You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for life’s ups and downs
Words can be a way to unlock our feelings. Poetry allows us to be in touch with our emotions and explore our vulnerability. Poetry can provide a clear expression of emotion at moments that are overwhelming and burdensome.
Rachel Kelly is a bestselling author, mental health campaigner and Ambassador for SANE. Poetry has played a huge role throughout her life and was an integral part of her recovery with depression.
As an advocate for the healing powers of poetry, her new book You’ll Never Walk Alone is an attempt to convey her enthusiasm and passion for the written word. It is a collection of “poems for life’s ups and downs” that will show you how to bring poetry into your everyday emotional reality, where it can be a new tool for wellbeing. Her hope is that poems can become part of everyone’s emotional life too, even if you don’t think poetry is ‘your thing’.
For National Poetry Day (6 October), Rachel shares two poems featured in You’ll Never Walk Alone that she uses to help her own mental health.
For me, poetry makes me feel less alone, especially if I’m feeling sad. It allows my feelings, and by allowing them, they are less frightening and pass more quickly. This first poem is about a feeling of abandonment and accepting our limitations; the second is about how hard it can be to love ourselves.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Long way from my home.
Sometimes I wish I could fly
Like a bird up in the sky
Oh, sometimes I wish I could fly
Fly like a bird up in the sky
Sometimes I wish I could fly
Like a bird up in the sky
Closer to my home.
Motherless children have a hard time Motherless children have such a hard time Motherless children have such a really hard time
A long way from home.
Sometimes I feel like freedom is near Sometimes I feel like freedom is here Sometimes I feel like freedom is so near But we’re so far from home.
What if we cannot rely on the one person who supposedly will always be there for us, our mother? This African American spiritual, which would traditionally have been sung by enslaved people, conveys the desperation of that sense of utter abandonment.
The first three lines have a child-like repetition about them, as if a lonely kid were rocking themselves to sleep. The verses, given their origin, naturally have a sing-song quality to them and do indeed roll off the tongue. There is an inkling of hope in the word ‘Sometimes’: a reminder that we do not always feel so motherless. Although this plaintive lament can be interpreted literally, referring to the horror of the breaking up of families by separating children from their parents, it might also be metaphorical. The motherless child could be yearning for his or her African homeland, each verse ending with the word ‘home’.
This idea is developed in the second verse, in which the writer longs to fly ‘closer to my home’. Repetition adds to the plaintive feel of this cry from the heart. The third verse suggests quite how tough the experience is of being motherless: it is ‘hard’; ‘such a hard time’; and ‘such a really hard time’. In the last verse, that word ‘Sometimes’ again suggests the possibility of hope.
Yet the spiritual achieves its power by juxtaposing the longing for freedom, and the desire to be reunited with home in every sense, with the finality and utter desperation of the last line: ‘But we’re so far from home’. And, despite all this suffering, at no point does the writer call for retribution.
Nothing compares with the experience of enslaved people. But all of us can feel motherless at times, even if we are blessed with the most loving of mothers. In my darkest hour, when I suffered severe depression, my mother could not comfort me – she who had hitherto been able to soothe any pain. There is, it turns out, a limit to a mother’s ability to succour her child.
It was something my own mother recognised: it was she who gave me this poem. Now a mother myself, I too sometimes feel powerless in the face of the suffering of my own children, or indeed my own feelings of abandonment. This spiritual allows me to accept my own limitations, just as it may have helped my mother to accept hers.
The second poem I want to share is for anyone who finds it hard to love themselves.
Love after Love
by Derek Walcott
The time will come
When with elation
You will greet yourself arriving at your own
door, in your own mirror
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,
And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you
All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Why is loving ourselves so hard? And how can we change this? Here, Walcott takes us by the hand and leads us not just to imagine but to believe in a new relationship with ourselves. We can relax right from the start of the poem, in the astonishing certainty that, in the future, we will greet ourselves with elation. It is only a matter of time.
Thus we can reverse the narrative that to love ourselves is selfish and wrong. It is natural, and normal, and should be part of our everyday lives: an ordinariness suggested by your ‘own door’ and your ‘own mirror’, and the gentle invocation to ‘sit here. Eat.’
In case we slip back into our old ways of thinking, Walcott reinforces his certainty with the insistent and imperative ‘will’ in ‘You will love again’. We need that certainty. We are so used to looking for ourselves where we are not, searching for the approval and esteem of our fellows and peers no matter what the cost to ourselves.
Instead, we can embrace unconditional love, just as Walcott embraces us. The frantic search for the approval of others is over. The poem ends with that same certainty. The simple instruction to ‘sit’. But the poet’s invitation is more than simply to eat; it is to feast. Here is a poem for the Autumn of our minds: a time to gather in and gorge on Walcott’s message of self-love and acceptance, ready for any psychological challenge.
You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for life’s ups and downs is a collection of the kind of inspirational texts – mainly poems – that can accompany us, whatever we are feeling, from sorrow to delight. The poems are organised according to the season in which they ‘belong’: we all have seasons of our minds, be they wintery and dark, or more spring-like and hopeful.
This book will show you how to bring poetry into your everyday emotional reality, where it can be a new tool for wellbeing. And one that means you’ll never walk alone.
You’ll Never Walk Alone is available in hardback, eBook and audiobook from 3 November 2022. You can pre-order your copy now at bit.ly/neverwalkalonepoems