Column: It’s National Poetry Month. Here are 9 good poems to help you make it through life.

Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

Poetry is often referred to as an art, and it is one, but it’s also a practical tool. It can jostle your brain into new thoughts, change your mood with only a few words, keep you company like an old friend.

Because April is National Poetry Month, I want to share a few poems that have kept me good company through the years. They’re poems I’ve turned to for enlightenment or consolation and sent to friends searching for the same. Note: What’s printed here are only excerpts. The full versions are available online.

1. If I had to name my favorite poet, it would be Wislawa Szymborska, the late Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature. This early poem of hers, translated by Northwestern University’s Clare Cavanagh, is worth reciting every day.

Nothing Twice

Nothing can ever happen twice.

In consequence, the sorry fact is

that we arrive here improvised

and leave without the chance to practice.

...

Why do we treat the fleeting day

with so much needless fear and sorrow?

It’s in its nature not to stay:

Today is always gone tomorrow.

2. Galway Kinnell won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He wrote this poem for a student who was considering suicide.

Wait

Wait, for now.

Distrust everything, if you have to.

But trust the hours. Haven’t they

carried you everywhere, up to now?

Personal events will become interesting again.

Hair will become interesting.

Pain will become interesting.

Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.

3. Langston Hughes wrote this poem in 1935, from his perspective as a Black American. Its expression of the unfulfilled dream inside “the American Dream” still applies.

Let America Be America Again

O, let America be America again —

The land that never has been yet —

And yet must be — the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

4. In the early, quiet days of the pandemic, I often thought of this poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid. One of the few things I miss from that time is the quiet.

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still

For once on the face of the earth

let’s not speak in any language,

let’s stop for one second,

and not move our arms so much

5. In my mother’s old age, I gave her a poetry anthology, and after she died, I opened the book to find it full of notes made in her shaky handwriting. Next to this one by Mary Oliver, she had written, “Yes!”

Wild Geese

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.

6. Naomi Shihab Nye often identifies as the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, and those roots inform her writing. I first heard this poem at a friend’s memorial service.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

7. This poem by W.S. Merwin may be the deepest three-line poem ever written. I’ve sent it to friends who’ve lost someone they love.

Separation

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

8. John Updike, who’s better known for his prose, approaches death from a lighter angle. I read the full poem at my mother’s memorial. It has one of the world’s best opening lines.

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death

is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

which took a whole life to develop and market —

9. This poem by Maya Angelou may strike some people as too simple for our fractured world. But that’s its power: It reduces us little humans to a basic truth we often ignore.

Human Family

I note the obvious differences

Between each sort and type,

But we are more alike, my friends,

Than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,

Than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,

Than we are unalike.

mschmich@chicagotribune.com