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Susannah Herbert shares 5 of her favourite poems this National Poetry Day

Written by Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation.

In every life, there are times when ordinary words are just not enough. I’ve been looking for vivid, memorable ways to say “I miss you” or “I value you”, or just “hang on in there” for as long I’ve been alive. As a small child, it was enough to crayon a huge splodgy colourful flower, or something that could be mistaken for a flower by a generous eye.

These days, taking my cue from William Sieghart, who founded National Poetry Day 26 years ago, I use lines of poetry instead. William’s best-selling The Poetry Pharmacy anthology features poems for all emotional needs, from loneliness to heartbreak. When the actors Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry and Andrew Scott performed them earlier this year, they reached more than 10 million people via the Instagram channel of Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke.

Long before Instagram, however, William started with printed words on paper, responding to friends’ crises with the gift of a poem to be pinned up where it could be seen every day.

This year, with TouchNote, National Poetry Day has taken this idea and given it a twist so that anyone can share lines from a poem with a friend via a postcard, simply by downloading the app, choosing a design with words that speak to them, and writing a message on the back.

It’s not always easy to know where to start with poetry, but here are tried and tested lines that William assures me never fail.

  1. For loneliness, he prescribes these words by the 14th century Persian poet Hafez:

I wish I could show you

When you are lonely or in darkness,

The Astonishing Light

Of your own Being!

2) For self-recrimination, this by Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repeating

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

3) For hopelessness? These Oscar Hammerstein lines have a new resonance when sent, personally and in sympathy, by one person to another:

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone.

4) On the good days, when you want to share joy…

Christina Rossetti’s “My heart is like a singing bird/ whose nest in is a watered shoot,” communicates a kind of happiness that feels like a dance, or a song of welcome.

5) When you need to thank a friend for encouraging you to send a postcard, say, instead of texting emojis these lines by Vidyan Ravinthiran come to mind:

Like many,

I had forgotten that time isn’t money

and I don’t need always to be on the move

within the world you’ve shown me how to love.

Each poem postcard sent will make a difference: not just to its recipient, but to the tens of thousands of schools and libraries who seize upon National Poetry Day’s gorgeous resources — bookmarks, posters, films. 30p from each card sent will be donated to Forward Arts Foundation, the charity which encourages everyone to enjoy, discover and share poems through National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes for Poetry.

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TouchNote / October 2020
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