April is National Poetry Month, but this year it is a time of crisis as we stay home and stay healthy. Even the most dedicated readers might find themselves grappling for something that can hold their attention. Easy to pick up and put down, it’s time to turn to poetry. These poets’ focus on daily rituals, details, and other moments of being make them the perfect antidote to these challenging times.
By Jessica Ferri
Read: The Boat of Quiet Hours by Jane Kenyon
Because Jane Kenyon died so tragically young from leukemia at 47, we only have four books from her. But each poem is a supreme work of art. Influenced by Keats and her home (she and her husband poet Donald Hall lived on a rural farm in New Hampshire), Kenyon’s poems about loss, depression, the march of time and the changing of the seasons are elegant reminders that even the most fleeting domestic moments are packed with lasting meaning.
Read: Devotions by Mary Oliver
There’s nothing quite like the natural world to remind us that life soldiers on, and Mary Oliver, who died in 2019 at age 83, might as well be this century’s John Clare for all her intense focus on the beauty (and inherent cruelty) of nature. In Devotions, her selected poems, there are endless verses that assign human emotion and human experience to flora and fauna. In “Wild Geese,” Oliver reminds us, “you do not have to be good . . . you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Read: Selected Poems by James Schuyler
For some, stepping back from a fast-paced routine can offer respite. Little things, like making the perfect cup of coffee or a lazy afternoon watching your cocktail glass sweat in the heat, were everything to James Schuyler, a contemporary of Frank O’Hara and member of the New York School. All of his poems are masterworks on being present, and, in this particular moment, his poems about New York City burn especially bright.
Read: Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
Ada Limón is one of our most talented contemporary poets. Her poetry is intimate, contemplative, fierce, and righteously beautiful. There are so many of her poems that feel as if they were written in a kind of isolation. On carrots: “I loved them: my own bright dead things. I’m thirty-five and I remember all that I’ve done wrong.” Or, from The Carrying, her more recent collection, “Instructions on Not Giving Up.” “Fine then, I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.”
Read: Obit by Victoria Chang
When Victoria Chang’s mother died, she realized there were many things that died with her. Obit is a collection of obituaries for Chang’s life: for language, civility, privacy, friendships, optimism, as she grieves her enormous loss. These poems speak to a sense of collective grief, whether it’s a literal loss of a loved one or the loss of normalcy. “At what point does a raindrop accept its falling?” Chang asks. “The moment the cloud begins to buckle under it or the moment the ground pierces it and breaks its shape?”
For some, the crisis of COVID-19 has revealed that our system is one that needs changing. Those motivated to see any kind of silver lining in this emergency are quick to point out society will never be “normal” again, and maybe that fact is a good thing. A poet like Audre Lorde would tell you that a raging fire is redemptive. A self-described “black lesbian warrior poet,” Lorde’s gorgeous, searing verse reflects the doomed nature of society that only cares for “acceptable” women. Today, her laser beam focus on race, gender, and class feels more important than ever.