By Brett Vogelsinger, republished with permission from Go Poems.
Since reading a poem is a daily ritual in my class, patterns develop in our poetry selections. One of those patterns—yes, a pattern students observe in much of the literature we read in English class—is that writers often tackle dense, heavy, depressing topics. Poetry is no exception. And I would argue it is important to bring these types of poems to our students.
However, we also live in an age of crushing anxiety, and each year I see more students struggle to maintain their emotional health. I want to be sure that English class, and particularly a routine that begins our class period most days, does not deliver a daily dose of doom. Picture the Pavlovian effect of that for a moment: Bell rings, gloomy poem emerges on the screen, discussion of humanity’s darkest moments ensues. . . what might be the effect of that day after day after day on our students?
Derek Mahon’s poem “Everything Is Going To Be All Right” interrupts this pattern when we need something to reassure, comfort, or uplift our class. The poem does not ignore that the world is full of problems, just as English teachers do not, but it does remind us of the healing power of nature, of the importance of taking time to observe and notice, of cycles and hope and the potential to begin again.
Dr. Katherine Dahlsgaard, a psychologist who specializes in childhood and adolescent anxiety, recently spoke to teachers in my school district about the science of hope. She said that “teachers are ambassadors of hope.” If I am to be such a teacher, I must introduce my students to the power of words not just to identify problems and give them voice but also to explore solutions, find peace in the face of turmoil, and provide comfort when we feel lost.
So I leave you with Derek Mahon reading his own poem in a video, and a question to pair with this poem for students: What brings you comfort in troubled times?
Further reading: Derek Mahon, New and Selected Poems
Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth grade English teacher and NBCT at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He is the founding editor of Go Poems, a blog of daily poems for the classroom during national poetry month. He also facilitates his school’s literary magazine, Sevenatenine, and contributes monthly posts at Moving Writers.
Additional Poetry Selections to Bring Comfort, from Our English Teachers on K-12Talk
From Sharon Kunde:
Ross Gay’s “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt“
In conversation with Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, Gay writes an ode not to an everyday object but to an everyday action. The attention he gives the physical process of “slipping the glass/through its slot” evolves into a metaphysical contemplation that never loses its sensual materiality. In the midst of our present uncertainties, Gay’s poem takes the fact of mortality seriously while reminding the reader of the abundant pleasures of embodiment.
From Geraldine Woods:
H.D.’s “The Sea Rose”
This poem has inspired me in these hard days. It compares the homely sea rose, which grows in harsh conditions, to a pampered, cultivated, hothouse flower. The sea rose’s survival makes it beautiful.
From Cathleen Beachboard:
Langston Hughes’ “Dreams”
This poem by Langston Hughes reminds us there is something deeper we need to remember, beyond the circumstances of the outside world. We were born with hope and purpose, and dreams call to that inner purpose. Roadblocks happen, setbacks happen, pain happens, but if we stop dreaming, we stop pushing the envelope of who we are. The pandemic may steal our sense of control, but Hughes reminds us that through dreams we control who we are and we will become.
From Alexis Wiggins:
Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer”
This Wilbur poem has always been a favorite since I first heard it at a graduation 25 years ago. I think it’s a poem of hope—the hope a father feels for his child, the hope older generations feel for younger ones, the hope that there is, eventually, a way out of our most difficult challenges. But I think it’s especially resonant now; the bird is a metaphor for our own struggle and confinement during this global pandemic; we may be battered right now as a worldwide community, but we, too, will eventually “clear the sill of the world” and feel the freedom, and gratitude, that comes with doing so.