Helena Clayton | Poems for Tough Times



Poems for Tough Times

03 Feb 2024, Posted by Helena Clayton in Uncategorized

So on Monday 29 January, Tom Hirons and I ran a poetry workshop, reading and discussing 6 poems that we felt said something important and relevant for these tricky times we’re living through.

We started with two poems that said something about the importance of interruption – how poetry serves to interrupt the way we see the world so that we wake up to what’s happening around us.  We went for different interpretations of that theme with these first two poems:

William Stafford, A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider— lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


Pat Schneider, The Patience of Ordinary Things

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?


Then we moved to truth telling and plain speaking.  We both chose a war poem. 


Adrian Mitchell, To Whom it May Concern

I was run over by the truth one day.

Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way

So stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain, Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again

So fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.

Made a marble phone book and I carved all the names

So coat my eyes with butter

Fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.

They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains

So stuff my nose with garlic

Coat my eyes with butter

Fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?

Down by the Cenotaph drinking slime

So chain my tongue with whisky

Stuff my nose with garlic

Coat my eyes with butter

Fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out, You take the human being and you twist it all about

So scrub my skin with women

Chain my tongue with whisky

Stuff my nose with garlic

Coat my eyes with butter

Fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.


Ilya Kaminsky, We Lived Happily During The War

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we


but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was

in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.


In the sixth month

of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,

our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.



And then we ended with the theme of sustaining and moved more towards connection with the natural world and the unknown, as well as the importance of connection and community:


Joy Harjo, Emergence

It’s midsummer night. The light is skinny; a thin skirt of desire skims the earth.

Dogs bark at the musk of other dogs

and the urge to go wild.

I am lingering at the edge

of a broken heart, striking relentlessly against the flint of hard will.

It’s coming apart.

And everyone knows it.

So do squash erupting in flowers

the color of the sun.

So does the momentum of grace

gathering allies

in the partying mob.

The heart knows everything.

I remember when there was no urge

to cut the land or each other into pieces, when we knew how to think in beautiful.

There is no world like the one surfacing.

I can smell it as I pace in my square room, the neighbor’s television entering my house by waves of sound.

Makes me think about buying

a new car, another kind of cigarette

when I don’t need another car

and I don’t smoke cigarettes.

A human mind is small when thinking

of small things.

It is large when embracing the maker

of walking, thinking and flying.

If I can locate the sense beyond desire, I will not eat or drink until I stagger into the earth with grief.

I will locate the point of dawning

and awaken

with the longest day in the world.



Jodie Hollander, My Dark Horses

If only I were more like my dark horses,

I wouldn’t have to worry all the time

that I was running too little and resting too much.

I’d spend my hours grazing in the sunlight,

taking long naps in the  vast pastures.

And when it was time to move along I’d know;

I’d spend some time with all those that I’d loved,

then disappear into a gathering of trees.


If only I were more like my dark horses,

I wouldn’t be so frightened

of the storms;

instead, when the clouds began to gather and fill

I’d make my way calmly to the shed,

and stand close to all the other horses.

Together, we’d let the rain fall round us,

knowing as darkness passes overhead

that above all, this is the time to be still.


And we closed with a bonus poem with Tom reading one of his own poems, perfectly reflecting the way that beautiful things still shape our lives while we live through fire and flood:

Tom Hirons, In The Meantime

Meanwhile, flowers still bloom.
The moon rises, and the sun.
Babies smile and somewhere,
Against all the odds,
Two people are falling in love.

Strangers share cigarettes and jokes.
Light plays on the surface of water.
Grace occurs on unlikely streets
And we hold each other fast|
Against entropy, the fires and the flood.

Life leans towards living
And, while death claims all things at the end,
There were such precious times between,
In which everything was radiant
And we loved, again, this world.

I hope you like those. 

I’m running my next (free) Acts of Love for Tough Times on 27 Feb.  There will certainly be a poem or two.  Full details and booking is here

And Tom and I are recording a podcast in Feb exploring love – which I’m 100% sure will be a wonderful listen.   It will be in the March Newsletter and you can subscribe to that here. 

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