Living at a time when everything is changing can leave us grasping for something familiar to hold on to. And in these trying times, we can turn to literature as a source of hope and an antidote to despair. John Keating said it best: “Poetry, beauty, romance, love. These are what we stay alive for.”
Here are some of our favorite poems, read by some of our favorite people.
1. Andrew Scott reads “Everything Will Be All Right” by Derek Mahon
Fleabag’s Hot Priest (but also, our favorite Moriarty) reads a poem we all badly need to hear right now. The performance is part of Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke’s series of poetry readings on Instagram which features poems for the heart, mind, and soul from the collection, Poetry Pharmacy.
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.
2. Helena Bonham Carter reads “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
Another poem that brings comfort and relief is Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”. The reading by Helena Bonham Carter is from Poetry Pharmacy as well. “Wild Geese” reminds us to find our place in nature, to treat ourselves with kindness, to let the soft animal within us love freely, and essentially, to just let ourselves be.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Bonus: Watch Mary Oliver herself read the poem here.
3. Alan Rickman reads “The Long War” by Laurie Lee
From Bellatrix Lestrange, we go to Severus Snape. Alan Rickman reads “The Long War” for Peace Day. Laurie Lee’s poem sums up the reality of all wars—no one ever really wins.
caught in one grief, we share one wound, and cry one dialect of pain.
4. Sir Patrick Stewart reads “Sonnet 116” by William Shakespeare
Perhaps the first pandemic poetry reading on Instagram is #ASonnetADay by Sir Patrick Stewart, a Shakespearean actor himself. The actor, best known as Captain Picard in Star Trek and Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men, has been reading one of The Bard’s 154 sonnets every day since March.
Sonnet 116 is an attempt to define love as constant and unchanging. So if this lockdown is preventing you from seeing your beloved, just remember that love bears it out even to the edge of doom. Or at least that’s what Shakespeare says.
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
5. David Tennant reads “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare
Next on this list is another Shakespeare sonnet read by another Shakespearean actor (but instead of the USS Enterprise, he rides around in the TARDIS), David Tennant.
Tennant, known to fangirls and fanboys the world over as the Tenth Doctor, or Crowley, or Kilgrave, reads one of the most popular Shakespeare’s sonnets, #18—a tribute to the beauty of a beloved and the immortality of art.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate
Bonus: David Tennant explains why Shakespeare still matters.
6. Tom Hiddleston reads “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
The actor has talked extensively about his love for poetry—for Shakespeare, in particular. Like other actors in this list, Hiddleston is no stranger to performing Shakespeare. In fact, his portrayal of Loki is inspired by The Bard’s characters. Take Edmund’s illegitimate son status, Iago’s deceit, Macbeth’s ambition, and you pretty much have the God of Mischief.
But in this poetry reading, Hiddleston exclaims “No! I am not Prince Hamlet” as he brings to life “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. In this poem, T.S. Eliot explores themes of alienation, existential dread, and anxiety over the passage of time—you know, just basic millennial stuff.
For I have known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
7. Benedict Cumberbatch reads “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
We’re on a streak of Shakespeare actors reading poetry, and up next is Benedict Cumberbatch. The Sherlock and Doctor Strange actor can’t pronounce “penguins” but he does a great job reading all the invented words in “Jabberwocky”.
The poem, first published in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, is an example of linguistic inventiveness. Our favorite made-up words include: bandersnatch, burbled, and Jubjub bird.
Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!
8. Tom Waits reads “The Laughing Heart” by Charles Bukowksi
When he isn’t busy praying that he doesn’t fall in love with you, Tom Waits uses his raspy voice to breathe life into a Bukowski poem. While many of Bukowski’s poems are known for lamenting the drudgery of everyday living and the bleakness of life in general, “The Laughing Heart” emboldens us to fight against the mundane, against dank submission and to always remember, there is a light somewhere.
there is a light somewhere. it may not be much light but it beats the darkness.
9. Nicki Minaj reads “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was a poet and civil rights activist whose works have inspired generations of women. “Still I Rise” is an anthem of women empowerment that touches on issues of racism and misogyny. In this reading for a benefit concert, Nicki Minaj fittingly delivers the lines: “Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise, that I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs,” as the audience cheers her on.
You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.
10. Anthony Hopkins reads “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
Last on our list is “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” read by the great actor Anthony Hopkins, who also directed the film Dylan Thomas: The Return Journey.
Thomas’s masterpiece, also used in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, was written for his dying father. While the poem laments the inevitability of death and reflects on mortality and impermanence, it also urges us to fight for survival, to struggle and resist up to very last—even when all is seemingly hopeless.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Bonus: Andy Serkis reads “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien
We’ve curated poetry readings for your listening pleasure, but if something long (like 12 hours long) is more your speed, check out Gollum himself reading the entirety of “The Hobbit”. Andy Serkis started #TheHobbitathon to raise funds for COVID-19 relief. You can check out the reading over on YouTube.
Speaking of fantasy novels, a reading of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is also happening.
Patriz Biliran and Regina Peñarroyo co-run The Ampersand and write blog articles in their free time.