April is traditionally filled with patronizing one of the oldest forms of literary art — poetry. During National Poetry Month, audiences typically attend readings and discussions and use this time to build community.
This year, like everything else, coronavirus has changed how we celebrate. We can still patronize bookstores online. Many venues are using Zoom to sponsor public participatory readings. You can still share your poems with friends and strangers. And you can always curl up with a poetry volume in your lap. But gatherings in physical spaces are a non-starter.
For those of us who love poetry, the most haunting question this April has nothing to do with whether we’re on the couch, or in the auditorium. It’s a deeper, more critical question.
Is poetry useful to the general public during a crisis?
Music is commonly believed to soothe troubled souls and stories written in easy-to-read prose entertain huge popular audiences.
Poetry, on the other hand, is sometimes perceived as difficult, slow, or ambiguous to read. It’s been said that the people who write it often don’t read it themselves. Not to mention that struggling Americans have a thousand other things on their mind right now other than poetry.
The great poet WH Auden wrote that “Poetry changes nothing.” The issue that he raised matters in particular right now, while we celebrate National Poetry month, but we suffer claustrophobia and anxiety of a kind unknown in generations. Is poetry still relevant in the middle of this plight? And can it somehow help change anything?
Poetry can’t end the COVID-19 pandemic, nor forestall the tragic virus-related deaths America is predicted to endure. Poetry doesn’t pretend to be a miraculous medical antidote. It is limited, just as we as fragile human beings are limited with how much we can take on.
But those things that can make it hard to start getting into it – its complex systems, sometimes allusive, sometimes joyous, and sometimes tragic — reflect our own complex and varied human experience back at us. This is its strength. It is human, flawed, complicated. It is an emotional mirror.
When we’re facing such a historic moment, it can be a way of contextualizing the horror that is cathartic.
For example,T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” – one of the best-known poems in the English language – is a poem that evokes a sense of mass horror, yet compartmentalized solitude. You may have studied this long poem in college. Did it seem lugubrious then? You many find its opening lines prescient and powerful in the context of today.
The great themes of love and death occupy the centerpiece of countless verses, because love and mortality are intrinsic to existence.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…
Or do you pine to have your whole life’s experience summed up in a few lines? Then you might respond favorably to a poem like Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”:
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
For myself, I believe the most important impact poetry can have in this moment is its ability to shape the choices we make after the pandemic is over.
Poetry has a long history of honoring restorative justice. It’s why Percy Bysshe Shelly called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The experience of seeing healthcare workers disrespected and inadequately supported, or knowing that the COVID-19 death toll includes disproportionately high numbers of black Americans, has focused attention on the social inequities exacerbated by unchecked private enterprise. It’s calling attention to the lack of rent protections, poor wages for service workers, the absence of universal healthcare, and racism in healthcare.
A growing reaction against these injustices has been expressed over the past thirty years by influential spoken word bards whose work addresses racism, poverty, and classism. Its spirit is captured in a quote from the major mid-20th century writer William Carlos Williams.
It is difficult/to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there./Hear me out/for I too am concerned/and every man/who wants to die at peace in his bed/besides.
Poetry may not offer you quick relief in the way other forms of culture can, but it is a tool to reimagine ourselves and our society. So I implore you to turn to poetry, in April 2020, month and year of the pandemic. I urge you to let it help you envision social and spiritual change.