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This wide-ranging collection of inspirational poetry and prose offers readers solace, perspective, and the courage to persevere.
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.
The poets and writers featured in this book represent the diversity of our country as well as voices beyond our borders, including Maya Angelou, W. H. Auden, Danez Smith, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Alice Walker, Adam Zagajewski, Langston Hughes, Wendell Berry, Anna Akhmatova, Yehuda Amichai, and Robert Frost. And the book opens with a stunning foreword by Elizabeth Alexander, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day,” delivered at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, ushered in an era of optimism. In works celebrating our capacity for compassion, our patriotism, our right to protest, and our ability to persevere, How Lovely the Ruins is a beacon that illuminates our shared humanity, allowing us connection in a fractured world.
Includes poetry, prose, and quotations from: Elizabeth Alexander • Marcus Aurelius • Karen Armstrong • Matthew Arnold • Ellen Bass • Brian Bilston • Gwendolyn Brooks • Elizabeth Barrett Browning • Octavia E. Butler • Regie Cabico • Dinos Christianopoulos • Lucille Clifton • Ta-Nehisi Coates • Leonard Cohen • Wendy Cope • E. E. Cummings • Charles Dickens • Mark Doty • Thomas Edison • Albert Einstein • Ralph Ellison • Kenneth Fearing • Annie Finch • Rebecca Foust • Nikki Giovanni • Stephanie Gray • John Green • Hazel Hall • Thich Nhat Hanh • Joy Harjo • Václav Havel • Terrance Hayes • William Ernest Henley • Juan Felipe Herrera • Jane Hirshfield • John Holmes • A. E. Housman • Bohumil Hrabal • Robinson Jeffers • Georgia Douglas Johnson • James Weldon Johnson • Paul Kalanithi • Robert F. Kennedy • Omar Khayyam • Emma Lazarus • Li-Young Lee • Denise Levertov • Ada Limón • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow • Nelson Mandela • Masahide • Khaled Mattawa • Jamaal May • Claude McKay • Edna St. Vincent Millay • Pablo Neruda • Anaïs Nin • Olga Orozco • Ovid • Pier Paolo Pasolini • Edgar Allan Poe • Claudia Rankine • Adrienne Rich • Rainer Maria Rilke • Alberto Ríos • Edwin Arlington Robinson • Eleanor Roosevelt • Christina Rossetti • Muriel Rukeyser • Sadhguru • Carl Sandburg • Vikram Seth • Charles Simic • Safiya Sinclair • Effie Waller Smith • Maggie Smith • Tracy K. Smith • Leonora Speyer • Gloria Steinem • Clark Strand • Wisława Szymborska • Rabindranath Tagore • Sara Teasdale • Alfred, Lord Tennyson • Vincent van Gogh • Ocean Vuong • Florence Brooks Whitehouse • Walt Whitman • Ella Wheeler Wilcox • William Carlos Williams • Virginia Woolf • W. B. Yeats • Saadi Youssef • Javier Zamora • Howard Zinn
Under the Cover
An excerpt from How Lovely the Ruins
how lovely the ruins
Try to Praise the Mutilated World
translated by clare cavanagh
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
There Are Birds Here
There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
and buildings. No.
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like a war zone.
I am trying to say
is as tattered and feathered
as anything else,
as shadow pierced by sun
and light parted
by shadow-dance as anything else,
but they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
“When you are so full of sorrow
that you can’t walk, can’t cry anymore,
think about the green foliage that sparkles after
the rain. When the daylight exhausts you, when
you hope a final night will cover the world,
think about the awakening of a young child.”
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.
It’s not that the stars
are indifferent: their troubles
have already passed
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
The Place Where We Are Right
translated by chana bloch and stephen mitchell
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
All You Who Sleep Tonight
All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
And emptiness above—
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.
The Guest House
translated by coleman barks
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.
from “The Sentence”
translated by judith hemschemeyer
Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again.
A Green Crab’s Shell
Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly
muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like—
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’
gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,
leaving this chamber
—size of a demitasse—
open to reveal
a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,
this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.
What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,
if we could be opened
if the smallest chambers
revealed some sky.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Out Beyond Ideas
Translated by coleman barks
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
Barn’s burnt down—
I can see the moon.
What Kind of Times Are These
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
Musée des Beaux Arts
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;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?
Tracy K. Smith
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In stopping to think through the meaning of what I have learned, there is much that I believe intensely, much I am unsure of. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.
from “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”
W. B. Yeats
We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out. . . .
I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.