In The Joy of Poetry, Megan Willome says, “There are pills to help a person go to sleep and pills to help a person stay asleep. I have not found a pill that bestows good dreams. For that I needed Harry Potter. In the chapter, and in our book club discussion this week, she considered the ways that poems can help us manage the things that go bump in the night.
Poets have forever been writing about the night, both those things that go bump and the things that delight. Enjoy a sampling in this collection of 10 great night poems.
1. Simple Gifts
Lean against me once more, your hair
Pillowed on my heartbeat. It’s been nearly
Nine months since you died: time to be
Born again and fill your lungs with light,
Every new breath an ache and slow release.
This year’s late, misshapen Christmas tree
Stands aslant at the window, the strung-out bulbs
Blinking red and green and blue. Soon we’ll bring
The family presents down and spread them under
The low boughs of the pine in shaky heaps.
I have no gift for you except this wounded memory.
And what have you brought back for me but yourself?
The gift shops of the dead stay closed forever.
It’s midnight, and the fire feeds on old familiar wood.
Lay your head against me, love, and calm my crazy heart.
— Elton Glaser, author of The Law of Falling Bodies
There is but one night left before you go
and swiftly step long hours until the dawn
with kisses pressed between us, frantic, slow
as if to rid our world of what’s beyond
the measured pacing of our twinnéd hearts
which dance in time to whispered song and slip
within our coffers; there to land athwart
as though the endless sea upon a ship
did spill its riches, drowning kings and all
earthly things that men may seek possession
of—baubles, toys, impressions alike fall
to sea’s unyielding grip without exception,
and we are water; endless; as the sea—
when pulled away, return always to me.
3. The Birthnight
Dearest, it was a night
That in its darkness rocked Orion’s stars;
A sighing wind ran faintly white
Along the willows, and the cedar boughs
Laid their wide hands in stealthy peace across
The starry silence of their antique moss:
No sound save rushing air
Cold, yet all sweet with Spring,
And in thy mother’s arms, couched weeping there,
Thou, lovely thing.
— Walter de la Mare
I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
I found a button,
It was sitting like the last star
in a mangled universe,
and all our brilliance
were melting a hole
into the earth
and invisible dust
kept falling, falling
out and over
day, night, history.
I picked it up—
and thought of your
curved as a shell
and just as delicate;
I thought of thin white cotton,
a blouse to touch
and a line of empty buttonholes.
Then I knew
that the sea must have taken it
this mother-of-pearl, this last star,
and I wished for a silver needle
and a virgin spool
— L.L. Barkat, author of Love, Etc.
The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low:
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
— Robert Browning
7. Acquainted with the Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right
I have been one acquainted with the night.
8. Summer Night, Riverside
In the wild soft summer darkness
How many and many a night we two together
Sat in the park and watched the Hudson
Wearing her lights like golden spangles
Glinting on black satin.
The rail along the curving pathway
Was low in a happy place to let us cross,
And down the hill a tree that dripped with bloom
While your kisses and the flowers,
Tangled in my hair….
The frail white stars moved slowly over the sky.
And now, far off
In the fragrant darkness
The tree is tremulous again with bloom
For June comes back.
To-night what girl
Dreamily before her mirror shakes from her hair
This year’s blossoms, clinging to its coils?
This is my cap,
this is my overcoat,
here is my shave kit
in its linen pouch.
Some field rations:
my dish, my tumbler,
here in the tin-plate
I’ve scratched my name.
Scratched it here with this
I keep concealed
from coveting eyes.
In the bread bag I have
a pair of wool socks
and a few things that I
discuss with no one,
and these form a pillow
for my head at night.
Some cardboard lies
between me and the ground.
The pencil’s the thing
I love the most:
By day it writes verses
I make up at night.
This is my notebook,
this my rain gear,
this is my towel,
this is my twine.
— Günter Eich, translated by Joshua Mehigan, author of Accepting the Disaster
What struck me first was their panic.
Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—
and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting
in their faces. Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.
She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back
of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she’s being taken along.
She craned her neck.
She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.
That is the chicken I want to be.
— Jane Mead, author of The Lord and the General Din of the World
Photo by 白士 李, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Featured poems appeared previously in Every Day Poems with permission of the poet or publisher, appeared in our community poetry writing prompts or are in the public domain.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro