How Poetry is Grounding Me When I Feel Hopeless
Listen. I don’t have to tell you about the state of the world. Y’all know.
We’ve all scrolled through “self care” TikTok and therapy Instagram trying to find something. We’re not even looking for answers. Instead we want reassurance, comfort, hope. The endless scroll sucks me in and distracts me, but it doesn’t make me feel like there is solid earth beneath my feet. I feel even more adrift because it is fathomless. When I’m feeling like this, I turn to books, usually romance. But those are hundreds of pages of investment. Sometimes the ache between my shoulder blades is too acute. The pressure on my ribs is getting tighter, and I don’t have hundreds of pages in me. I don’t have the wherewithal for a third act break up. I need a syringe to the heart, Pulp Fiction style. I need poetry.
The one that got me most recently was Dead Stars by Ada Limon. There is a portion that says:
Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What
would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?
The truth of these lines struck me. We are not unspectacular things, y’all. We have come this far. A gentle reminder about the truth of what I can endure. Good poetry is true and hits different than a beautifully designed motivational quote that hints at toxic positivity. So much of what we consume is fabricated. The curated life on Instagram, the carefully edited reality TV shows, the versions of the news we choose to believe.
Reading poetry for me is like that popular mindfulness technique that therapists recommend to ground you when you feel anxiety closing in. Five things you can see. Four things you can physically feel. Three things you can hear. Two things you can smell. And one thing you can taste. Poetry makes me stay in the moment. It makes me use my senses. It forces me to slow down and be observant. It makes me notice a spatula and has me ask what that spatula is trying to teach me. Well, I’m not the poet here. Let Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer explain in an excerpt from Simple Tools.
In a sharp world,
it knows the value of being blunt;
it knows that to smooth is a gift to the world.
Some people are knives, and
I thank them. Me, I want to belong
to the order of spatulas — those
who blend, who mix, who co-mingle
dissimilars to create a cohesive whole.
Now, occasionally, when I reach for my spatula while I’m in the slog of meal prepping or in the stress of baking a treat to bring to the birthday celebration at work that I forgot about until the night before, I’ll think about belonging to the order of spatulas. I’ll remember that smoothing is also useful, just as cutting is. Remembering this poem breaks me out of the stress cycle whirring in my mind. It reminds me that taking a moment to pause whatever I feel is an urgent stressor in that moment and look up this poem, so I can get the turn of phrase exactly right.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, wherever she is, has connected me to her and to whomever I’m baking those brownies for. Poetry provides interconnectedness in a stanza. It lets me know that there are other humans out there who feel like I do. She reminds me that it’s not silly to seek answers from a spatula, but instead, she’s done it, too. And she did it before it occurred to me in a way I couldn’t have imagined on my own. That is a comforting thought for me that brings me back to myself.
Sarah Kay has provided comfort in many of her poems as well. In “Unreliable” she talks about how she lies to herself. She’s an unreliable narrator for her own life. She’s worried that she’s both too much and not enough. That her life might be a quiet one in a world of influencers and fame seekers.
Boring and alive is a comfort because a quiet life matters. A life writing poetry or watching sunsets or teaching teenagers is a good life, albeit boring. Boring, maybe. Living, definitely. Sarah Kay is unlocking emotions that I’ve been feeling, but I haven’t been able to articulate. When I started to peer over the edge into the thought spiral of desperation about what my life is good for anyway and what am I even doing with it, Sarah Kay was there to tap me on the shoulder and say, “hey, me too. I get it.”
Mary Oliver is another poet who understood the value of a quiet life. She called it “your one wild and precious life.” Wild to Mary Oliver is walking outside looking at grasshoppers in a field, not quite praying. She spent her precious life contemplating the sweetness of dogs and writing about their rhapsodies. Trying to convince us, and herself, I think, that “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
Elizabeth Acevedo’s poem You Mean You Don’t Weep at the Nail Salon? helps me remember that I am not the only one who feels alone sometimes, touch starved sometimes:
these are the answers, you feel me? & the impetus. the why. of when the manicurist holds my hand, making my nails a lilliputian abstract,
i close my fingers around hers, disrupting the polish, too tight i know then, too tight to hold a stranger, but she squeezes back & doesn’t let go & so finally i can.
After I read these lines, I rested my hand on my chest, rubbed my own arms, picked up my dog for a cuddle because in that moment I had to be my own manicurist. Then it wasn’t so lonely anymore, because Elizabeth Acevedo knows exactly how I felt in that moment. It was no longer uncharted terrifying territory. Someone had been there before me and made it through. This other person, who has no idea that I exist, has articulated exactly a truth that I couldn’t pin down while I was feeling it, helping me name my own emotions.
It’s grounding to know that I’m not the only person who thinks about my future self in moments of despair as a coping mechanism. I’m always looking out for future Nikki. When it feels like I’m the only one who is, I can remember that Rudy Francisco talks to future Rudy, too.
There are other people who are reading ridiculous stories about fish drowning and instead of shaking their heads and throwing their hands up, they find the truth, then tell it to other people so we can know that it’s not all in our heads. We are not alone in the world, and we can make it through this difficult moment because we’ve made it through difficult moments before. Poets have been where we are and are rooting for us.
Once I have found a poem that tells me the truth, then I get the joy of rereading. Every time I reread a poem, I have the opportunity to find something new. It could be that on the day I found it, I was depressed, looking for hope. I read one thing into it. A week from now when I read the poem again because I have to tell a friend or colleague about it, I read something new that I missed the first time because I’m reading it through the lens of excitement and optimism this time. The next time I read it is through a contemplative lens. Now reading this poem has turned into a meditation. Even more than that, it’s lectio divina, and I’ve started including parts in my prayers when I don’t have the words to articulate to God how I feel.
Reading poetry is realizing that I am not alone. It snaps me out of that hopeless loneliness. Unlocks those emotions and reminds me of the value of beauty. Beauty in spatulas and manicures and dried mushrooms. Instead of turning on a TV show I’ve seen half a dozen times that I can numb out to, rereading poetry increases its power. It’s the tingling of a foot waking up after being asleep. No longer numb, it hurts at first, but relief quickly follows. At a time when anxiety is high, decisions feel impossible, and I can’t be sure what’s truth and what’s conjecture, I can return to the meditation of poetry to get my bearings, to remember what’s true and important. I remember which way is up and what direction my feet should be pointed and that those feet are, indeed, on solid ground.
If you don’t know where to start, don’t worry, there are some rioters who have done that work for you. Check out 24 of the best award-winning poetry books, depression poems to get you through hard times, 8 poetry collections revolving around identity, and 50 of the best poetry books from contemporary writers.