Poetry knew where hope lived and could elicit that lump in the throat that reminds me it’s all worth it.
That sentence comes from a breathtaking personal essay published in the New York Times recently about a mother making “a quiet stand for hope” as her daughter struggles through some tumultuous waters and using poetry to send her daughter whatever resilience and optimism she could.
Of course, this piece resonated with me on every possible level: mother of daughters, teacher of girls, writer and lover of poetry. I loved that the writer was self-aware enough to see that her biggest gift to her daughter was staying out of her way so she could navigate these challenges on her own, and that the poems were small but powerful gestures to show her presence, distant though it may have seemed. When I shared it on Facebook, I commented that I’d be stockpiling good “shoe-poems,” and many of my friends asked me to share what I collected. So here are my best suggestions for poetic messages of hope, ones I can see myself slipping into a bookbag, lunchbox, shoe or pillow to create a lifeline of words and support between me and my own girls.
Here are three mentioned in the piece itself, all of which I love:
Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke
Here are others I’m adding to my own personal stores, ready for when I think my girls might need them:
A Valentine for Ernest Mann, Naomi Shihab Nye: I’m choosing this one for several reasons; it’s accessibly written with some clear images, and because when we are at the brink, we need to know that “if we re-invent whatever our lives give us we find poems”–it’s an empowering idea, to turn pain into beauty, and my students found it inspiring when I taught this poem last year.
Planetarium and Diving into the Wreck: I love Adrienne Rich’s work, but I included these two almost solely on the basis of these two lines: “I am bombarded yet I stand,” and “I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.” There’s an essential resilience there that I find myself responding to, again and again.
The Weighing, Jane Hirshfield: Take a minute and dwell on “and still the scales balance”–beautiful.
Colors passing through us, Marge Piercy: “Here is my box of new crayons at your feet” and “a sing song of all the things you make me think of”–the string of vivid images in the poem remind me to stay in touch with everything beautiful I see around me, and I like to think it would for my daughters too.
A Blessing, James Wright: what adolescent doesn’t sometimes wish she could “step out of her body”? What adolescent doesn’t need reminding that there is a blossom waiting to break free inside of her?
Still I Rise, Maya Angelou: the ultimate in empowerment poems, this is a favorite among my students too.
woman, Nikki Giovanni: a great break-up poem for women, young or not, floundering after heartbreak
Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like, Nikki Giovanni: because young women should be encouraged to be “full of themselves” sometimes.
Thanks, W.S. Merwin: “Waving, dark though it is”–the bravery and hope in that line, in a poem full of determined gratitude; it makes me feel comforted and inspired, every time.
My school’s philosophy has two phrases in it that guide me on a regular basis, qualities we hope to instill in our students and value as a community: “tenacity of purpose” and “resilient spirit.” These ten poems express the striving towards that resiliency, that determination to see the light in the world even when all seems dark.