How Lovely the Ruins

Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times

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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

I

how lovely the ruins

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Adam Zagajewski

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

and returns.

There Are Birds Here

Jamaal May

For Detroit

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

between buildings

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

his neighborhood

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

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.”

Poem

Muriel Rukeyser

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

—­Clark Strand

Fire and Ice

Robert Frost

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

Yehuda Amichai

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

Vikram Seth

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

Rumi

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”

Anna Akhmatova

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

Mark Doty

Not, exactly, green:

closer to bronze

preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved

from a Greco-­Roman wreck,

patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot

know what his fantastic

legs were like—­

though evidence

suggests eight

complexly folded

scuttling works

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!

Imagine breathing

surrounded by

the brilliant rinse

of summer’s firmament.

What color is

the underside of skin?

Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened

into this—­

if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,

similarly,

revealed some sky.

Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold

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

Rumi

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—­

now

I can see the moon.

—­Masahide

What Kind of Times Are These

Adrienne Rich

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?

—­Virginia Woolf

Sci-­Fi

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.

II

against tyranny

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.

—­Eleanor Roosevelt

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

Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe

and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off

work,

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.

Differences of Opinion

Wendy Cope

I

He Tells Her

He tells her that the earth is flat—­

He knows the facts, and that is that.

In altercations fierce and long

She tries her best to prove him wrong.

But he has learned to argue well.

He calls her arguments unsound

And often asks her not to yell.

She cannot win. He stands his ground.

The planet goes on being round.

Terence, this is stupid stuff

A. E. Housman

‘Terence, this is stupid stuff:

You eat your victuals fast enough;

There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,

To see the rate you drink your beer.

But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,

It gives a chap the belly-­ache.

The cow, the old cow, she is dead;

It sleeps well, the horned head:

We poor lads, ’tis our turn now

To hear such tunes as killed the cow.

Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme

Your friends to death before their time

Moping melancholy mad:

Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,

There’s brisker pipes than poetry.

Say, for what were hop-­yards meant,

Or why was Burton built on Trent?

Oh many a peer of England brews

Livelier liquor than the Muse,

And malt does more than Milton can

To justify God’s ways to man.

Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink

For fellows whom it hurts to think:

Look into the pewter pot

To see the world as the world’s not.

And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:

The mischief is that ’twill not last.

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair

And left my necktie God knows where,

And carried half way home, or near,

Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:

Then the world seemed none so bad,

And I myself a sterling lad;

And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,

Happy till I woke again.

Then I saw the morning sky:

Heigho, the tale was all a lie;

The world, it was the old world yet,

I was I, my things were wet,

And nothing now remained to do

How Lovely the Ruins

Inspirational Poems and Words for Difficult Times

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How Lovely the Ruins

— Published by Spiegel & Grau —