As co-President of Merton College’s Poetry Society, one of the stranger side effects of the pandemic I’ve witnessed has been the increase in people writing poetry. At our workshops, a number of poets have told me they started writing during the lockdown, or that it finally gave them the opportunity to rediscover something they had loved at school. This new enthusiasm is reflected in submissions to our termly poetry pamphlets. The Michaelmas 2019 issue featured 16 poets, and Hilary 2020 featured 15. Trinity 2020, in contrast, had 20 and Michaelmas 2020 had 19. The pandemic has enthused all manner of people with new creativity – undergraduates, postgraduates and non-university students alike. A cynic might say it is because they finally had the time to put pen to paper, but I suspect there is more to it. In times of crisis, poetry is both a way of making sense of the world, and an essential escape.
In an essay from 1985, Audre Lorde argued that “poetry is not a luxury.” 35 years later, in this unprecedented year, her words are more salient than ever. Month after month, we have been startled, shocked and moved by global events. Many of us have had to confront new and powerful emotions. Grief, anxiety, responsibility and fluctuating hope have all been enduring companions. In this sea of emotional turbulence, poetry has been, for some, a lighthouse guiding them to the shore. For others, it has been the very boat itself. Lorde saw “poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are – until the poem – nameless and formless, about to be birthed but already felt.” I imagine countless poems have been written this year that will never be submitted to our pamphlet but were scratched out for personal use, ways of making sense of a dizzying and confusing world. Poetry is not a luxury. It is a first step in understanding the world around us and our place in it.
This year, poetry has provided a substitute for our traditional ways of understanding. It is surely not a coincidence that as lockdowns have necessitated isolation, people have sought new ways of expressing themselves to others. In moments of strife before Covid, I’m sure I’m not alone in reaching out to friends, family or my partner to grapple with huge and unknowable emotions. This year, intimacy was lost in the disconnectedness of a video call, or the confidentiality undermined by having to shout across two metres in a park. Instead, I think we’re turning to poetry as a confidante. Like Juliet at her balcony, each poem we write is a soliloquy performed to the void, in desperate hope that someone might hear and feel the same.
Like Juliet at her balcony, each poem we write is a soliloquy performed to the void, in desperate hope that someone might hear and feel the same.
This desire for connection has drawn many to reading poetry during the pandemic too. For me, there is little more incredible than when a poem sounds familiar. By putting into words something we thought was unique and personal, good poetry reveals we are not alone in our experiences. As Alan Bennet beautifully put it, “it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” With physical touch forbidden and unsafe, the emotional intimacy offered by words on the page is often deeply moving. The long hours of the first lockdown gave us all much more time; like many, I used it to read and listen to poetry. As well as evocative imagery and clever wordplay, I was often struck by recognition of ideas, sentiments and emotions that lay beneath my consciousness. Not only did I read to understand, but to be understood.
But what do we do with this understanding? Even when poetry has worked its wonders and provided illumination, its job isn’t done. Lorde wrote: “As they become known to us and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.” Recognition of our emotions is the first step in knowing how we need to act, and in 2020 this is more important than ever. It is easy to feel powerless trapped inside our bubbles, with nothing but news coverage of an ever-changing world to keep us company. Poetry has offered us a chance to chart a course, to organise the overwhelming and to commit to creating a better and bright world when we eventually emerge in full. “In the forefront of our move towards change,” Lorde wrote, “there is only poetry to hint at possibility made real.” Poems are both the utopias we dream up for ourselves, and the maps to reach them.
Poems are both the utopias we dream up for ourselves, and the maps to reach them.
As well as alerting us to how we need to change the world, the pandemic has also given us a newfound appreciation for what we need to protect and maintain. I remember the first time I left the house during the first lockdown. I was astonished by the green vibrancy of the grass and the splendour of the wide, blue skies after a month of magnolia wallpaper. Things I had long since taken to be mundane were infused once more with wonder. Poetry is a way to crystallise this wonder, to make snow globes of intense moments of joy. In experimenting with it throughout the lockdown, myself and many of the contributors to MCPS’ pamphlets have found a new sense of appreciation for the ordinary – from student kitchens, to gardening to the simple pleasure of stepping outside – and have communicated this joy with others. What is the point of poetry, if not to encourage new ways of seeing the world?
I wrote many of my poems this year whilst looking out through my window, at the distant lives of my neighbours, the blissful comings and goings of squirrels, or the long-lost reality of bygone “normality”. Poetry in the pandemic has helped me to focus on things I would never have otherwise seen, but it has also brought me to a powerful realisation. Between me and the outside world, caught translucent in the glass, is the true gift of poetry: self-reflection.
You can find virtual editions of the last two Merton College Poetry Society pamphlets here.