Poet and novelist
Poetry refreshes the parts that other words cannot reach and, like the little bird of Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, contains the strength to sustain us even in the “chillest land / And on the strangest sea”. But a poem doesn’t have to be explicitly inspirational to do that. Frank O’Hara’s Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!] hoicks us up off the floor with its sheer exuberance and breathlessness: we have no choice but to be swept along. And what could be more helpful than a poem that pokes fun at how ridiculous we all are, as presented in UA Fanthorpe’s wickedly funny triptych Not My Best Side, giving voice to the characters in Paolo Uccello’s painting Saint George and the Dragon. Of course, laughter can provide the biggest pick-me-up of all, and there are few poets funnier than Billy Collins. In Aimless Love, through celebrating a wren, a dead mouse and a bar of soap, he helps us fall back in love with life. Finally, in terms of a strategy for coping with all that the world throws at us, who can better that offered by Roger McGough in his short poem Survivor?
Poet and editor
6) “The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings”, Donika Kelly
7) Brand New Lover, Amy Key
8) Against Complaint, Roddy Lumsden
9) Caveat, Fiona Benson
10) From Blossoms, Li-Young Lee
I’m particularly moved by poets who sing from the rooftops, as in Donika Kelly’s wonderful poem – a tender though not sentimental pick-me-up for when you are so enamoured of someone that you find yourself playing slow jams in the early hours of the morning. The immediacy of desire also suffuses Amy Key’s Brand New Lover, with its woozy soft focus and tense interplay of disclosure and guardedness. When I find myself whingeing, the best medicine is Roddy Lumsden’s Against Complaint, which affirms that most stoic of maxims, “It could be worse”. There is, in so many things, a small crack through which hope can enter. Which brings to mind Fiona Benson’s gorgeous little poem Caveat (published below), which, read in the midst of tribulations, will surely gladden the heart like an empathetic hand on the shoulder. And when I need to remember happier times I look to From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee, a poem which swells with hard-won joy like a peach ripening on the branch.
Editor of the anthology Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling
11) How to Triumph Like a Girl, Ada Limon
12) To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall, Kim Addonizio
13) Goodtime Jesus, James Tate
14) People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef, Heather Christle
15) Poem in Which I Practise Happiness, Joe Dunthorne
What I like in a poem is jokes, and what I hate is a poem that takes itself too seriously. I love being spoken to directly by the poet, and I love a poem that makes me feel we’re getting to the secret heart of everything: in these five, that’s reached through rain on a window, “lady horses”, good money for a bad haircut and using a guinea pig as a telephone. Also, Jesus having a cup of coffee. I love a poem that knows happiness is tough, even if you “make it look easy”, like Ada Limon in How to Triumph Like a Girl (published below). I love Kim Addonizio for knowing that “joy is coming” (To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall, a real banger of a title). I love James Tate’s Goodtime Jesus for its perfect punchline: “Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody”. And I love Heather Christle’s People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef, especially for her unabashed use of the exclamation mark. I love poems about connection. I love poems about people. I love poems about stuff. In the words of Joe Dunthorne’s Poem in Which I Practise Happiness, “I love the piano./ I love true crime./ I love the sun/ when it arrives/ like a tray/ of drinks.”
Former poet laureate
The idea that poems might be an easy means of cheering ourselves up is enough to make anyone feel depressed, especially if the poems themselves are determined to be cheerful. Remember Hardy: “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst”. That might overstate the case a little, but he’s right about the relationship between (relative) optimism and realism. For this reason, four of my choices are poems that admit – with varying degrees of candour – what problems need to be overcome, in order for their speakers to find equilibrium of some kind. Boredom and isolation in the case of Alexander Pope’s affectionate Epistle to Miss Blount; grief in William Cowper’s apparently small-scale (but in fact expansive) Epitaph on a Hare; homesickness and the difficulties of home-making in Grace Nichols’s Hurricane Hits England; and racist hostility in Jackie Kay’s In My Country. In my fifth choice, Seamus Heaney’s Postscript (published below), an affirming flame is allowed to blaze more defiantly, but it’s still battered and blustered by the winds of the world.
Winner of the 2021 Costa book of the year for her collection The Kids
The poems that lift my spirits are those that find beauty in the domestic and everyday. Donny O’Rourke’s Great Western Road describes a Saturday well spent, a list of jubilant images that builds to a declaration: “God Glasgow it’s glorious / just to gulp you down in heartfuls”. Philip Levine’s Belle Isle, 1949 finds wonder in a teenage night swim in the Detroit River, “to baptise ourselves in the brine / of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles”. James Berry’s Beginning in a City, 1948 mixes public history with personal remembrance, telling of how the newly arrived Jamaican migrant survives his first night in England, ending with a headstrong optimism: “So I had begun. Begun in London.” Marie Howe’s beautiful elegy for her brother What the Living Do lifts my spirits by emphasising how the small things make a life and should be cherished, as does Sharon Olds’s Looking at Them Asleep. I love the surprise and precision of Olds’s use of metaphor to describe her children sleeping: “oh the son he is sideways in his bed / one knee up as if he is climbing / sharp stairs up into the night”.
Poet and editor
I’ve spent time recently searching for release from my own anxiety and co-editing an anthology, 100 Queer Poems. The twin missions of trying to reorient my mind and immerse myself in piles of poetry reminded me of the solace a good stanza or line might bring. Think of that great ending to Elizabeth Bishop’s Filling Station, “somebody loves us all”; it often comes back to me when I feel isolated or alone. The journey towards better loving ourselves is perhaps more important (and yes, I know RuPaul said that better). Ocean Vuong’s Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong (published below), with its invocation “Ocean, don’t be afraid”, is a poem I often return to, as is Langston Hughes’ wonderful Final Curve. Mina Loy’s “There is no life or death” says it’s OK to sit in the flux of things; it rejects absolutes, and its rhymes and syllables pull us forward into possibility. Ultimately, my mood is boosted by just being at home with my boyfriend and our dog; that reminds me of a Mark Strand poem that hugs you with the warmth of a shared duvet, Provisional Eternity. It’s the simplicity of “this”, “this never wanting it to end”; it reaches beyond sex, beyond lust, into a state of comfort and ease between two people. I used to have it pinned above my desk, but now it’s just on the noticeboard of my mind.
Poetry is deeply personal. You might struggle to explain to yourself, let alone to others, why you feel emotional when you read a certain poem; how it remains with you afterwards, like a childhood memory lodged in your heart. Poems can take you within, making you aware of parts of yourself you have neglected; and they can also lift you up and carry you near and far, connecting you with people and experiences beyond borders. When I was younger, for a long time I assumed that being an immigrant, I could not fully understand or enjoy English verse; there would always be something I would miss out – a broken piece, an invisible shard. That I came to adore reading poems in a language other than my mother tongue, I owe to many wonderful poets who challenged my fears and encouraged me to dive in. Today I see poets as a tribe of their own, impossible to narrow down to national boxes. Like Walt Whitman, they contain multitudes. First, I would love to recommend All Rivers at Once by the wonderful Rumi, whose voice is needed in today’s polarised world more than ever before. This poem for me is primarily about connectivity and compassion. I am a big fan of CP Cavafy, and I read his work time and again - especially Ithaka. Lemn Sissay’s voice is a balm for our troubled times; Remember How We Forgot is incredibly moving. Pádraig Ó Tuama’s [the] north[ern] [of] ireland contains so much pain, memory and resilience, it will deeply resonate with readers across the world. And then there is the inimitable Jackie Kay: I love the courage and wisdom in her Old Tongue.
Poet and critic
“A fine distraction” tends to be what I want from a poem to cheer me up. My first stop is always Robert Herrick, and especially Delight in Disorder. I never fail to be charmed by the beguiling twinkle that runs through it. Also beguiling is the way Holly Singlehurst’s Hiroshima, 1961 frames the joy of playing with your shadow and being bathed by sunlight. John McCullough’s Soulcraft ruminates on light too, a “private neon”, crucial for lifting him when “a flock of days descends / and my soul flickers, goes to ground”. The poem rises from here, reminding us that something as simple as rain can revive our spirits again. And if not the weather, how about a piece of fruit? Wendy Cope’s delight in the mundane is always a tonic. The Orange (published below) is an exquisite example of this: who doesn’t love those rare days that are “quite easy / I did all the jobs on my list”? For me, though, the best mood boost is witnessing an underdog hero overcome formidable odds to triumph in nail-biting circumstances. So I hope Nael’s The Tiger, written when he was just six, has you punching the air in joy the way I do every time I read it.
41) Recreation, Audre Lorde
42) Ode to My Husband, Who Brings the Music, Zeina Hashem Beck
43) An Attempt at Jealousy, Marina Tsvetaeva
44) I Will Greet the Sun Again, Forough Farrokhzad
45) Fucking in Cornwall, Ella Frears
Partly because I’ve recently spent time as a caregiver, and partly because legislation around the autonomy of women’s bodies continues to be so depressing, I looked for poems of the body, poems of desire, that could inject what Audre Lorde called the “lifeforce” into me. Let’s begin with Lorde’s Recreation, which believes a body can be made into a poem. I wanted to collect female voices and create a web of ancestry between them – so, the tenderness of Zeina Hashem Beck’s Ode to My Husband, Who Brings the Music contrasts with the bristle of Marina Tsvetaeva’s An Attempt at Jealousy. Then there’s the perseverance of Forough Farrokhzad, who brings us to the “love-filled threshold” in I Will Greet the Sun Again, and the sheer sexiness of Ella Frears’s Fucking in Cornwall - “Do you remember what it felt like to dig a hole all day/ with a tiny spade just to watch it fill with sea?/ I want it like that.”
Mary Jean Chan
Winner of the 2019 Costa poetry prize for Fleche
Five poems come to mind that might offer solace during these troubled times. The first is Emily Berry’s Canopy, which she describes as an “anti-Rock-a-bye baby”: it’s about survival and connection, and I return to it over and over. I had the pleasure of rereading Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo’s work as a judge for this year’s Jhalak Prize. In their latest collection Like a Tree, Walking, If There Is an Afterwards stood out to me as a shimmering poem about loss and silence. My third poem is Poplar Street, by the American poet Chen Chen. It concludes his debut collection, and is one of the most hopeful poems I have ever read about self-acceptance, love and forgiveness. The final two poems I have found particularly moving in the wake of the pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and When the War is Over by WS Merwin. Both are about what it means to live, which is a question always worth asking.
Five poems for an instant lift
by Wendy Cope
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange –
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave –
They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
• From Serious Concerns (Faber) © Wendy Cope.
by Seamus Heaney
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
• From The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney (Faber) © Seamus Heaney.
by Fiona Benson
But consider the cactus:
its thick hide
and parched aspect
still harbour a moist heart;
nick its rind, and sap
wells up like sugared milk
from the store of water
held beneath its spines,
its armoury of barbs.
And, once a lifetime,
when the slant rains fall
there is this halo of flowers.
• From Bright Travellers (Cape) © Fiona Benson 2014.
How to Triumph Like a Girl
by Ada Limón
I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it’s going to come in first.
• From Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions) © Ada Limón.
Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong
by Ocean Vuong
Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red trip wire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty out of.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer
& failing. Ocean. Ocean —
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake —
& mistake these walls
• From Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Jonathan Cape) © Ocean Vuong.