Weeks into quarantine, you may have arrived at the conclusion that it’s not enough to occupy the mind.
Solitaire and sudoku only take you so far. Your mind doesn’t want to be occupied. It wants to be fed.
Feed it poems.
The U.S. poet Theodore Roethke told his students: “There will be times in your life when you will be trapped … you’ll be in the line at the supermarket, you’ll be sitting in the dentist’s office, and if you’ve got those poems in your head … they will help you through the dry times in your life.”
Now is an optimal time to put those poems in our heads for future use. Because, yes, this is a dry time for all, but drier times will come for each.
The scholar Anne Barton, in her later years, suffered the loss of her eyesight, and then was confined to bed. She entertained herself and her visitors with sonnets she had committed to memory. She was always fascinated. She was always fascinating. She was never bored. Be like her.
Whatever time of quarantine remains can be a great opportunity to acquaint or reacquaint ourselves with great poems.
It’s a pastime. It’s a gathering. But it’s more than that. It can help us process what’s happening.
Literary scholar Dwight Lindley told Angelus: “The present pandemic seems like an occasion for many folks to linger over the truths they have been given. I mean, to take what they know and care about — the relationships, the beauties, the creation, and ultimately the loving Creator at the heart of all of it — and peer down into those depths.
“Poems help us do this,” he added. “They are about lingering over truths, little and big, and trying to unlock their secrets, savor their mysteries. Poems can give us a new angle into old things: marriage, childhood, courage, fear, innocence, hope, and so on.”
There are, of course, topical poems, like Thomas Nashe’s “In Time of Plague,” which is sobering, though not exactly uplifting.
There are old poems that take on new and unintended meanings, like Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.”
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries / To thee from tortured souls arise. / We sing, but oh the clay is vile / Beneath our feet, and long the mile; / But let the world dream otherwise, / We wear the mask!
The contemporary Catholic poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell found herself afflicted with the virus, and isolated even from her family members. She took the time not only to read great poems from the past, but also write new ones. She titled the new batch “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” and this is “Quarantine Day #7”:
What’s here is here is here until it’s not. / Your childhood home. The roses he brought. / Nothing is permanent as we think it is. / Nothing survives the last analysis. / All is contingent. Everything depends. / Everything begins & everything ends. / Clichés are just clichés until they come true. / Most tentative of all, me & you.
Nothing is permanent as we think it is. / What’s mine isn’t mine. What’s his isn’t his. / All is contingent. All of it depends. / You lose your lovers. You lose your friends. / The ripe piece of fruit will one day rot. / We’re here and here and here until we’re not.
Similarly, the poet Jane Greer, also a Catholic, offered this poem, “Saved,” ostensibly about a deadly fever:
It was not until I felt the fever passing / that I realized how ill I’d really been. / I think it must have kindled me in secret / for a long time, like a merely venial sin, / but it lifted in a moment — left me startled, / with some subtle feelings, oddly bittersweet: / a sense of loss with no remembered having, / of cooling where I hadn’t noticed heat.
Short poems and rhymed poems are relatively easy to commit to memory. It can be entertaining and illuminating — and even therapeutic — to read the same poem three times a day, with the readings separated by hours. A particular poem becomes a different work of art, depending on the immediate context of our reading, just as a painting changes in different light. Over days it becomes many things and insinuates itself into our thinking in unexpected ways.
This is true not only for adults, but even for children. Poet Tony Mitton made a list (with YouTube videos) of 10 poems “to remember and recite.” And he selected each for its appeal to hearts, minds, and ears of young and old.
The novelist Salman Rushdie suggested that learning poems “by heart” is a “life-enhancing” thing for children.
If you’ve been away from the art for a few years, you might want to ease back into it with a look at the 10 most-requested poems from the BBC’s program “Poetry Please.” It includes works by Robert Frost, Christina Rossetti, Dylan Thomas, and others you might recall from school days.
Or you can dip into the work of recent Catholic poets, as featured in these Angelus articles.
If we come out of quarantine with poems in mind, we’ll have invested our time well. We’ll have established an account we can draw from through the rest of our lives, in times of boredom and need.
Says Dwight Lindley: “Art — poetry — gives us a lens through which to see things anew, to see them more deeply, and thus learn to live with them better.”