It is hard to learn a poem By Heart a poem in December, especially this December. It is also necessary. Going in, I knew I wanted something brief and, well, salvific. I found it in Derek Mahon’s “Everything Is Going To Be All Right.”
Everything Is Going To Be All Right
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there’s no need to go into that.
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
Derek Mahon passed away this year. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland (a city I visited in 2012, for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking), but he lived in the Republic of Ireland. He hung out with fellow poets Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. He’s been compared to the American poet W.H. Auden, whose poetry we will learn By Heart in early 2021. I’d never heard of Mahon or of this poem, deemed the unofficial poem of the pandemic.
But I did know actor Andrew Scott — both as Moriarty and as The Priest (aka Hot Priest). If he wants to read poetry to me, I’m here for it. And Scott doesn’t just read the poem: He acts it. As I watched I began to make up a story about the man he seems to be portraying, perhaps a man sick in bed, who has sat up just long enough to share some encouragement with us.
For a poem that mentions dying in line 4 —twice — it’s incredibly sunny. The sun rises and the day breaks and there is that riotous sunlight. Clouds are clearing, clouds are flying. Somehow everything is going to be all right; it says so from the title to the final line.
But how? What do we do with the woundedness in our world and in our lives and in ourselves?
If we’re poets, we write about it.
Every day that I write I write at least one poem, and I give myself permission to write bad poetry. What is important is to maintain “the watchful heart.” That is the “hidden source” that causes lines to occasionally “flow from the hand unbidden.” (Other times I have to bid them come.) Writing regularly lets me glimpse those far cities, “beautiful and bright.”
This year may have left us flat on our backs, but perhaps that’s the only time we see “a high tide reflected on the ceiling.” How can we not be just a little bit glad?
Did you memorize “Everything Is Going To Be All Right” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the poem.
By Heart for January
For the next By Heart gathering, January 29, we’ll learn “As I Walked Out One Evening” by W.H. Auden.
As I Walked Out One Evening
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.
‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
Browse more By Heart
“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