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The power of poetry during a pandemic

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

These verses flashed on my computer screen, the glare lighting my face as I sat in my bedroom. I paused my usual work and pondered over the words, written by the American poet Wendell Berry. A counselor from my medical school had emailed me this poem, asking me how I was doing amidst these challenging times. She knows that poetry is a way I navigate my thoughts, experiences, and feelings. It’s how I wrestle with the world and my questions. Right now, the state of our world is chaotic and uncertain. The emotional toll is just as significant as the physical; we wonder, What now? What next? What can we do?

As we collectively face difficult and challenging times, people are turning to new or rarely used modes of thinking and expression: creative acts like poetry.

April is National Poetry Month. In 1996, the Academy of American Poets launched this month-long celebration to emphasize how poetry matters in our society and within our own individual lives. Poetry enriches communities, gives voice to people, and inspires the human spirit. It provokes, stirs, challenges, and empowers. It offers catharsis, allowing us to express ourselves in creative and often unexpected ways.

Individuals from New York to Wisconsin have written poems specifically in response to these difficult times. A Danish author published an anthology of 31 poems in a month, while a group of 115 poets published 146 poems specifically about the pandemic. Poetry is even appearing on shipped donations of medical supplies: “Though we are oceans apart, a shared moon connects hearts,” reads boxes from Japan to China.

Even before these times, I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing poetry – I even took a research year to launch a poetry program for young patients at the local children’s hospital. Before the program was cut short by the pandemic, I witnessed the power of poetry in these children’s lives. Stuck inside a hospital, afraid of what may come, they were often very much quarantined in their rooms, unable to step outside or return to school because of illness. When I would visit them with my traveling poetry kit, I would offer activities for reading poetry or writing their own. Ranging from elementary school students to teenagers, many wrote whimsical, funny, profound, and touching poems. I provided prompts such as “describe your favorite meal” or “how would your best friend describe you.” The children shared their experiences of being in the hospital. Through their own words, they expressed gratitude for their families and dreams of a return to normalcy; they talked about their pet dogs and anime, movies like The Incredibles, and funny moments with eccentric older siblings. Because of HIPAA, I can’t share exact quotes, but I can offer how they felt. Many said they felt “happier,” “less tired,” and “more creative”; as one young boy said, “I’m a poet and didn’t even know it!” Some patients stayed in the hospital overnight, while others had extended stays of days, sometimes weeks. As I spent time with them and engaged in poetry together, the more I observed the power of words for healing, finding meaning, and making sense of their situations.

This is why poetry is so important, now more than ever.

As we all stay at home under lockdown, words have taken on new meaning and importance. A simple text on the phone goes a long way to someone living alone during lockdown. Signs on windows announcing “thank you, frontliners” or “we’re in this together” uplifts the spirits of passersby. A heartfelt email to a grandparent, or a Facebook message to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while goes a long way, too.

National Poetry Month emphasizes how “inspiring language can help bring solace and needed strength.” In a new initiative in direct response to COVID-19, the American Academy of Poets launched “Shelter in Poems,” a platform for readers to share poems that help them find “courage, solace, and actionable energy.” Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, has stated that more and more are turning to poetry “because amid fear and uncertainty, poetry can help bring needed strength.” It can render “tranquility” and bears the “power to bring us together.” In an email, she even likens poetry to hope, a salve in a time of anxiety, fear, and social isolation.

One final thing I’ve learned about poetry that is particularly relevant in these times, is that poetry accepts ambiguity. Poems have multiple meanings. There is no one, right way to interpret a poet’s words. Whether haiku or sonnet, free-form, or rhyme, there are as many ways to write a poem as there are to read one. I’ve read too many where I still don’t know the meaning, but was able to extract one of my own. Perhaps that’s the beauty of poetry – sitting in the gray, and still making meaning out of it. Still finding beauty amidst mystery and understanding amidst the confusion. I think that’s what we’re all trying to do amidst this crisis.

The other day, my school counselor checked in again and sent me another poem, this time by Kitty O’Meara, a retired teacher from Wisconsin. To cope with her rising worry over the pandemic, O’Meara penned these words, compelling me to see beyond today.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses, and made new choices,
and dreamed new images,
and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed.

Anna Delamerced is a medical student.

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