poem about loss and trying to wrap one’s mind around it—trying to master it. It’s about considering loss as an art—which suggests that somehow the loss can be transformed. Can become something of value? Something beautiful? (And how exactly?) The poem begins with a loss as ordinary as the loss of keys and then begins to expand outward from there—the loss of hours, cities, rivers, an entire continent. It’s a poem, perhaps, best heard because the sound of...
After writing about This is Water by David Foster Wallace a couple weeks ago, I ended up listening to the beginning of a documentary, Endnotes, done by BBC. The opening, in Wallace’s own words, struck me as a kind of poem which I’m including here. These are words that could serve as inspiration for anyone who writes and reads— There’s something magical for me about literature and fiction and I think it can do things not only that pop culture can’t do, but that are urgent now. One...
I appreciate this poem for its first line: Try to love everything that gets in your way. I love that the poem is about swimming laps. Learn to be small and swim through obstacles like a minnow without grudges or memory. I think I recognize the moment this poem might spring from–getting to the pool and wanting nothing more than an empty lane, the smooth glassy surface of the water, and, then, well–obstacles. The poem is so specific about what can get in the way. For instance: the Chinese women in...
A young woman in my sophomore class shared this website with me–and then with the whole class. She told us how the website had helped her during a difficult time–how she was able to check in some difficult baggage and receive some genuine help–and now she tries to go onto the site on the weekends and carry baggage for someone else–pay it forward. First, it’s a visually attractive site–simple and elegant–with few choices. You can “check it”–that is check in a piece of your own emotional baggage by writing...