Friday, December 9, 2022

‘That orange, it made me so happy’ / 50 poems to boost your mood

 Illustration: Nathalie Lees

‘That orange, it made me so happy’: 50 poems to boost your mood

Humour, beauty, solace ... the right poem can bring a ray of sunshine. Andrew Motion, Kayo Chingonyi, Tishani Doshi and other poets recommend the verses that lift their spirits

Brian Bilston, Kayo Chingonyi, Ella RisbridgerAndrew Motion, Hannah Lowe, Andrew McMillanElif ShafakRishi DastidarTishani Doshi and Mary Jean Chan

Sat 26 Nov 2022 09.00 GMT

Brian Bilston poet
 Photograph: MacMillan

Brian Bilston
Poet and novelist

1) Hope Is the Thing With Feathers, Emily Dickinson
2) Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!], Frank O’Hara
3) Not My Best Side, UA Fanthorpe
4) Aimless Love, Billy Collins
5) Survivor, Roger McGough

Poetry refreshes the parts that other words cannot reach and, like the little bird of Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, contains the strength to sustain us even in the “chillest land / And on the strangest sea”. But a poem doesn’t have to be explicitly inspirational to do that. Frank O’Hara’s Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!] hoicks us up off the floor with its sheer exuberance and breathlessness: we have no choice but to be swept along. And what could be more helpful than a poem that pokes fun at how ridiculous we all are, as presented in UA Fanthorpe’s wickedly funny triptych Not My Best Side, giving voice to the characters in Paolo Uccello’s painting Saint George and the Dragon. Of course, laughter can provide the biggest pick-me-up of all, and there are few poets funnier than Billy Collins. In Aimless Love, through celebrating a wren, a dead mouse and a bar of soap, he helps us fall back in love with life. Finally, in terms of a strategy for coping with all that the world throws at us, who can better that offered by Roger McGough in his short poem Survivor?

Amy Key

Kayo Chingonyi
 Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Kayo Chingonyi
Poet and editor

6) “The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings”, Donika Kelly
7) Brand New Lover, Amy Key
8) Against Complaint, Roddy Lumsden
9) Caveat, Fiona Benson
10) From Blossoms, Li-Young Lee

I’m particularly moved by poets who sing from the rooftops, as in Donika Kelly’s wonderful poem – a tender though not sentimental pick-me-up for when you are so enamoured of someone that you find yourself playing slow jams in the early hours of the morning. The immediacy of desire also suffuses Amy Key’s Brand New Lover, with its woozy soft focus and tense interplay of disclosure and guardedness. When I find myself whingeing, the best medicine is Roddy Lumsden’s Against Complaint, which affirms that most stoic of maxims, “It could be worse”. There is, in so many things, a small crack through which hope can enter. Which brings to mind Fiona Benson’s gorgeous little poem Caveat (published below), which, read in the midst of tribulations, will surely gladden the heart like an empathetic hand on the shoulder. And when I need to remember happier times I look to From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee, a poem which swells with hard-won joy like a peach ripening on the branch

Ada Limón

Ella Risbridger

Editor of the anthology Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling

11) How to Triumph Like a Girl, Ada Limon
12) To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall, Kim Addonizio
13) Goodtime Jesus, James Tate
14) People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef, Heather Christle
15) Poem in Which I Practise Happiness, Joe Dunthorne

What I like in a poem is jokes, and what I hate is a poem that takes itself too seriously. I love being spoken to directly by the poet, and I love a poem that makes me feel we’re getting to the secret heart of everything: in these five, that’s reached through rain on a window, “lady horses”, good money for a bad haircut and using a guinea pig as a telephone. Also, Jesus having a cup of coffee. I love a poem that knows happiness is tough, even if you “make it look easy”, like Ada Limon in How to Triumph Like a Girl (published below). I love Kim Addonizio for knowing that “joy is coming” (To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall, a real banger of a title). I love James Tate’s Goodtime Jesus for its perfect punchline: “Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody”. And I love Heather Christle’s People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef, especially for her unabashed use of the exclamation mark. I love poems about connection. I love poems about people. I love poems about stuff. In the words of Joe Dunthorne’s Poem in Which I Practise Happiness, “I love the piano./ I love true crime./ I love the sun/ when it arrives/ like a tray/ of drinks.”

Seamus Heaney

Andrew Motion.
 Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Andrew Motion
Former poet laureate

16) Epistle to Miss Blount, Alexander Pope
17) Epitaph on a Hare, William Cowper
18) Hurricane Hits England, Grace Nichols
19) In My Country, Jackie Kay
20) Postscript, Seamus Heaney

The idea that poems might be an easy means of cheering ourselves up is enough to make anyone feel depressed, especially if the poems themselves are determined to be cheerful. Remember Hardy: “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst”. That might overstate the case a little, but he’s right about the relationship between (relative) optimism and realism. For this reason, four of my choices are poems that admit – with varying degrees of candour – what problems need to be overcome, in order for their speakers to find equilibrium of some kind. Boredom and isolation in the case of Alexander Pope’s affectionate Epistle to Miss Blount; grief in William Cowper’s apparently small-scale (but in fact expansive) Epitaph on a Hare; homesickness and the difficulties of home-making in Grace Nichols’s Hurricane Hits England; and racist hostility in Jackie Kay’s In My Country. In my fifth choice, Seamus Heaney’s Postscript (published below), an affirming flame is allowed to blaze more defiantly, but it’s still battered and blustered by the winds of the world.

Sharon Olds

Hannah Lowe Author Costa prize winner
 Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

Hannah Lowe
Winner of the 2021 Costa book of the year for her collection The Kids

21) Great Western Road, Donny O’Rourke
22) Belle Isle, 1949, Philip Levine
23) Beginning in a City, 1948, James Berry
24) What the Living Do, Marie Howe
25) Looking at Them Asleep, Sharon Olds

The poems that lift my spirits are those that find beauty in the domestic and everyday. Donny O’Rourke’s Great Western Road describes a Saturday well spent, a list of jubilant images that builds to a declaration: “God Glasgow it’s glorious / just to gulp you down in heartfuls”. Philip Levine’s Belle Isle, 1949 finds wonder in a teenage night swim in the Detroit River, “to baptise ourselves in the brine / of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles”. James Berry’s Beginning in a City, 1948 mixes public history with personal remembrance, telling of how the newly arrived Jamaican migrant survives his first night in England, ending with a headstrong optimism: “So I had begun. Begun in London.” Marie Howe’s beautiful elegy for her brother What the Living Do lifts my spirits by emphasising how the small things make a life and should be cherished, as does Sharon Olds’s Looking at Them Asleep. I love the surprise and precision of Olds’s use of metaphor to describe her children sleeping: “oh the son he is sideways in his bed / one knee up as if he is climbing / sharp stairs up into the night”.

Elizabeth Bishop

Andrew McMillan
Andrew McMillan Photograph: undefined/Urszula Soltys

Andrew McMillan
Poet and editor

26) Filling Station, Elizabeth Bishop
27) Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong, Ocean Vuong
28) Final Curve, Langston Hughes
29) “There is no life or death”, Mina Loy
30) Provisional Eternity, Mark Strand

I’ve spent time recently searching for release from my own anxiety and co-editing an anthology, 100 Queer Poems. The twin missions of trying to reorient my mind and immerse myself in piles of poetry reminded me of the solace a good stanza or line might bring. Think of that great ending to Elizabeth Bishop’s Filling Station, “somebody loves us all”; it often comes back to me when I feel isolated or alone. The journey towards better loving ourselves is perhaps more important (and yes, I know RuPaul said that better). Ocean Vuong’s Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong (published below), with its invocation “Ocean, don’t be afraid”, is a poem I often return to, as is Langston Hughes’ wonderful Final Curve. Mina Loy’s “There is no life or death” says it’s OK to sit in the flux of things; it rejects absolutes, and its rhymes and syllables pull us forward into possibility. Ultimately, my mood is boosted by just being at home with my boyfriend and our dog; that reminds me of a Mark Strand poem that hugs you with the warmth of a shared duvet, Provisional Eternity. It’s the simplicity of “this”, “this never wanting it to end”; it reaches beyond sex, beyond lust, into a state of comfort and ease between two people. I used to have it pinned above my desk, but now it’s just on the noticeboard of my mind.

Cavafy, Yannis Psychopedis, 2013 (oil on canvas)

Elif Shafak

31) All Rivers at Once, Rumi
32) Ithaka, CP Cavafy
33) Remember How We Forgot, Lemn Sissay
34) [the] north[ern] [of] ireland, Pádraig Ó Tuama
35) Old Tongue, Jackie Kay

Poetry is deeply personal. You might struggle to explain to yourself, let alone to others, why you feel emotional when you read a certain poem; how it remains with you afterwards, like a childhood memory lodged in your heart. Poems can take you within, making you aware of parts of yourself you have neglected; and they can also lift you up and carry you near and far, connecting you with people and experiences beyond borders. When I was younger, for a long time I assumed that being an immigrant, I could not fully understand or enjoy English verse; there would always be something I would miss out – a broken piece, an invisible shard. That I came to adore reading poems in a language other than my mother tongue, I owe to many wonderful poets who challenged my fears and encouraged me to dive in. Today I see poets as a tribe of their own, impossible to narrow down to national boxes. Like Walt Whitman, they contain multitudes. First, I would love to recommend All Rivers at Once by the wonderful Rumi, whose voice is needed in today’s polarised world more than ever before. This poem for me is primarily about connectivity and compassion. I am a big fan of CP Cavafy, and I read his work time and again - especially Ithaka. Lemn Sissay’s voice is a balm for our troubled times; Remember How We Forgot is incredibly moving. Pádraig Ó Tuama’s [the] north[ern] [of] ireland contains so much pain, memory and resilience, it will deeply resonate with readers across the world. And then there is the inimitable Jackie Kay: I love the courage and wisdom in her Old Tongue.

Rishi Dastidar

Rishi Dastidar
Poet and critic

36) Delight in Disorder, Robert Herrick
37) Hiroshima, 1961, Holly Singlehurst
38) Soulcraft, John McCullough
39) The Orange, Wendy Cope
40) The Tiger, Nael

“A fine distraction” tends to be what I want from a poem to cheer me up. My first stop is always Robert Herrick, and especially Delight in Disorder. I never fail to be charmed by the beguiling twinkle that runs through it. Also beguiling is the way Holly Singlehurst’s Hiroshima, 1961 frames the joy of playing with your shadow and being bathed by sunlight. John McCullough’s Soulcraft ruminates on light too, a “private neon”, crucial for lifting him when “a flock of days descends / and my soul flickers, goes to ground”. The poem rises from here, reminding us that something as simple as rain can revive our spirits again. And if not the weather, how about a piece of fruit? Wendy Cope’s delight in the mundane is always a tonic. The Orange (published below) is an exquisite example of this: who doesn’t love those rare days that are “quite easy / I did all the jobs on my list”? For me, though, the best mood boost is witnessing an underdog hero overcome formidable odds to triumph in nail-biting circumstances. So I hope Nael’s The Tiger, written when he was just six, has you punching the air in joy the way I do every time I read it.

Marina Tsvetaeva

Tishani Doshi

41) Recreation, Audre Lorde
42) Ode to My Husband, Who Brings the Music, Zeina Hashem Beck
43) An Attempt at Jealousy, Marina Tsvetaeva
44) I Will Greet the Sun Again, Forough Farrokhzad
45) Fucking in Cornwall, Ella Frears

Partly because I’ve recently spent time as a caregiver, and partly because legislation around the autonomy of women’s bodies continues to be so depressing, I looked for poems of the body, poems of desire, that could inject what Audre Lorde called the “lifeforce” into me. Let’s begin with Lorde’s Recreation, which believes a body can be made into a poem. I wanted to collect female voices and create a web of ancestry between them – so, the tenderness of Zeina Hashem Beck’s Ode to My Husband, Who Brings the Music contrasts with the bristle of Marina Tsvetaeva’s An Attempt at Jealousy. Then there’s the perseverance of Forough Farrokhzad, who brings us to the “love-filled threshold” in I Will Greet the Sun Again, and the sheer sexiness of Ella Frears’s Fucking in Cornwall - “Do you remember what it felt like to dig a hole all day/ with a tiny spade just to watch it fill with sea?/ I want it like that.”

Mary Oliver

Mary Jean Chan

Mary Jean Chan
Winner of the 2019 Costa poetry prize for Fleche

46) Canopy, Emily Berry
47) If There Is an Afterwards, Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo
48) Poplar Street, Chen Chen
49) Wild Geese, Mary Oliver
50) When the War Is Over, WS Merwin

Five poems come to mind that might offer solace during these troubled times. The first is Emily Berry’s Canopy, which she describes as an “anti-Rock-a-bye baby”: it’s about survival and connection, and I return to it over and over. I had the pleasure of rereading Vahni (Anthony Ezekiel) Capildeo’s work as a judge for this year’s Jhalak Prize. In their latest collection Like a Tree, Walking, If There Is an Afterwards stood out to me as a shimmering poem about loss and silence. My third poem is Poplar Street, by the American poet Chen Chen. It concludes his debut collection, and is one of the most hopeful poems I have ever read about self-acceptance, love and forgiveness. The final two poems I have found particularly moving in the wake of the pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and When the War is Over by WS Merwin. Both are about what it  means to live, which is a question always worth asking.


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