10 poems to keep your spirits up during self-isolation

From Maya Angelou to Maggie Smith, these poems remind us about the need for self-reflection, to be kind, and to always have hope. By Annie Lord

Wednesday 01 April 2020 06:41 BST
Philip Larkin and Maya Angelou
Philip Larkin and Maya Angelou

Right now, it feels as though the world becomes a worse place to be with every passing day. But there are plenty of other ways to make yourself feel better that don't involve spooning ice-cream out of the tub while rewatching Gossip Girl for the ninth time.

From war to heartbreak, poetry has helped people endure all manner of painful experiences. So why not read our selection of uplifting poems below? Then you can go back to Gossip Girl.

Insha’Allah by Danusha Laméris (2014)

Despite all evidence to the contrary, humans will keep on praying for good things to happen. We never give up, and there is something beautiful in that.

I don’t know when it slipped into my speech
that soft word meaning, “if God wills it.”
Insha’Allah I will see you next summer.
The baby will come in spring, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this year we will have enough rain.

So many plans I’ve laid have unravelled
easily as braids beneath my mother’s quick fingers.

Every language must have a word for this. A word
our grandmothers uttered under their breath
as they pinned the whites, soaked in lemon,
hung them to dry in the sun, or peeled potatoes,
dropping the discarded skins into a bowl.

Our sons will return next month, insha’Allah.
Insha’Allah this war will end, soon. Insha’Allah
the rice will be enough to last through winter.

How lightly we learn to hold hope,
as if it were an animal that could turn around
and bite your hand. And still we carry it
the way a mother would, carefully,
from one day to the next.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith (2017)

Good Bones was written three days after a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It tends to re-emerge on social media in the wake of difficult times: when British politician Jo Cox was murdered, for example, or in the days following the 2016 presidential election. The poem grapples with how to tell to one’s children to love the world when it’s filled with such pain and injustice.

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Excerpt from To Bless the Space Between Us by John O'Donoghue (2008)

While it was written as a blessing people can turn to in the wake of a breakup, this poem could be used to remedy many different forms of strife. It encourages the reader to pause, take a moment for self-reflection, and remember that good things will come again.

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

The Orange by Wendy Cope (1992)

Love has shown the narrator of this poem how happiness can lie in the little things, whether it's a walk in the park, food shopping, or getting through a to-do list. As they share the segments of an orange among friends, we are reminded of the value of generosity.

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 my jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.

To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall by Kim Addonizio (2016)

After listing a number of common painful experiences, the narrator reassures us that someone, somewhere, is listening.

If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to a man you loved opened
them for one you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach
seaweed clinging to your ankles paid
good money for a bad haircut backed away
from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled
into the back seat for lack of a tampon
if you swam across a river under rain sang
using a dildo for a microphone stayed up
to watch the moon eat the sun entire
ripped out the stitches in your heart
because why not if you think nothing &
no one can listen I love you joy is coming

Untitled by Kitty O'Meara (2020)

Written as the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic, this poem soon went viral after everyone from Deepak Chopra to Bella Hadid shared it across social media. Here O’Meara suggests social distancing could be taken up by purposeful activities such as dancing, exercise and self-reflection. Perhaps something other than darkness could come from isolation.

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson (1861)

Here Dickenson imagines “Hope” as a bird ready to sit out the worst kind of storm. Yet it is also confident and dignified, accepting no threats nor favours from others.

“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.

Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

This poem describes the opposing experiences between two birds: one is able to live in nature as it pleases, while a different caged bird suffers in captivity. To cope with its profound suffering and to express its longing for freedom, the caged bird sings. It serves as an eloquent portrayal of the struggle to be freed from oppression.

In a profound show of resilience 
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Invictus by William Ernest Henley (1875)

When he was 16 years old, Henley had to have his leg amputated due to complications arising from tuberculosis. It was when he was recovering in hospital from multiple surgeries on his other leg that he wrote Invictus. An evocation of Victorian stoicism, of maintaining a stiff upper lip and self-discipline in the face of adversity, Invictus might be too much tough love for some, but for others, it provides the impetus to keep going.

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.

The Mower by Philip Larkin (1979)

While it is about death, this poem is hugely life-affirming. It encourages us to be kinder to one another and it draws attention to the ways in which the world continues to turn even when bad things happen.

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

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