Poets for a Pandemic
Updated: Sep 26
During these times of increased isolation, perhaps you too have turned to the poets for their quiet wisdom and comforting voices. Here are two favorite poetic companions of mine:
The late Mary Oliver was a patient observer of the natural world that served as both framework and content of her body of work. And yet, her poems were not simply about wildlife, flora, and ponds. Rather, she stared the natural world in the eye with an unhurried, unwavering gaze many decades long and asked of it questions about being human and how to truly be alive all through the arc of life. There is also in her poems an underlying longing to be closer to the natural world.
If I had another life
I would want to spent it all on some unstinting happiness.
I would be a fox, or a tree
full of waving branches.
(From "Roses, Late Summer," Blue Iris by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press: 2004)
To learn more about Mary Oliver:
"Mary Oliver Helped Us Stay Amazed" (The New Yorker, January 19, 2019)
Mary Oliver's Biography (Poetry Foundation)
Mary Oliver reads "At Blackwater Pond" (Beacon Press YouTube Channel)
"When Death Comes" by Mary Oliver (Library of Congress)
The work of two-time U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins is wry, unpretentious, and yet rich with astute observations. In a favorite metapoem about teaching poetry, for example, he begins:
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light
And after few delightful twists and turns, he leaves us with these equally humorous and revelatory lines describing what students sometimes do with poems:
They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.
(From "Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins)
Collins' new collection of poetry, Whale Day and Other Poems, will be released by Penguin & Random House on September 29, 2020. Lately, you can also frequently find Collins reading his poetry live on his Facebook page.
For more on Billy Collins:
"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins (Poetry Foundation)
"A Sight" by Billy Collins (The Atlantic)
"The Deep" by Billy Collins (Smithsonian Magazine)
"Billy Collins, The Art of Poetry No. 83", an interview (The Paris Review)
Finally, these three poems have resonated with me during these unusual times:
"Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo is a celebration of the kitchen table and its centrality to our lives.
"It Happens to Those Who Live Alone" by David Whyte is an ode to solitude and creativity.
"And the People Stayed Home" by Kitty O'Meara is a pandemic prose poem that went viral and is now a forthcoming children's book.
Amidst the unsettling disequilibrium of these times, perhaps it's no surprise that we seek solace in the soothing rhythms of poetry.