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Poems for troubled times

Doctors, politicians, activists and others share the verses they turn to for comfort.

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At a time when many Americans are fighting off a deadly pandemic with vaccines, distance and masks, or tackling systemic racism with marches and protests, poetry might not register as a priority. But one of the oldest forms of literary arts is a powerful healing tool, some experts say.

Poems “inspire hope during these dark days,” says Rafael Campo, a poet and physician at Harvard Medical School. As he put it in a TEDxCambridge talk in June 2019, “Poetry sparks empathy, and empathy is essential for our survival.”

In honor of National Poetry Month, we asked people dealing professionally with fallout from the pandemic and other contentious issues to share the poems they turn to in stressful times. Here is a list of those works, along with short quotes or excerpts, and the reasons the verses resonate with our contributors. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

"won't you celebrate with me"

By Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.

There’s a stunning poem by Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me,” that I find myself turning to again and again for strength as America confronts both the ravages of the covid-19 pandemic and rampant gun violence, both of which disproportionately impact communities of color. — Campo, poetry section editor for JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association

"A Birthday Present"

By Sylvia Plath

. . . Do not be ashamed — I do not mind if it is small.

Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,

The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate . . .

One of my very favorite poems is also a very dark one: “A Birthday Present.” It has special meaning in my darkest moments from the anti-vaccine, anti-science aggression, which really accelerated after I wrote “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism,” a book about my daughter. Since then, I endure unrelenting attacks via emails and Twitter, and stalking at my lectures. As you might imagine, this can be demoralizing, but I somehow take comfort in hearing from others who live in dark places — like Sylvia Plath. — Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development

"Still I Rise"

By Maya Angelou

As someone who endures relentless attacks, including from the previous president, the words of Maya Angelou provide comfort to keep persevering. “Still I Rise” provides reassurance to keep rising above the constant vilification and focus on creating a better world for my community. The lines that resonate with me most are, “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.” — Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)

"Musée des Beaux Arts"

By W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.

In moments of chaos, I think of “Musée des Beaux Arts.” It’s about a painting called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” attributed to Bruegel, which is part of the collection of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Auden wrote it in 1938, on the eve of World War II. The poem calmly recounts the events of the Icarus myth as depicted in the painting, which — to put it in contemporary terms — decenters that tragedy so that it happens in the background, in the margins. Auden’s poem is a reminder that failure and suffering are omnipresent but also relative; that human emotion and experience come wrapped up in subjectivity. It suggests that the story’s hero may not be your hero. Above all, his poem — itself an act of study and interpretation — reminds me of the recuperative power of art. — Radhika Jones, editor in chief, Vanity Fair

"Life Doesn't Frighten Me"

By Maya Angelou

. . . I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve,
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

I’ve certainly been experiencing stressful times, as we all have during these days of covid. “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” resonates with me very much. My magic charm is my inner strength, belief in doing the right thing, silencing the loud voices and demons, and staying the course to make a difference in the world. — Leah Lipsich, Regeneron’s vice president of Strategic Program Direction for Infectious Disease 

"We Wear the Mask"

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes . . .

We Wear the Mask” is my reminder that when there is chaos all around, you’d better fix your face and walk out that door like everything is going to be alright!Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D)

"New Bones"

By Lucille Clifton

We will wear
new bones again.

The weariness of “these rainy days,” the anticipation of “sun and honey time,” the secret inner strength we harbor, and that deep well of resilience “other people think they know” — it’s all there, and it’s all so profound and true, in these few spare lines by the incredible Lucille Clifton. I’ve always loved and been drawn to her work, but it’s never felt more immediate and tangible and timely. Whenever I’m feeling stretched too thin, pulled in too many directions — or overwhelmed by the state of the world, or my to-do list or anything in between — Clifton’s boldness, and her quiet defiance, exert this gravity that brings me back into myself. Those “new bones” feel almost like armor. — Meena Harris, founder and CEO of Phenomenal, and author of “Ambitious Girl

"Today I Took My Body Off Layaway"

By Tianna Bratcher

. . . today I called my body mine and meant it
spoke buoyancy back into my bones
floated towards a past due reclamation . . .

This poem* reminds me of the complicated relationship we have with our bodies, how every day feels different when you’re really in tune with your body and the labor of and freedom in dropping the baggage society places on all of our bodies. With increasing anti-transgender legislation, for this Black trans woman, bodily autonomy and self-determination must be protected now more than ever. And we deserve, like anyone else, to prioritize our wellness. — Raquel Willis, a Black transgender activist and writer (*Note: explicit content)

"The Swing"

By Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

When I’m looking for some peace in the middle of a stressful time, I’ll often think about my mother and father. Growing up, my mother had this big book of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, and every night she would read poems to me. One that I always come back to is “The Swing.” Thinking about her and the joy and freedom in that poem always lifts my heart a bit. — Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price (R)

"When Great Trees Fall"

By Maya Angelou

In 2019, two of my dearest mentors — Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.)  and doctor Fitzhugh Mullan — died within a month of one another. I thought a lot about this poem, especially the last stanza:

And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms . . . Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed. — Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health

Angela Haupt is a writer and editor based in the District. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.

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