The poem “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland, who died in April, opens with the words, “In the worst hour of the worst season/ of the worst year of a whole people.” Originally published in 2001 and depicting a scene from Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s, the poem made the rounds in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, its first lines providing an apt summary of the times.
Almost a year later, three things come to mind about 2020’s locked-down National Poetry Month: the emergence of sourdough recipes, Albert Camus’s The Plague, and an endless circulation of poems on social media. As PW looks to this year’s April observance at a time still fraught with uncertainty, poems—and books of poetry—continue to make their way through the world online.
Louise Glück’s “Matins,” first published in 1992 and written in the voice of a flower, is another older poem that speaks to the present, asking, “How can I live/ in colonies, as you prefer, if you impose/ a quarantine of affliction.” It found an online readership in spring, then made a second circulation in the fall after Glück’s Nobel Prize win.
Works by other poets, too, have offered a lifeline and sense of community to readers in these isolating months, and not all of them have been poetry. In October Atria published Keep Moving, the first book of nonfiction prose by poet Maggie Smith; the book earned its author national recognition, including an appearance on Today. She shared snippets over Twitter in the time leading up to publication, finding a wide and passionate readership among those struggling with the challenges of the moment. But she recalls writing her way through Keep Moving as a way of processing personal hardships, the end of a marriage chief among them.
“I wrote this book bit by bit for myself,” Smith says. “It was released during the pandemic, which is obviously something I couldn’t have planned. It’s a distillation of my loss and experience of grief being released during a year where we’re all sort of collectively trying to distill and process a collective loss and grief.”
That sense of shared experience was what poet and nonfiction writer Meghan O’Rourke had in mind when, in the first month of lockdown, she launched an online pandemic section for the Yale Review, where she serves as editor-in-chief. Poems and other work grappling with the obstacles and various kinds of grief caused by the pandemic were published on the website as the “Pandemic Files” and later anthologized in A World Out of Reach: Dispatches from Life Under Lockdown, which Yale University Press published in November.
“In March, I was in a Zoom editorial meeting, and I found myself saying, ‘Maybe we should be asking people to think out loud about this, on the page,’ ” O’Rourke recalls. “We were in this quietly dramatic period—not just the not-quietly dramatic pandemic, but the inward, cognitive shift of not returning to work. I thought, ‘I need to read novelists, and poets, and scientists; I need to read everybody.’ As a magazine, we’re a space for public discourse. Though we’re currently atomized, this is how we can be together and think and feel productively. The first week of the call for submissions, there were no responses. The second week, a floodgate opened.”
The brevity of a poem naturally lends itself to wide dissemination (read it, be moved by it, tweet it), which, Smith notes, fosters an invaluable sense of connection at a time when everyone feels separated and isolated. “In order to get through this thing, you need courage and resilience, and hope and imagination, and creativity and all of those things that we have to dig through the rubble of the daily sometimes to get to,” she says. “Sharing a poem, you get to share in something that’s beautiful or that cracks us open. That feels important and hopeful, even if the poem itself isn’t ‘comforting.’ ”
For poet Rick Barot, the pandemic and months of political unrest have brought to the forefront some of poetry’s most essential and valuable qualities. “It’s shown, once again, the ways in which poetry, over the last couple of decades, has urgently and beautifully responded to the many crises that the United States and the world have reckoned with,” he says, “from the reckoning with racial justice to the reckoning with climate catastrophe, and so much else.”
Even so, Barot emphasizes that the pandemic’s impact on the writing of poetry, which he calls a robust art form of “witnessing, recording, resisting, solacing,” has been unpredictable and individual. “Some people I know have been shut out of their own creative energies, given the many challenges in their psyches and lives, while others have turned to poetry even more hungrily, reading it and writing it.”
Barot is among the latter: he started work on the limited release chapbook During the Pandemic (Albion) in March 2020, during the first surge. “I began with just the therapeutic impulse of typing bits of language and imagery and feeling into the Notes app of my iPhone,” he says. “At some point I had dozens of these scraps and decided to write little prose pieces. Eventually, I wrote 31 pieces, one for each day of the month. But really, it started out as a kind of coping gesture, day by day, distracting myself from the hell that seemed to be unfolding outside.”
C. Dale Young, whose fifth poetry collection, Prometeo, is out in February from Four Way, has had to confront Covid-19 head-on. As a radiation oncologist and a member of the medical staff leadership team at his hospital, his daily workload has increased as he navigates regulations relating to the pandemic. His writing practice, however, hasn’t changed too drastically—“I get up and write most days for an hour before I have to head off to the hospital. It may not seem like a lot of time, but it adds up,” he says—and his work has found new resonance with current events.
When the pandemic struck, Yale Review’s O’Rourke was finishing the last chapters of her forthcoming memoir The Night Side: Notes from a Misunderstood Illness (Riverhead, 2022). “My book is about poorly understood syndromes and conditions, one theory being that many are post-viral,” she says. “I realized I was going to have to write about Covid-19. Very early, the question cropped up: what’s going to happen to these people who get sick, what will the post-viral condition be? It was like watching the ship move towards the iceberg in a different way than what was in the news. It’s going to change American life.”
Barot believes that alongside the considerable hardships and unknowns of the ongoing crisis are lessons that writers can carry into the future. “The ultimate benefit of this period is the incredible sense of community that seems to thrive online,” he says. “There are so many events that I participated in, with each one feeling generous and joyous, despite the fact that we were all in our own spaces and our own time zones. A lot of events and readings can occur virtually without too great a loss in atmosphere and connectedness. And given the costs of these events, logistically and environmentally, it might in fact be better to have things online. I’m sure there are downsides to this as well, but at the moment I’m trying to revel in the silver lining of what has been a very dark time.”
Similarly, Young sees this as a time of reckoning with our humanity, which brings with it an opportunity for growth: “I suspect the pandemic will teach writers what it has taught many: we human beings are fragile, far more so than we often believe. What someone does with this realization can vary significantly. My hope is many writers will face that and push themselves to go deeper, to write harder, better.”
Below, more about poetry books.
Stark Bewilderment: PW talks with Joyce Carol Oates
The lauded author discusses ‘American Melancholy,’ her first book of poetry in 25 years.
Weathering the Times: Poetry 2021
New and recent books offer solace and perspective during these uncertain months.