Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
Poetry is not only dream and vision;
it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.
It lays the foundations for a future of change,
a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
– Audre Lorde
A poetry doctor in Northern Ireland recites poems to cure ails. Who couldn’t use some light and love?
The self-proclaimed Poetry Pharmacist meets with audiences to exchange their depression and anxiety for words of love and inspiration. The live sessions are the brainchild of philanthropist and author William Sieghart, who declared: “There is a poem for everything, people tell me they’re lonely, they’re anxious, they can’t sleep, they have family problems, and I try to relate poems to these problems.”
“I’m like a pharmacist, you come to me and tell me your troubles and I’ll try to find a poem that is going to work for you,” Sieghart told BBC News NI.
Poetry Pharmacy sessions have been taking place in Belfast as part of Book Week NI. Book Week Northern Ireland is a joint initiative between BBC NI and Libraries NI which takes place between 18 and 24 October.
Since I am a self-proclaimed advocate for all things poetical, I also believe that good poems have already been or will be written about everything, including all the emotions capable of uplifting – or bringing down – the human spirit.
Nelson Mandela often cited Invictus as a poem which inspired him to persevere. Since I learned it by heart to recite as a schoolchild, it has come to my mind as well during trying times.
by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
This poem is in the public domain.
William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), British poet, writer, critic, and editor in late Victorian England. He was the oldest of six children, and his life was beset with problems, beginning in 1861 with tuberculosis of the bone, causing a series of extremely painful abscesses, which led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee in 1868, the same year that his father died. His schooling and early career as a journalist were hampered by long stays in hospital because his right foot had become diseased. He refused to have it amputated in spite of warnings that he was risking his life, and instead sought treatment by the renowned surgeon and scientist Joseph Lister in 1873. He spent the next three years in hospital, where he wrote poems which were published as his first collection, In Hospital, which included Invictus. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of his frequent visitors during this ordeal, and became a close friend. Stevenson later confessed in a letter to Henley about his Treasure Island character: “It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.” Henley married in 1878, and he and his wife Anna had a daughter named Margaret, but she was a sickly child, and died at the age of five. Henley was devastated, but kept working. In 1902, he fell from a railway carriage, and the accident caused his latent tuberculosis to flare up. In July, 1903, he died at the age of 53. After his death, an American woman who knew him wrote in a piece for a Boston newspaper, “There was in him something more than the patient resignation of the religious sufferer, who had bowed himself to the uses of adversity. Deep in his nature lay an inner well of cheerfulness, and a spontaneous joy of living, that nothing could drain dry, though it dwindled sadly after the crowning affliction of his little daughter’s death.”
Maya Angelou also wrote a poem which has become an anthem to overcoming whatever life throws at you – Still I Rise.
Still I Rise
by Maya Angelou
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
“Still I Rise” from And Still I Rise, © 1978 by Maya Angelou – Random House, Inc.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis Missouri. She was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. When she was three years old, her parents split up, and she and her four-year-old brother were sent alone by train to live with their paternal grandmother, who fortunately was a savvy woman who owned a general store, so this was a period of financial and emotional stability for the children. But four years later, their father came and took them back to their mother. Maya was only eight years old when she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother, who told the rest of the family. The man was arrested and found guilty, but only served one day in jail. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou’s uncles. She and her brother were sent back to her grandmother, but she was mute for almost five years because she believed it was her voice that had killed him, by telling his name, and she was afraid to speak because her voice could kill. It was during this period of self-imposed silence that Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her. A teacher finally broke through her silence by challenging her: “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.” At 14, she was shuttled back to her mother, who had moved to Oakland, California. At 16, she became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco (in 2014, Angelou received a lifetime achievement award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials as part of a “Women Who Move the Nation” program). At 17, she gave birth to her son. She was briefly married to a Greek electrician, and modified his last name to Angelou to create her professional name, Maya Angelou. She earned her living as a dancer and singer until the 1960s, when she became involved with the Civil Rights movement, and began concentrating on her writing. She went on to publish three books of essays, several books of poetry, and also wrote plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. However, her best-known work remains the first of her seven memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She is also noted for “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem she recited at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. Angelou was honored in 2011 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died at age 86 in 2014.
Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers (#314) is also very famous, and has helped many people to keep going.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)
by Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
“‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960 edition) – Little, Brown, and Company
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) American’s best-known woman poet and one of the nation’s greatest and most original authors, lived the life of a recluse in Amherst Massachusetts. She wrote nearly 1800 poems, ignoring the traditional poetic forms prevailing among most of the other poets of her day. The extent of her work wasn’t known until after her death, when her younger sister Lavinia discovered her cache of poems.
Langston Hughes wrote many poems which have inspired generations. This brief poem reminds us not to give up our aspirations.
by Langston Hughes
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
“Dreams” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes – Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) became an American poet, novelist, short story writer, non-fiction writer, and playwright. He was a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance in New York. His parents divorced when he was very young, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was 13, then after her death, he lived with family friends, and finally went to live with his mother and her second husband. At first, they were in Lincoln, Illinois, where he began writing poetry, and then they moved to Cleveland, Ohio. After Hughes graduated from high school, he spent a year in Mexico, briefly spending time with his father, who wanted him to be an engineer, before going to Columbia University in New York City in 1921. He earned money working as an assistant cook, a busboy, and a launderer. He quit school, and in 1923 worked his way as a seaman, travelling to West Africa, and to Paris and London. He returned in 1924, to live in Washington, D. C., where he met and impressed the poet Vachel Lindsay, who was popular for his dramatic readings of his own work, and included three Hughes poems at his next reading, rather pompously declaring he had “discovered an American Negro genius.” Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature. Hughes lived most of the rest of his life in Harlem. In the 1930s, he was drawn to Communism, seeing it as an alternative to segregation, but he never joined the Communist Party. But he did visit the Soviet Union in 1932, and this would cause him trouble in the 1950s, when he was called before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Though most of the honors and awards he received during his life were either for his novels or for his body of work, he is best remembered now for his poetry. He published 17 collections of his poems during his life, and his Collected Poems were published posthumously.
Sometimes just knowing that you are not alone in your suffering can help. Dana Gioia’s poem Insomnia will probably sound very familiar to you if, like me, you are often sleepless in the wee small hours.
by Dana Gioia
Now you hear what the house has to say.
Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
and voices mounting in an endless drone
of small complaints like the sounds of a family
that year by year you’ve learned how to ignore.
But now you must listen to the things you own,
all that you’ve worked for these past years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.
How many voices have escaped you until now,
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,
the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.
“Insomnia” from Daily Horoscope, © 1986 by Dana Gioia – Graywolf Press
Dana Gioia (1950 – ) American poet, literary critic, and essayist, with an MBA from Stanford Business School, who was a Vice President at General Foods where he marketed Kool-Aid, but quit his executive job at age 42 to pursue a full-time career as a poet and writer. He served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003-2009) and has been California’s Poet Laureate since 2015.
But enough of suffering. Here are some poems to prove that good poetry can be written about anything and everything.
This poem by Christopher Morely will probably make you nostalgic – and hungry!
by Christopher Morely
Animal crackers and cocoa to drink,
That is the finest of suppers I think;
When I’m grown up and can have what I please
I think I shall always insist upon these.
What do YOU choose when you’re offered a treat?
When Mother says, “What would you like best to eat?”
Is it waffles and syrup, or cinnamon toast?
It’s cocoa and animals that I love most!
The kitchen’s the cosiest place that I know;
The kettle is singing, the stove is aglow,
And there in the twilight, how jolly to see
The cocoa and animals waiting for me.
Daddy and Mother dine later in state,
With Mary to cook for them, Susan to wait;
But they don’t have nearly as much fun as I
Who eat in the kitchen with Nurse standing by;
And Daddy once said, he would like to be me
Having cocoa and animals once more for tea.
“Animal Crackers” from Poems by Christopher Morley – Kessinger Publishing 2004 edition
Christopher Morely (1890-1957) prolific American journalist, novelist, poet, and essayist. He also produced stage productions and gave college lectures. Known for his novels, Kitty Foyle, Parnassus on Wheels, and The Haunted Bookshop, as well as his poetry collections The Old Mandarin, and On Vimy Ridge, and his essay collection, Off the Deep End. He suffered a series of strokes in 1951, and died at age 66 in 1957.
If you appreciate good tools, here’s David Bonta’s Ode to a Claw Hammer.
Ode to a Claw Hammer
by Dave Bonta
Back when all angels were male,
the hammer was the first
Mounted on a pegboard,
it still looks almost aerodynamic,
This is no claw, but a pair of legs
strong enough between them
to give birth to nails.
Or rails that forgot to run parallel,
converging on a vanishing point
that’s much too close:
the train’s stuck in station
& the hammer keeps trying to hop
on its one flat foot.
“Ode to a Claw Hammer” from Ode to Tools, © 2010 by Dave Bonta – Phoenicia Publishing
Dave Bonta, self-described ‘digital poet’ says he often suffers from imposter syndrome, but not in a bad way — more like some kind of flower-breathing dragon, pot-bellied and igneous. He is the author of Mountain: An Elegy; Breakdown: Banjo Poems; Words on the Street: An Inaction Comic; and Odes to Tools. Bonta is also the editor and publisher of Moving Poems, a webzine showcasing poetry videos.
This poem by Maggie Dietz offers comfort to Pluto after the planet’s demotion to a “dwarf planet.”
by Maggie Dietz
Don’t feel small. We all have
been demoted. Go on being
moon or rock or orb, buoyant
and distant, smallest craft ball
at Vanevenhoven’s Hardware
spray-painted purple or day-glow
orange for a child’s elliptical vision
of fish line, cardboard and foam.
No spacecraft has touched you,
no flesh met the luster of your
heavenly body. Little cold one, blow
your horn. No matter what you are
planet, and something other than
planet, ancient but not “classical,”
the controversy over what to call you
light-hours from your ears. On Earth
we tend to nurture the diminutive,
root for the diminished. None
of your neighbors knows your name.
Nothing has changed. If Charon’s
not your moon, who cares? She
remains unmoved, your companion.
“Pluto” from That Kind of Happy, by Maggie Dietz – © 2016 by University of Chicago Press
Maggie Dietz was born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She is a poet and editor. In 1999, she won the Grolier Poetry Prize, and her poetry collection, Perennial Fall, won the 2007 Jane Kenyon Award. She was assistant poetry editor for Slate magazine (2004-2012), and she also served as director of the Favorite Poem Project, started by Robert Pinsky during his terms as U.S. Poet Laureate (1997-2000).
If Animal Crackers didn’t make you hungry, I bet Potato Soup, by Daniel Nyikos, will!
by Daniel Nyikos
I set up my computer and webcam in the kitchen
so I can ask my mother’s and aunt’s advice
as I cook soup for the first time alone.
My mother is in Utah. My aunt is in Hungary.
I show the onions to my mother with the webcam.
“Cut them smaller,” she advises.
“You only need a taste.”
I chop potatoes as the onions fry in my pan.
When I say I have no paprika to add to the broth,
they argue whether it can be called potato soup.
My mother says it will be white potato soup,
my aunt says potato soup must be red.
When I add sliced peppers, I ask many times
if I should put the water in now,
but they both say to wait until I add the potatoes.
I add Polish sausage because I can’t find Hungarian,
and I cook it so long the potatoes fall apart.
“You’ve made stew,” my mother says
when I hold up the whole pot to the camera.
They laugh and say I must get married soon.
I turn off the computer and eat alone.
“Potato Soup” © 2010 by Daniel Nyikos
Daniel Nyikos was born in Germany into a U.S. military family. His mother is Hungarian and his father is an American of Hungarian descent. The family moved a lot during his early school years, mostly in America and the Netherlands. His poetry has been featured in Ted Kooser’s syndicated newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.”
Judith Viorst always makes me smile – I hope her poem Happiness (Reconsidered) will do the same for you.
by Judith Viorst
Is a clean bill of health from the doctor,
And the kids shouldn’t move back home for
more than a year,
And not being audited, overdrawn, in Wilkes-Barre,
in a lawsuit or in traction.
Is falling asleep without Valium,
And having two breasts to put in my brassiere,
And not (yet) needing to get my blood pressure lowered,
my eyelids raised or a second opinion.
And on Saturday nights
When my husband and I have rented
Something with Fred Astaire for the VCR,
And we’re sitting around in our robes discussing,
The state of the world, back exercises, our Keoghs,
And whether to fix the transmission or buy a new car,
And we’re eating a pint of rum-raisin ice cream
on the grounds that
Tomorrow we’re starting a diet of fish, fruit and grain,
And my dad’s in Miami dating a very nice widow,
And no one we love is in serious trouble or pain,
And our bringing-up-baby days are far behind us,
But our senior-citizen days have not begun,
It’s not what I called happiness
When I was twenty-one,
But it’s turning out to be
What happiness is.
“Happiness (Reconsidered)” from Judith Viorst: poems, © 2012 by Judith Viorst – Simon & Schuster
Judith Viorst (1931 – ) is the author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which has sold some four million copies; the Lulu books, and Necessary Losses. Her most recent books of poetry include What Are You Glad About? What Are You Mad About? and Nearing Ninety.
And finally, for we who are experiencing those dreaded ‘Senior Moments’ – a poem by Billy Collins called (what else?) Forgetfulness.
by Billy Collins
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
“Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels, © 1999 by Billy Collins – University of Pittsburgh Press
Billy Collins (March 22, 1941 – ) dubbed “the most popular poet in America” by Bruce Weber in the New York Times, was a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003), and has published many poetry collections, including Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning and Nine Horses: Poems. It was Questions About Angels, published in 1991, that put him in the literary spotlight. Collins says his poetry is “suburban, it’s domestic, it’s middle class, and it’s sort of unashamedly that.”
So Dear Readers,
If there’s a poem that got you through the roughest spots in life, whether it inspired your or made you laugh, please share it in the Comments!