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Poetry to Inspire You in the Recession

April 09, 2009
by Rachel Balik
Poets have the gift of showing us a viewpoint that we might not have taken the time to find on our own. Thanks to the recession, the prevailing sentiment is one of gloom and doom, but some poetry can help us find the silver lining in the clouds. Here are a few of our favorites, in honor of National Poetry Month.

In a Dark Time

Sometimes, when things are looking bleak, all you need is something beautiful to remind you that the world is bigger than Wall Street, Main Street or those grossly unfair AIG bonuses. In Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Darkling Thrush,” the narrator is feeling beyond bleak on the New Year’s Eve that marks the turning of the century from the 19th to the 20th. But he hears the singing of a bird, which makes him think that the bird is singing of, “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware.” Suddenly, he sees that things may not be quite as desolate as they first appeared.

It’s often been said that the gift of a true poet is that he or she shows us the truth of a moment; so there’s seemingly no point in reading a poem that denies the reality of our situation. But there are poems that show us that even in our bleakest hour, there’s redemption to be found. When things are going well, we can become complacent, but when put to the test, we’re forced to recognize the strength of our true selves. Theodore Roethke’s most famous poem, “In a Dark Time,” reminds us in the opening line, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” The poem might be a good read for someone like Bernie Madoff, or anyone who has found himself with “shadow pinned against a sweating wall.” In the final lines, Roethke shows us that there’s some benefit to hitting rock bottom: “a fallen man, I climb out of my fear.”

Financial Crisis, Identity Crisis, or Both?

One standout line in Roethke’s poem is, “Which I is I?” For many people, especially those who had made fortunes in banking or investing, the financial crisis lead to a crisis of personal confidence. If you base  your whole identity on wealth or career success, it’s time you found new ways to value yourself. If you’re struggling financially or worried about your job, your life is bound to feel strained. But money and your career are not the things that make you who you are. F.D. Reeve’s poem, “Identity Crisis,” explores the angst of one soul who fears that success is the only thing worth valuing. Reeve reminds us that love, and living well, are the things that truly matter.

Reeve’s poem also reminds us that often, success is defined for us by someone else. The recession has certainly rendered some paths useless; now’s not a good time to get rich by short selling or by inventing a car that’s even bigger and more expensive than a Hummer. But it can also help us believe that maybe our pipe dreams are more realizable than we suspected. Shel Silverstein’s short poem, “Listen to the Mustn’ts” joyously argues that “anything is possible” and “anything can be.”

Rebounding and Regrowth

In fact, for many, the recession has provided a much-needed opportunity for reevaluation and reinvention. There have been numerous stories of bankers who suddenly discovered they were artists or poets. The world is changing faster than most of us can chronicle—even with 140-character Twitter updates. But change can be a good opportunity to let go of past disappointment and move on to new and wonderful things. In “Everything Changes,” Bertolt Brecht states in no uncertain terms that, “What happened, happened.” Fortunately, although you can’t reverse the past, “You can start/All over with the last breath.” The line break reassures us that while it may seem like everything is ending with our last breath, life is in constant flux.

Sometimes positive change takes a little longer than we’d like. But if we keep our dreams in mind, they never really disappear, as Langston Hughes writes in “A Dream Deferred,” He wonders if dreams fester, dry up or “sag like a heavy load.” They may, he writes. But there is a greater chance that they eventually “explode.”

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