by Nancy Holmes
In this unprecedented time of fear, bewilderment, and isolation, poetry is a beacon. It speaks to the complex emotions that are unleashed at times like this, says Nancy Holmes, poet and associate professor in UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies.
“It is hard to express our deepest anxieties and longings, so we turn to poetry especially in times of intense disruption,” she explains. “Poetry’s job is to try to say what cannot be said.” This is why, she notes, we want poetry for special occasion cards, why we recite poems at funerals, and why we listen to songs when we are in love. In World War One, she says, The Oxford Book of English Verse was one of the most well-read books in the trenches. Poetry is our go-to art in times of upheaval and catastrophe.
Right now, we are reeling with massive cultural and personal shifts as the pandemic affects everything we do. These changes are disturbing and incomprehensible at some level. Finding poetry that speaks to us might help get us through the next few weeks, Holmes says.
“These days, certain lines of poetry are coming unbidden into my head, like Irish poet W. B. Yeats’ ‘Things fall apart/ The centre cannot hold” and the American poet Carmen Tafolla’s update on this phrase: ‘Things falls apart/ sometimes people too.’ These two phrases show that poetry addresses the big picture (mass social concerns)as well as the most intimate personal experiences.” Most of us are in the midst of both social and personal confusion this month.
Holmes, who has been reading and writing poetry since she was 10 or 11 years old, says poetry is a way of knowing how we feel and experience the world. When she was very young, she wrote poems about spring flowers and horses, and as a teenager she wrote about fears of nuclear war and religious hypocrisy. “In my faltering way, I was participating in the work of poetry: to celebrate the sheer joy of being alive and to try to speak about our deepest fears.”
As we move through the many uncertainties and alarms of this pandemic, poetry gives us a way to live with our inner turmoil. “Most of us are experiencing a shock to our daily lives, but there are also people who are sick or who have lost people they love,” Holmes says. For millennia, poetry has been an art that people turn to in order to cope with these traumatic experiences.
Art is an essential way human beings learn about, explore and express their understanding of the world, with its final form only limited by the extent of human creativity. From paintings, sculptures and mosaics to literature, theatrical performances and architecture, art has helped humanity learn about ourselves and our relationship to other people and the universe. Poetry, along with music, seems to be the art we are drawn to times of intense personal and social transformations.
Holmes says that there is a poem for nearly every feeling and situation human beings have encountered, and new poems are being written to explore what it is like to be alive now. She says that reading poetry offers benefits of consolation, release and enlightenment. But she also encourages people to write their own poetry. If you’re in self-isolation, writing a few poems is a nourishing way to spend a few hours. Sometimes just sitting down and expressing your terrors or your love for people and the planet or even your anger can be genuinely therapeutic.
Several great writing prompts exist online if people are not sure where to start. This is one Holmes’ favorites: “30 Writing Prompts for National Poetry Month” by Kelli Russell Agodon.
Selection of Poems
On World Poetry Day, Holmes offers a selection of poems worth reading to feel hope or cope with worry.
“The Heart is A Thousand- Stringed Instrument” by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
“For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness” by John O’Donohue
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes” by Emily Dickinson
“blessing the boats” by Lucille Clifton
“Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Laméris
“Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver
“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh