Poetry’s time

Vanity Fair examines why poetry is having a day in the sun during the crisis. Maybe if we just kept the world in constant peril, poetry would … oh, wait … it’s been in constant peril for decades now. Right. Well, maybe if we kept the capitalist system of indentured servitude disrupted long enough we could… Ah, nevermind. Let the Millennial and GenZ types handle it when they come to power. We GenX types just want to get on with writing and living. Hopefully the kids will remember us as the ones who were sensible during the apocalypse and will venerate us for just doing the things that were necessary to keep… HAHAHAHAHAHA… hahaha…. wooo!…. sniff…. I’m dying here…. lol…. I almost got through that.

Poems are shooting up like roadside daffodils: Richard Brautigan’s short poem, written in 1969, about feeling bad today appears in an Instagram story; Ada Limón’s “The End of Poetry” replicates on Twitter; a “poem train” email shows up in the inbox. The world-disordering pandemic has infused new collections, written years ago but publishing now, with topical significance. Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne, published by Nightboat a month into America’s fight against the novel coronavirus, depicts a world of chemical spills and pestilence. Victoria Chang wrote Obit, a collection of obituary-style mourning poems out from Copper Canyon Press, in the weeks after her mother’s death; it serves as an extended meditation on loss, and those left behind. “ I always knew that grief was something I could smell,” she writes. “But I didn’t know that it’s not actually a noun but a verb. That it moves.”

“Poetry tends to hang out at points of transformation,” says musician and United States poet laureate Joy Harjo. “People may have not much interest in poetry at all or even read it much, but when a death happens in the family, or some other grief event, or marriage, or falling in love, or falling out of love, birth—people always turn to poetry.”

Already, poets are capturing this moment. On the first day of San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order, and one week after the publication of her new collection, Ledger (Knopf), Jane Hirshfield wrote “Today, When I Could Do Nothing,” about the gentle and possibly futile gesture of saving an ant as the world begins to crumble. Carol Ann Duffy, who served as Britain’s poet laureate from 2009 until 2019, is spearheading a project called Write Where We Are Now, in which she has asked fellow poets to create a “living record” of the pandemic.

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