In times of personal hardship or collective anxiety, words have the power to provide comfort, meaning, and hope. The past year has seen a resurgence of poetry and inspiring quotes—posted on social media, appearing on bestseller lists, shared from friend to friend. Honoring this communal spirit, How Lovely the Ruins is a timeless collection of both classic and contemporary poetry and short prose that can be of help in difficult times—selections that offer wisdom and purpose, and that allow us to step out of our current moment to gain a new perspective on the world around us as well as the world within. Below, poet Elizabeth Alexander, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” was delivered at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, explains why poetry illuminates our shared humanity, allowing us connection in a fractured world.
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Human beings have never lived without song, across time and tribe. So poetry has always been necessary, and people have always made it, and shared it, and in some way lived by it. That is steady-state in human history. When language is degraded from the highest perches, and public words regularly carry meaning that reduces groups to crude and false stereotypes, the nuance and precision of poems is an ever more necessary tool for living.
Poems are how we say: this is who we are. Poems are heart and soul made legible. Poetry is ancient; poetry is the way peoples have carried their songs forward across culture and across time, saying this is who we are and this is where and what we come from.
This human will to sing is itself cross-cultural and cross-temporal. The will to sing is perhaps even biological, for who can imagine a child who does not sing, who does not urge to tell a story or sit riveted in the presence of one? This is the bardic aspect of poetry, the singing of the song of the people that is the work that poets do, even when there is no explicit “we” in the poem, even when the claims are not grand, even when the language is abstract. Poems are where voices can join together and sing in a voice more powerful than one. Poems mark a trail of identities; poems laid end to end are a map of the human voice.
The poems gathered in this volume move across time and place to remind us that the world has always been broken and has always been whole. The poem can potentially last forever and thus the poem outlasts the poet. For none of us individually will be able to tell our story for all time. Human beings have been vulnerable for as long as there have been human beings, some more so than others. As a student and caretaker of the tradition of black female creativity, I know that tradition has always given handbooks for hard times. So, too, the poems here. Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind, wrote Gwendolyn Brooks, words that are always apt. I find that black elders offer the long view in ancestral hum: make a way out of no way, as they say. That genius.
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The wisdom and beauty of poems is all around us. Poets tilt their heads and swoop their butterfly nets to capture it, distill it, and give it to the people. Poems are handbooks for human decency and understanding. Poets hold water in their cupped hands and run back from the well because someone is parched and thirsting. The poem is a force field against despair.
Sometimes, when times are tough, we may think we have nothing when we actually have everything. Because we are the survivors, and in these words we have all the ancestors have given us. Poems let us feel that power open up inside our bodies when we read the words out loud.
If the poems in this book had one voice chanting a refrain it would be: My people, we have everything we need.
Reprinted with permission from How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times © 2017 by Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Featured illustration: Alane Gianetti