Compiling my recent collection, A Poet for Every Day of the Year, I have become even more convinced that we shouldn’t turn to poems just for weddings and funerals. There are – I am happy to report – poems for every emotion, every mood and all of life’s little as well as big moments. Poetry, we can declare, contains all the music of humanity. So, with this in mind, I have selected a few poems from the book and beyond that speak to us in midlife, that might help, or make you laugh, or make you want to read more poetry. (A Poet for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri is out now in hardback, £20 from Macmillan Children’s Books.)
The feelings we get when a child leaves home are little explored and can be surprisingly complicated. Luckily for us, poets are there to help with the ‘quiet sorrow’ (as Carol Ann Duffy names it) in her poem titled ‘Empty Nest’. She captures the sensation where she writes, “Dear child, the house pines when you leave.” Other emotions are evoked in ‘Walking Away’ by Cecil Day Lewis, a piece he wrote when his eldest son turned eighteen. The last line has such great advice but floors me every time, “And love is proved in the letting go.” The most devastating of departures is captured heart-wrenchingly in Shakespeare’s King John, as Constance believes her son to be dead: Helena Bonham Carter recited this part for my Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year anthology:
King John, Act 3 Scene 4 by William Shakespeare
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
[She unbinds her hair]
I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!
The end of a love affair
If you allow them, poets from the past can hold our hand across time, offering words and thoughts that we find hard to articulate, and remind us that we are not alone. This poem might be the greatest and saddest of all break-up lyrics. But although there may not be much to admire about the wayward ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron, his poem is really worth a read.
When we Two Parted. by George Gordon, Lord Byron
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow—
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well—
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met—
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?—
With silence and tears.
On divorce and how it could be a good idea
If you are looking for the perfect words to make you feel really rather gleeful that your departing lover will not be able to get the thought of you out of their head, you need look no further than the Algonquin Table in 1920’s New York. Among the illustrious talents assembled there, you would find the wit Dorothy Parker reading her poem ‘But Not Forgotten’, which begins, “I think, no matter where you stray,/ That I shall go with you a way.” Parker was only taking up the mantle of another disillusioned lover, from the seventeenth-century, one John Dryden, who dispensed this wisdom on the subject of marital decay:
‘Why should a foolish marriage vow’ by John Dryden
Why should a foolish marriage vow,
Which long ago was made,
Oblige us to each other now
When passion is decay’d?
We loved, and we loved, as long as we could,
Till our love was loved out in us both:
But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:
‘Twas pleasure first made it an oath.
If I have pleasures for a friend,
And farther love in store,
What wrong has he whose joys did end,
And who could give no more?
‘Tis a madness that he should be jealous of me,
Or that I should bar him of another:
For all we can gain is to give our selves pain,
When neither can hinder the other.
On loving again
Just as the salve of nature is available to us wherever we are at in our lives, the possibility of new love is not confined to the young. Harold Pinter accompanies us through the thrill and revelation of falling in love again in mid-life with his poem ‘It is Here’, written on falling in love with Antonia Fraser, who would become his second wife: “What did we hear?/ It was the breath we took when we first met./ Listen. It is here.” The Arctic Monkeys were so enamoured with John Cooper Clarke’s unconventional and strangely domesticated love poem ‘I wanna be yours’ that they released it as a single: ‘I wanna be your vacuum cleaner. Breathing in your dust. I wanna be your Ford Cortina I will never rust.’
Yeats said poets rouse or console. The great Maya Angelou is matchless in her ability to do the former, whether she is reminding us that we are phenomenal women, or fiercely vowing against all obstacles to black or female empowerment in her masterpiece,’Still I rise’. It’s an incredible anthem, oozing defiant confidence: “ Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise/ That I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?
In my anthology, Angelou is followed by a contemporary star, poet Nikita Gill who takes up her baton and exhorts us with this:
Ancestors by Nikita Gill
Your ancestors did not survive
everything that nearly ended them
for you to shrink yourself
to make someone else
This sacrifice is your warcry, be loud,
be everything and make them proud.
This poem says it so well, doesn’t it?
That is a strange day … by Alan Hill
That is a strange day
when you wake to discover
age has drifted down
imperceptibly, like dust,
and you’re totally covered.
Much poetry celebrates the natural world, which as the climate crisis unfolds around us has never been so important. Wendell Berry implores us to go out and experience the serenity of nature in ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, with one of its many wonderful lines being: “ For a time/ I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” His fellow American, Mary Oliver has much to offer us all. In my new anthology, where I could only choose one poem per poet, I decided on ‘The Sweetness of Dogs’ in which she remarks: “how grateful I am for the moon’s/ perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich/ it is to love the world.” The following is possibly the best known exaltation of the soul-enhancing wonders of nature, by that great Lake poet who tells us that the sight of daffodils continues to nourish him even when he is indoors, all alone. It’s really worth a re-read:
I wandered lonely as a cloud by William Wordsworth
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
What to read at a funeral
Sadly, midlife for many means the loss of parents. There is an astonishingly moving poem called ‘I See you Dancing Father’ by the late Irish poet Brendan Kennelly. In it he chooses to remember his father dancing: “whenever I think of you/ I go back beyond the old man/Mind and body broken/To find the unbroken man.” We have all lost people whom we could eulogize as Mary Oliver preemptively eulogized herself in ‘When Death Comes’: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement”. Or of whom it might be said that they got all they wanted, like Raymond Carver in ‘Late Fragment’, which was ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself/beloved on the earth.” For me, Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ offers all the counsel I could need:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Hope after hardship
Finally I would like to leave you with a poem, ‘The Guest House’ by Rumi. It can be read as a reminder that even life’s hardships should be embraced because they can, unbeknownst to us, lead us into new pleasures. It was read by Helena Bonham Carter for the launch of one of my seasonal anthologies, A Poem for Every Autumn Day. Read it below or watch the video.
The Guest House by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Get your copy of A Poet For Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri now, out in hardback, £20 from Macmillan Children’s Books.
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