Poems for Pandemics
By Sarah Skwire
One of the wisest things ever said about poetry was said by the Canadian poet Tom Wayman in his poem “What Good Poems are For.” Wayman describes a man who is so moved by a poem “about work he did, what he knew about,/ written by somebody like himself” that he takes it from table to table in a dive bar, reading it to every customer. Wayman tells us that this is because the man realized that the poet’s words were “a person is speaking/ in a world full of people talking.”
Our world is full of people talking lately. Here are some people speaking–sometimes across the centuries. To me, the awareness that others have felt the many things I have felt lately and have struggled with the many things that challenge me these days makes me feel less alone, even while socially isolated.
So here are some poems for pandemics.
1- The first poem is Thomas Nashe’s classic, “A Litany in the Time of Plague.” The poem’s first two lines, “Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss/ This world uncertain is” described the plague times through which Nashe was living, and they seem equally applicable to our own uncertain times. Whether we worry about illness, or economic instability, or the changeability of governments, we all know that “this world uncertain is.”
2- William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers” is famous in English departments for its catalogue of “makers” (poets) and the list of the kind of verse each wrote that emerges as Dunbar lists the loss of his many friends and fellow writers. For those, now, who are facing the loss of friends and companions, Dunbar’s mourning and resignation may feel painfully familiar. Certainly, his Latin refrain, which translates as “The fear of death disturbs me,” rings true for many of us.
3- The great poet John Donne wrote movingly of his own illness in many works. Many readers will be familiar with at least the title of his sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud” and with some quotations from his prose work Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. (If you know the line “No man is an island,” that’s what you’re quoting.) Donne’s “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness” is one of the most moving meditations on illness and suffering that I have read. The notion of illness “tuning us” until we can become part of the Divine music may not sit well with all, but Donne’s ability to find beauty in pain is remarkable nonetheless.
4- Contemporary poet Mary Oliver (a favorite of Econtalk’s Russ Roberts) records the illness of her neighbor in the prose-poem, August. Oliver’s poem closes with a reference to Van Gogh’s painting Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) and her line “Everything wrong, and nowhere to go” concisely and delicately expresses both the helplessness of Van Gogh’s painting and the feelings of a world in quarantine.
5- Jane Kenyon, who wrote frequently of her battles with illness and depression, gives us a poem that takes on the mental costs of social isolation and anxiety. “Having it Out with Melancholy” takes the reader through the long and painful course of one of the poet’s bouts of depression, but–in the end–promises a respite, if not a cure. “I am overcome/ by ordinary contentment.” (Readers who enjoy Kenyon’s voice might want to read her poem “Otherwise” as well for a celebration of the beauty and the fragility of the every day. “I got out of bed/ On two strong legs. / It might have been/ otherwise.”)
6- I’ve just discovered Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones” which, today, seems to me to be very much about parenting during a pandemic.
“though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.”
7- But perhaps this is enough despair. Ogden Nash can make us smile with his description of the lovely Isabel and her case of the sniffles in “The Sniffle.” No matter how we’re feeling, we can all surely work to be “snivelly civilly,” right?
8- Once we have smiled, we cannot be too far from being able to see the beauty even in the imperfect, spotted world. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s classic poem, “Pied Beauty” reassures the reader that all the things that seem “fickle, freckled,” and maybe hopelessly flawed, come together in the end to display and to praise a beauty “past change.” It seems a good reminder to look for this kind of beauty in a world that is full of change and imperfection.
And, last, one poem on the beauty of patience, for those who are tired of waiting for things to improve, but who are still doing whatever they can to improve the place where they are: Seamus Heaney’s “St. Kevin and the Blackbird.” In our state of waiting we are, it turns out, like Kevin, “self forgetful or in agony all the time.”