Less on How to Cope, More on How to Hope – The Power of Poetry

Happy New Year.  Can it be the 8th already? Here’s hoping that 2022 will be better than its two predecessors.  It’s more than two years since I have been to a poetry reading and I really miss those in person encounters with the art of the poem.

Today I am looking at a few stanzas from some favourite works because sometimes only poetry will do.

Starting with Sylvia Plath.  This extract from her poem ‘Wuthering Heights’ based on her experiences in Yorkshire where Ted Hughes family lived.  This poem was composed in 1961 and published in Crossing the Water (1971).  In this stanza, I feel, lies  poetic sheep made manifest.

The sheep know where they are,

browsing in their dirty wool clouds,

gray as the weather

The black slots of their pupils take me in.

It is like being mailed into space,

a thin, silly message.

They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,

all wig curls and yellow teeth

and hard, marbly baas.

From ‘Wuthering Heights’, Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems. Faber.


I especially love the image of being ‘mailed into space’.  So redolent of the sort of vacuum you feel when you look at a sheep and it looks back at you but seems to see nothing.

Human beings have a sense of purpose, a mission, or at least wish for one.  This sense of knowing where , how and what we should be doing with out lives,  animals don’t  – as far as we know – have the same sense of mission.  But they have something else instead – a survival instinct or something deeper and purer?

Walt Whitman knew this.

I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained,

I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.


They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied… not one is demented with the mania of owning things…

Extract from Leaves of Grass (150th Anniversary Ed. OUP 2005)


Few poets understand the natural world the way that Mary Oliver does.  Here is an extract from her poem ‘The Turtle’.

……and you think

Of her patience, her fortitude

Her determination to complete

What she was born to do –

And then you realise a greater thing –

She doesn’t consider

what she was born to do.

She’s only filled

with an old, blind wish.

It isn’t even hers but came to her

In the rain or soft wind

Which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.

 Mary Oliver. New and Selected Poems (Vol 1 Beacon Press).


I love that line ‘she doesn’t consider what she was born to do’ and the natural instinct to survive and procreate described as ‘an old, blind wish’.  Could there be a more apt description?

It must be five years or more since I heard Alice Oswald read at the Southbank.   She read her long poem Tithonus (46 Minutes in the Life of a Dawn), intended to be experienced in performance over 46 minutes, as in the period of a sunrise in her native Devon.  This poem was  subsequently published in her collection Falling Awake (Cape, 2016).  A spellbinding reading which everyone present would surely remember.  I certainly do.  Oswald was so exhausted afterwards she could barely sign the copies of her books for which hundreds of us enthusiastically queued.

Here is an extract from ‘Thrift, from her collection Weeds and Wildflowers (Faber 2009) which is only partially about flowers:

But she worked she worked

To the factory rhythm

Of the sea’s boredom.

Its bouts of atheism.


And by the weekend

Set up a stall

Of paper flowers

And sold them all.


So she made substance out of

Lack of substance.

Hard of hearing

She thrived on silence.


Finally, if the thought of another plague year and the appalling weather and the eco-crisis are proving a little too much

here is some advice from John Keats, less on how to cope, more on how to hope.


Therefore on every morrow, are we wreathing

A flowery band to bind us to the earth

Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth

Of noble natures, of the gloomy days

Of all the unhealthy and o-er darkened ways

made for our searching: yes, in spite of all

Some shape of beauty moves way the pall

From our dark spirits….


Endymion, Book 1. John Keats, Selected by Andrew Motion (Faber, 2000)

8 thoughts on “Less on How to Cope, More on How to Hope – The Power of Poetry

  1. Thank you for all these lovely “animal” poems; being a huge sheep fan (though not necessarily a fan of huge sheep), I especially love the Sylvia Plath imagery