Diary of a Poet

Plague Poetry

I’ve been struck by the terminology of the Covid-19 pandemic: 

Essential workers. Stay home stay safe. Shelter-in-place. Masks, ventilators, hand sanitizer. Tests, tracking, social distancing. Working from home. Zoom. Virtual graduations, weddings, birthday parties. Isolation.

None of these words and phrases comes close to describing the state of panic and paralysis we find ourselves in. Nor do they describe the actual state of being sick.

For a perspective on illness and its strange side effects, I turned to “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf’s essay from Selected Essays, Oxford University Press, 2008. In it, she writes, “Finally, among the drawbacks of illness as matter for literature there is the poverty of language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache…let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”

Clearly, it’s up to the poets to describe what’s going on in the world of coronavirus. I’ve written a few pieces already, inspired by the oddly detached phrases I referred to in the first paragraph of this blog post. I wrote my flash essay, “Social Distancing,” in fifteen minutes after seeing a call at Critical Read for short essays about works of art that were particularly meaningful as we all shifted to being indoors. A postcard of Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1938 painting, Ram’s Head, Blue Morning, inspired the essay.

VK Sreelesh in India and Betsy Andrews in the US started Global Poemic: Kindred Voices on the Era of COVID-19, a new online journal, dedicated to publishing poems “that engage with this era of global pandemic.” (My poem, “Sheltered in Place,” will appear on July 5.) 

Alice Quinn, the former executive director of the Poetry Society of America, created 

Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic in just 45 days. It contains poems by Jane Hirshfield, Billy Collins, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Jenny Xie and Matthew Zapruder, to name a few. 

From the first poem in the book, “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?” by Julia Alvarez:

Will the lines be six feet apart? 

(Will) (each) (word) (have) (to) (be) (masked) (?)

The language of illness is, as Woolf puts it, “primitive, subtle, sensual, obscene.” It is urgent, terrifying, and sacred. These are qualities found in poetry.

Later in the same essay, Woolf writes, “There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals.” 

The part about “the cautious respectability of health” implies that when we are ill, we can blurt out truths we wouldn’t dream of when well.

This is the time for honesty and fresh, raw language. This is the time for poetry.

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