Poetry in Strange Times

COVID-19 has seen me reading more, buying more books and exploring new authors and themes. I have found myself increasingly drawn to poetry. There's something comforting in the sparseness of the words; the carefully crafted phrases and sentences, conveying the poet's thoughts and innermost feelings so fulsomely. My experience has always been that poetry can help to make sense of emotion, especially in difficult times.

I have read the Romantic poets and enjoyed the Victorian Medievalism of Tennyson. All of this poetry is beautiful and full of allusion and beauty. But it's also very long poetry, and what has appealed to me this year is the short, pithy, punchy poem; which compresses all of its meaning into a few short stanzas. This just seems so perfect for the current strange times.

I've talked to friends and colleagues about the power of poetry to soothe and explain the the weirdness of our lives at this time. I was therefore delighted to read an article in the Guardian expounding the same thoughts. 

Perhaps it is only through poetry, dealing as it does in language compressed, transformed and transfigured, that sense will ever be made of the Covid-19 pandemic – at least internally and emotionally. Time has been tricksy this past year: months have fled like seconds and moments have lapsed into months. “Grief keeps a different clock,” said Jackie Kay, in an interview on Newsnight this week, before reading a delicate poem about bereavement (Darling, from 2005). Poetry is the literary form most suited to insinuate itself into such temporal peculiarities, excavating some truth out of the strangeness. Poetry, too, keeps a different clock. This can be a boon for the reader in practical ways. When something more substantial – a novel, say – seems too much like uphill work, bringing one’s attention to something small, precise and honed can be a precious respite from all of that “trudging again”.

T S Eliot's poetry is appealing to me a great deal this year, as well as Norman Nicholson's wonderful Cumbrian granite vowels. I'm not suggesting that Eliot's poetry is short; much of his poetry is long and extremely complex. But, I have always found that single stanzas of his longer poems (The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday and The Four Quartets) stay with me and haunt me with their beauty and simplicity. 

From Burnt Norton (The Four Quartets)

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possiblity
Only in a world of speculation.

From Ash Wednesday

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place.....
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.

And finally as an antidote to this serious, and very beautiful, poetry, I have to offer Wendy Cope's An Argument with Wordsworth.

*Poetry ... takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity*
(Preface to the *Lyrical Ballads* )

People are always quoting that and all of them seem to agree
And it's probably most unwise to admit that it's different for me.
I have emotion - no one who knows me could fail to detect it -
But there's a serious shortage of tranquillity in which to recollect it.
So this is my contribution to the theoretical debate:
Sometimes poetry is emotion recollected in a highly emotional state.

Well. I'm not sure if that's the last word, but it's certainly true that there is very little tranquility at the moment. However, poetry is helping me to make sense of the world and come to terms with our current situation. Poetry transcends our lives and enables me to see the bigger picture.