I often think that I am the only second semester senior with artistic ambitions who is realizing that the coming months may not perfectly correspond with my long-held fantasies as a post-graduate. Maybe all of you, loyal readers, are ecstatic to begin working with one of the four big publishing houses on your first novel, your prestigious MFA program, or the reveal of your first exhibition in the MoMA. If so, that’s wonderful and I’m really happy for you. But unfortunately, this list was not compiled with you in mind.
Recently, I have had the pleasure to interview award-winning poet Kimiko Hahn due to my gig as Interview Editor for the LRR, and she offered some extremely succinct and helpful advice for aspiring poets: “Abandon the roadmap.” This was great news to me considering my roadmap is becoming increasingly less clear as graduation day approaches. It’s helpful to know that a certain aimlessness is necessary to create art, and maybe even just to live well. If nothing else, hopefully these ten poems can help remind all of us non-prodigies of that truth.
- Robert Frost – “The Most of It”
“He would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech, But counter-love, original response.”
You were expecting “The Road Not Taken,” weren’t you? Trust me, I considered it. I went with this poem because Frost doesn’t hide from the despair one feels towards the universe when it doesn’t comply with our wishes as artists and humans. Instead, the universe demands something new from us. I found this poem inspiring because it reminded me that there is no set path to take, both roads are the wrong choice. Frost explains here that it takes time to realize that you need to make your own way, to develop your own version of “counter-love.”
- Anna Swir – “The Sea and the Man”
“Laughter / was invented by those / who live briefly / as a burst of laughter.”
Here, Swir reminds us of the importance of laughter in the face of the grave, eternal abyss. The “eternal sea” that she mentions in her poem works well as a substitute for the rapid passing of time toward an uncertain future. As she describes, sometimes the only logical response against this morbid reality is to laugh.
- May Swenson – “How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the Wave)”
Continuing with our sea-as-metaphor-for-everything theme, this beautifully short poem declares that all motion in nature follows a pattern of advancement and recession. I won’t quote from it here since the words are purposefully positioned on the page to emphasize the wave-like nature of the universe, but I seriously recommend that you check it out if you ever thought to yourself: There is nothing happening in my life right now.
Spoiler alert: You were wrong.
- Allison Joseph – “Why Poets Should Dance”
“Boogie is both noun / and verb for a reason, blessings / of motion do you both on page / and stage.”
Allison Joseph’s poem from her recent book Multitudes, which you should definitely check out if you haven’t read it already, encourages all writers to remember to live loudly in order to live well. This poem challenges serious, cantankerous artists to get in touch with the poetic spirit on the dancefloor as well as on the page. Joseph implies that good writing comes from a good life, and living well requires dancing to be fully enjoyed.
- Pablo Neruda – “Ode to Laziness”
“That night / thinking of the duties of my, elusive ode, I took off my shoes / beside the fire, / sand spilled from them / and soon I was falling / fast asleep.”
This one is clearly a great motivator for anyone suffering from senioritis. But in all seriousness, the narrative of this poem relays the frequent folly of forcing inspiration. Instead of endless planning and scheduling, Neruda tells his audience to find poetry in the small adventures that the everyman will find relatable. So, take it from a Nobel Prize winner: it’s okay to be unproductive sometimes.
- Rainer Maria Rilke – “For the Sake of a Single Poem”
“For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly.”
It was very, very difficult for me to choose only one Rilke poem for this list. If I could simply reprint all of his Letters to a Young Poet for this article, I would. Please check out this series of poems if you haven’t already, it’s a timeless book for anyone considering dedicating their life to the arts. This prose poem is effective in it ability to force us to think differently about what qualifies something as “successful” when making art. For Rilke, it’s not about a career or making a profit. Instead, the point of art lies in the work alone. Sometimes it will take a lifetime for an artist to finally create a worthwhile piece. And Rilke assures us that that’s okay. This poem is able to comfort aspiring artists by explaining that we still have time to create something that we will be proud of.
- Langston Hughes – “Wealth”
“Goodness becomes grandeur / Surpassing might of kings.”
It’s impossible to have too much Langston Hughes in your life. Poems like this remind me of why I love poetry and wanted to beginning writing in the first place. My first inclination to join this field wasn’t necessarily about me, or about getting published. Instead, I was drawn to poetry by the empathy and kindness that this medium provides. Hughes is a guiding light in that way. This poem claims that muses should always take the form of both tenderness and compassion. This power, when effectively harnessed by poets of Hughes’ caliber, can overthrow kings.
- Mahmoud Darwish – “Psalm Four”
“Blessed is he who eats an apple / and does not become a tree.”
Darwish’s ability to channel the pain of the Palestinian people into stunning, original language is one of the more amazing accomplishments of 20th century literature. The transition from college life to the working world is a frightening one, yet reading Darwish is able to put these fears into perspective. This poet creates a direct link between being a just citizen with the ability to act and think correctly in small situations, and art. I believe that Darwish provides good advice for the struggling artist: remember to pay attention when you’re eating an apple.
- Po Chü-I – “Lodging with the Old Man of the Stream”
“In spring he drives two yellow calves. / In these things he finds great repose; / Beyond these he has no wish or care.”
Maybe one of the most important factors in being able to produce good art is being around people who can help to foster that creative process. This poem suggests that this may include rather unlikely individuals. The speaker in this piece is admiring an old man who is only concerned with the simplest and most immediate tasks before him. It’s the kind of concentration that induces a level of ease. I believe that this sense of calm is also needed when applying for internships at magazines and galleries while simultaneously studying for midterms.
- William Shakespeare – Sonnet 30
“But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restor’d and sorrows ends.”
This may seem like an unusual pick. However, I’m starting to think that a lot of the anxiety surrounding graduation is not just about the uncertainty of what lies ahead, but rather having to bid farewell to that which is familiar. Shakespeare was good at writing (controversial, I know), and this sonnet ends hopefully by suggesting that the past is always being reanimated through our memories. To me, this is good news. It is encouraging to believe that we will all stay connected in some vague way, regardless of where our lives go after May.