These Short Poems Have Been Saving Me

Lately I’ve had to call on words for little shots of strength. Some use tequila; I use poems short enough to memorize. Their lines float around in my head, counteracting the insidious words that are less productive, less kind.

Yes, I’m talking about the kind of life & soul rebuilding that comes at the end of one life phase and the start of another. Me, right now — I’m on a ship in new waters. Before, I’d been on a really nice boat. The kind that you’d point at if you were on the shores and say wow, how’d she get so lucky to score a place on that very plush Axelrodian yacht? It had beautiful interiors. But it was not going to any of the islands I wanted to visit; I was locked away in my suite and never could feel the wind flapping around my face. Now I’m in a scrappier sailboat, jumping from island to island. It’s rugged. The wind is temperamental, sending me off course occasionally. My hair has never been crazier, and I’ve never been happier.

By this I mean to say, I’m in the uncharted territory that comes after a break-up. So I’ve been navigating by constellations, and by poems I can call on for spiritual guidance. I don’t always know what they mean; I just know they speak to a part of me that does.

“Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert


Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
^has there ever been a poem that better captures the bittersweet fondness that crusts over the end of a relationship? That you can’t call it failing, really? Just the end of something that might have once been good? “Coming to the end of OUR triumph.” It’s taught me not to beat myself up so much. It wasn’t a failure, really.
“Rain” by Raymond Carver

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

This poem, too, teaches me to be kind to myself. It’s all been wonderful, this life — I’d make every choice again.

“may my heart” by ee cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

And this little poem reminds me not to let my heart freeze over.

What are your favorite short poems?

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey

It’s rare I come across a book that scratches my every itch. From plot to prose, this is a very “me” book. It’s a book about the thrill and nuance of literary translation with the pace of a James Bond movie and the sparkle of magical realism. Yes: Ways to Disappear checks every box.


The premise is simple: Emma, an assistant professor in her 30s, is stuck in a stale relationship in Pittsburgh with one of literature’s most convincingly repugnant boyfriends. Repugnant in the sense that he’s just incredibly dull and self-satisfied; repugnant in the sense that he’s normal. Her life comes alive only when she’s translating the work of Beatriz Yagoda, Brazilian short story writer, whose work is acclaimed but flies under the radar — especially in the United States, where it’s taken on as a charity case by publishers. The Brazilian writer weaves surreal, magical stories that Novey explains in delightful detail.

Well, as tends to happen in novels, something happens to our friendly protagonist that conveniently thrusts her out of her boring Pittsburgh life and into a sweltering, high-stakes environment where anything (including adventure, and love affairs with handsome Brazilian sons of writers) is possible. One day, the author climbs up into a tree and disappears. Her two children are distraught; the last thing they want is their mother’s weird translator flying down to Rio and making things more complicated. And yet, there she is — making things more complicated.

“Desire, Beatriz had written, was what a man will deny himself until he can’t.”

The novel’s narration switches between the disappeared author, her hilariously pretentious editor (graced with the heavy nobility of a literary sensibility), her two children — both incredibly different, and with reason, Emma, and Beatriz herself. All of this leads up to the crescendo revealing where Beatriz went, why she disappeared, and how the characters

Though the story has the fast pace of a romp, at the core is a deep tragedy which shaped the Yagoda family’s lives and Beatriz’s writing. That is just to say, it’s not all light-hearted, and that’s what makes an otherwise outlandish premise convincing — each character’s personality twists from the ashes of tragedy. Plus, it’s treally well written. Novey is a poet, and it shows. Though she comes to the novel with a real sense in plot, she delights in language just as much as her protagonist does.

“Bloody Men” by Wendy Cope, Or: A Poem My Momma & I Love

In honor of Mother’s Day, a few days late.

My mom and I happened to be reading the same book of poetry the other day — a hokey anthology of love poems. Amidst 16th Century sonnets and dreary modern odes to love lost, our thumbs grazed this same poem by Wendy Cope. Later, we showed the other the poem, and exclaimed with glee.

I assume we were both drawn to Cope’s vernacular tone. That she sounds like someone talking to you in a bar, voice gravelled with experience. That she sounds like you might sound in a few years, if you get on the wrong bus. The poem’s both a warning, and a conspiratorial nod. We’ve all been at that bus stop. We’ve all boarded the wrong bus. And even when you think you’ve boarded the right one, you realize there is no right one, there are just buses, and views, and you.

You are the variable. You make the journey and the views as what you will.

So, without further ado: here’s “Bloody Men” by Wendy Cope.

Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destination,
You haven’t much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.


Why Memorizing Poetry is Actually Worth Your Time

My senior year of college I decided I was going to memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I scrawled the verses over and over in class instead of writing notes. I sought refuge in the voice of another mind–one whose was miraculously more neurotic than my own mind was during that crazy year. Now the time when the poem was necessary has subsided but the poem remains. I was walking in twilight Manhattan the other day, and it shot into my head: “Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table.”


my instagram post about Eliot, who I’m sure would have utterly reviled instagram were he around for it. and prufrock would not have had the nerve to follow anyone though surely he’d check out the ladies’ twitter pages a few times a day from his own anonymous account, where no one could see his thin legs

Yes, it’s good in the end to have things that’ll rattle through your mind that are more than just crappy pop song lyrics on the radio. (Although, diverging from point of post: I’m obsessed with that new Bastille song “Good Grief,” and I’ve been letting it roam around my head to an irritating degree lately).

It’s good, in the end, to read a poem so obsessively that you just, well, memorize it. I’m not at the point where I can whip out entire poems from the inside of my mouth flawlessly, like some Ivy League magic trick. But I can conjure up some convincing lines, and certainly have enough in my head to write in metallic sharpie on the little notebooks I carry around in my bag like I did the other day.

Why memorizing poetry’s actually worth your time.

  1. You’ll be reading poetry. There’s a misconception that poetry is stodgy, boring, and appropriate only for analyzing on standardized tests. This is false. Poetry is language at its best. With the fewest amount of words, a good poem can take you on the same emotional trip as a novel. Imagine that! I think people are scarred over by scarred over English teachers and ban poetry from their lives. This is a total shame, because you’re closing yourself off from all the somersaults language can do.
  2. People are impressed when you can quote poetry. Or Shakespeare. Or anything relevant, really. Is there anything cooler than having the appropriate line of literature for a situation? Don’t answer that question, it was meant to be rhetorical. I’m sure you can come up with things that you find cooler, but to me, there’s nothing sexier than effortlessly rolling out a line of verse. For example, when I became officially unemployed in September, I had a variation of Richard II’s opening line: “Now is the fall of our unemployment…” and it cracked me up for enough time to distract myself that I am unemployed. I also sometimes quote a particular love poem when I am in the particular mood, which is, at the very least, endearing in an earnest, 18th-century kind of way.
  3.  It’s a delightful mental exercise. The time for good old mental acrobats just for self betterment is marginalized. People go for runs, they do sudokus, they get facials all in the name of taking care of themselves. How about taking care of the soul?
  4. Finally, just having lines swimming around in your head can be a source of comfort, especially when they come up for air at just the right moment. I was on the train the other day, a day so beautiful that the sunshine was making it hard for me to read but I didn’t mind. I was excited for my destination (“joy is the ancitipation of joy”–rabih alameddine in his book an unnecessary woman) and a few lines of an Edward Hirsch poem came into my head. “My head is skylight / my heart is dawn” And that is what my head and heart were at the moment. He said it for me, better than I ever could’ve. For once I wasn’t struggling to put into words the world as I saw it, and felt it.

Okay, so those are the reasons that I read poetry to the point of memorization. I’m not deliberate about it–it just sort of happens.

If you’re going to start with a poem, I recommend Mary Oliver, because her poems are like iced tea at the end of a day spent at a lake in summer. You’re on an Adirondack chair. Someone’s just gotten up from the chair next to you, and it rocks gently. Someone’s cooking dinner, and you know you’ll eat outside, citronella candles ablaze illuminating bottles of wine and lots of food. Elsewhere you hear children laughing and your friends talking to each other. You have a book open on your lap but you’re not reading it. You’re drinking iced tea and watching nature flicker and move in the last moments of sunlight, when the light is at its most palatable. That is Mary Oliver.

So start with Mary O, and see where it goes.

“The Ships” by C.P. Cavafy

I just began an internship at a literary agency, so I spend my days reading manuscripts for books that will probably never be published. Though the writing is sometimes crumbly and depressing, and though the plots are sometimes flimsy and ridiculous, I feel privileged; here I am, reading something that came out of someone’s mind. Reading an idea that someone has fallen in love with, and has taken time to nurture into actualization. How many ideas do I have a day that I let fly into the great wide Multiverse of ideas, for someone else to take? I like stuffing my head full of stories, even if I’m one of the few people who will be able to find out what happens next.

The experience of reading all these stories reminds me of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy’s prose poem “The Ships.” He makes material the marketplace of ideas. In this extended metaphor, Cavafy writes about the process of writing and how difficult it is to pin down nebulous thoughts into concrete words. The journey from mind to page is “a difficult crossing” and much will get lost, or mistranslated, along the way. I love this poem especially for the part that he talks about in the end–the beautiful ships that sail far off, carrying the most exquisite of ideas. They’ll never be yours, but maybe, a whiff of their wonder will burrow itself into your work. And it’ll be enough.

“The Ships” by C.P. Cavafy

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Dimitri Gondicas

From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

Vladimir_Kush-Haven     The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.
Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.
And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.
Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.
Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.
Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.

“Just Walking Around” by John Ashbery

This one got me where the best poems get you. The first line reminded me of a Neruda poem I used to read in high school when I was feeling my most despairingly romantic. Ashbery’s rendered same awe for the individual in a metaphor of journeying towards another person, a person who is so much more than a name.

And isn’t that what all relationships are? A journey towards knowing another person, even if, realistically, you can never wholly know another person (unless they’re in a Virginia Woolf book)? Anyway, maybe he’s talking about knowing himself, or another, or whomever. Either way, this poem read like a stroll towards somewhere sweet and mysterious, a place and a not-place, a name and a not-name. A person?

Just Walking Around

What name do I have for you?
Certainly there is not name for you
In the sense that the stars have names
That somehow fit them. Just walking around,

An object of curiosity to some,
But you are too preoccupied
By the secret smudge in the back of your soul
To say much and wander around,

Smiling to yourself and others.
It gets to be kind of lonely
But at the same time off-putting.
Counterproductive, as you realize once again

That the longest way is the most efficient way,
The one that looped among islands, and
You always seemed to be traveling in a circle.
And now that the end is near

The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there and mystery and food.
Come see it.
Come not for me but it.
But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other.





“From Blossoms” by Li-Young Li

I’ve read this poem a million times but I’ll never enjoy it as much as the first time I heard it. I was sitting around a bonfire on the beach in Thasos, Greece, and my friend recited it from memory. It reverberated amongst us all, creating some real unity. Because this poem said it–it said how we felt. “There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background,” like that day, like all those days we spent together in Greece.

This is just a beautiful poem and I want to share it with the world!

From Blossoms

by Li-Young Li

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Mary Oliver: A Wild and Precious Poet


the quote in question

People usually know Mary Oliver’s famous quote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life” before they become acquainted with her poetry, or even the poem that it’s from. The quote is plastered on journals, tote bags, and probably tattooed on ribcages around the country. Oliver takes her pen off the page and looks straight at the reader when she asks that question. And really, what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? Has there ever been a more serious and more urgent question?


The Pulitzer Prize winner herself

While I came to Oliver’s poetry through that quote, my love for her extends far beyond her sound-bites. She is a poet enamored with wonder and seeing the potential in every day.

In her imagistic poems, Oliver clearly uses nature as her canvas. Her poems usually describe an incident in nature–on object of study–and then end with a whammo-beautiful proclamation on life, the universe, and everything. She’s so good at crafting earnest words that the larger proclamations don’t seem contrived. In the poem Wild Geese, Oliver uses a squawking flight of geese to connect us all to the “everything” that surrounds us.

Or, sometimes, she describes nature just to relish in it. Take her poem August. Reading it is like taking a bite out of a succulent August day, the taste of which unexpectedly returns to you when you read the poem in December.

She also doesn’t underestimate the importance of the human body, or the vessel through which we experience the natural world. We can become one with the world through our body–and it’s not always about souls, goodness, our immortal spirits. Not that there’s anything wrong with John Donne but it’s nice to have a woman poet say yes, your body, it’s good, too.

The poem I’ve been thinking about a lot is “When Death Comes” because yes, it’s quotable, but also because it’s immensely brave.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

Maybe this is the most Oliver of them all. Using nature as a way to appreciate life, and finding wonder through natural surroundings. That’s the point of keeping your eyes wide open, of thrusting yourself into new experiences, of traveling. It’s a matter of staving away complacency. It’s a matter of being married to amazement, as she says. Oliver thinks that we become part of the world through finding connections with our surroundings, but for me, that idea can be extended beyond nature to connections with other human beings.

Another thing I particularly admire about Mary Oliver is that her poems are, well, palatable. They’re accessible on the first read, and just keep getting better. They’re the kinds of poems you’d want to send to your friend who doesn’t read poetry but needs to be lifted up, or the poems you’d send to your friend who does like poetry and wants a break from deciphering Auden. What I mean to say is that she is an utter delight–and that’s okay. Poetry doesn’t have to be an exercise in clenching your brain muscles and eking out meaning.