May 1, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich
In a post about songs in the times of coronavirus we said that there weren’t a lot of poems around yet. We only mentioned “Lockdown” by Simon Armitage…
But things are changing – and I only and only vaguely looked at the poems written in English, here in the UK or elsewhere. For example, Gemma Peacock from County Durham wrote a poem “The Rainbow Children” to cheer up her children during isolation and give them hope. Maureen Sutton from Lincolnshire wrote some lovely verses in her local dialect about being ‘under house arrest’ – here are just a few of them (reproduced with permission) (more of here poetry here):
Well maate, I’ve gotten a craw to pick wi Boris, he’s putten me under
‘ouse arrest, an’ I dossent like it, I ain’t gone an’ done owt wrong
An’ now I’ve got to stay at ‘ome for weeks on end.
It ain’t no good werriting so I’ll just have to find summats
To keep me sen busy or I’ll go crazed. Already I’m mazzeled
About what I’m going to do?
Recently, a poem written in India, entitled “We are not in the same boat”, went viral. And so did another written in West Virginia: “First lines of emails I’ve received while quarantining.” There are many more, in many more Englishes…
Of course, poems are written all over the world, in all sorts of languages and dialects. People are probably also writing novels, short stories, plays etc. about their experiences of the virus, of isolation, of hospitalisation, of work and play, of life and death. Let me know if you come across any of these anywhere….
An outbreak of poetry
During the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001, Martin Döring and I collected all sorts of poetry written by all sorts of people and then published an article entitled “An Outbreak of Poetry” – one could try and do the same for this outbreak of a novel coronavirus. Here I only want to start a list and/or conversation about poetry as one of the cultural manifestations of Covid-19, alongside music and songs, images, and metaphors.
Just like in 2001 with foot and mouth, in 2020 children of the coronavirus, stuck at home with home schooling or just stuck at home, have been asked to write poems about their experiences, such as this one. There are also poems that are enacted by children on YouTube, TikTok and Twitter, such as this one.
There are many poems written and/or enacted by health care and other key workers. This one entitled “You clap for me know” became famous. It celebrates those who, before the virus, were cast aside as immigrants. And now, surprise, people realise that they can’t live without them, or even die without them. It was written by Darren James Smith and produced by Sachini Imbuldeniya. An A&E nurse, Piers Harrison-Reid, penned a love poem to the NHS. There is also a book of poems, Coronarhymes, in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières.
Other poems mourn the death of loved ones who are not statistics, such ‘My sister is not a statistic’. There is a lot of grief in the world. NPR in the USA took up this topic and “NPR’s poet-in-residence Kwame Alexander pointed to Nancy Cross Dunham’s poem, “What I’m Learning About Grief,” and asked that submissions begin with those same words.” I loved this fragment of a poem in particular: “Hard times call for soft people. There is softness in stillness, in staying home, in distractions deleted, in a togetherness that stretches great distances.”
There are also poems about healing, like this one entitled “And the people stayed home”, which is about exploring new ways of life.
Stop the poetry
However, there are also some people who call for a halt to the poem writing. In an article entitled “The poets of the pandemic” Palash Krishna Mehrotra writes: “I understand that poets can be fascinated by the pathology of disease. But then why weren’t the novel coronavirus poets writing about cancer, AIDS, cholera, small pox, SARS, nipah, zika, dengue and chikungunya? Dengue took out my dentist last year; I resisted the temptation to convert ashes to rhyme.”
I understand his sentiment, but I think he might be slightly wrong. I have the feeling and some evidence that every disaster, every epidemic or pandemic brings forth an outpouring of poetry and rhyme. We observed this more closely during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001, but more recently I also saw this happening during Zika, for example, not to mention cancer and AIDS.
A poetry project
There are of course also those that want to foster poetry as a form of therapy or history writing, to transport you in time and place, or for celebrating connectedness in days of disconnection. In the UK, the poet Carol Ann Duffy “has launched an international poetry project with major names including Imtiaz Dharker, Roger McGough and Ian McMillan, as a response to the coronavirus pandemic”. This is supposed to create “a living record” of the coronavirus pandemic “as seen through our poets’ eyes”. You can read some of the poems being written in this Guardian article.
April was national poetry month and that stimulated some pandemic poetry, as in this collection which you can leaf through online! “In this collection, the poets each address life navigating the coronavirus and the extreme cultural shifts we’re all dealing with right now.” They are inspiring! Have a look!