Pandemic poetry

April 23rd, 2020
This article is featured in the Growing Spiritually issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

During a recent Zoom conference with some clergy colleagues, it was noted that many people are rediscovering the joys of reading during the long days of isolation and social distancing that now define our time and pursuits. I noted that I have delved more deeply into the poetry pool—a trail of reading that has, on these days filled with anxiety and uncertainty, often lifted my spirits and amazed me with insight.

There is much contemporary poetry that speaks to the pain and difficulties we are facing in these days of pandemic. And if not directly, certainly in the breadth of individual and social ambiguities we now face, if not also helping us to bridge the past with the present.

Amazingly, the forefront of this poetic expression—and our ability to hear and read these poems in new ways—is the Psalms. At two recent graveside burials during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I know that everyone gathered in the cemetery heard a new word of comfort in the familiar words of Psalm 23, as the walk through the valley of death was more than just a metaphor. Likewise Psalm 27 and Psalm 130 have their ancient phrases that now, in light of so much fear and social deconstruction, read much like newspaper op-ed pieces.

In addition, pastors and leaders trying to maintain their own sanity and energies during this time may benefit from reading modern/contemporary poets. I know I have.

As an unexpected starting place, open the pages of Good Poems for Hard Times. This amazing trove of verse offers up an array of older and newer poetic voices speaking into the din of newspeak and spin. The poems here now seem even more pertinent for those who are anguishing or languishing in isolation and loneliness. These poems are like old friends come to visit.

Among the poems in this collection, don’t overlook the evocative memory of Robert Morgan’s “Working in the Rain” or Linda Pastan’s haunting parental refrain “To a Daughter Leaving Home”—a poem that may resonate with many empty-nesters or with the many young adults who have come home again in the aftermath of university closures.

Wendell Berry’s, “The Peace of Wild Things”, coupled with the current pandemic anxiety, now takes on a Psalm-like quality and becomes a prayer. And Susan Cataldo’s familial poem, “Poem for the Family” reads like any parent’s lullaby or evening prayer.

Other poets that one should now look to in these days would be former U.S. poet Laureate, Rita Dove. Her many poetry collections, but especially her Collected Poems, is a comforting (and at times challenging) retreat into personal struggles and the interior conversations that bring fear or healing to our lives.

Mary Oliver’s entire corpus, now collected in two volumes of Collected Poems, will demonstrate how versatile and provocative this poet’s insights are when injected into our current crisis. Her work is overflowing with the comfort that comes from traversing through history, nature, and the varied conversations that we have with friends and neighbors—relationships now strained by social distancing and isolation.

For those who are suffering in real time, or experiencing the physical loss of health and vitality, one may find a kindred spirit in some of John Updike’s last work, collected in Endpoint and Other Poems—his final collection complete with poems written just hours before his death. Although Updike was not principally known as a poet, his insights on personal suffering are entirely honest and prayerful. Consider Updike’s final entries in the opening poem, “Endpoint”, where he assuages his pain and grief with thoughts of Christ and the 23rd Psalm as he prepares for a needle biopsy and receives prognosis of his own death.

Joy Harjo, our current U.S. Poet Laureate, brings a wealth of history and voice to her verse. For those needing an introduction to her work, try reading her latest title, An American Sunrise. Or, from one of her first titles, In Mad Love and War, the final entry in this book, “Eagle Poem”, tracing the flight of the sacred bird, reads like a comforting Spirit that hovers over us in beauty and healing. In our time, we all need the grace that comes from a divine presence watching over us.

Church leaders may discover, or re-discover, the power of poetry during this pandemic. Some, like me, may even try writing some of their own verse. Here’s one poem that I’ve shared with my congregation, but I would encourage everyone to give voice to his or her own pain as we desire to speak comfort or hope into these unprecedented times.

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Pandemic Prayer

Let me stand upon the tower wall
Overlooking these uncertain cloistered days
And let me serve as more than watchful eyes
Let my hands be open and my feet be swift
To brave the unseen elements
In the smallest of things

Let the nurse sing and the doctor stand tall
Among the microscopic enemies
So that even the fearful fear of the coming grace
And let the angry succumb to the angelic face
Giving the tide pause
And the future wings

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