'Pandemic Poetry' provides connection in the chaos

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | April 15, 2020

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Members of Emory’s English department are sharing perspectives on the current situation through “Pandemic Poetry” on social media. Shown here is the first installment of the series from @EnglishEmory on Twitter.

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As people across the world experience isolation and anxiety, many are turning to their favorite artists as a way to find meaning in the chaos. Seeing one’s experience and feelings reflected in art can be a comfort in unprecedented times. 

Geraldine Higgins, associate professor of English and director of Emory College’s Irish Studies Program, found herself searching for her own way to make a difference.

“In this strange time of social isolation, I think we were all having conversations about what we could do to help – whether it meant sewing face masks, making sandwiches for the homeless or shopping for vulnerable neighbors,” Higgins says. “As a poetry professor, I was thinking about how or whether words could help.”

And so, inspired by the Irish Minister for Health who quoted poet Seamus Heaney in an address to the Dáil introducing emergency COVID-19 legislation, Higgins initiated the Pandemic Poetry daily email forum for English Department faculty and graduate students to share poems that speak to the human conditions of life during a pandemic.

Each weekday morning since Emory’s remote learning began, Higgins has chosen a poem to share from those that have been nominated. The poem, along with a brief reflection from the submitter, is shared internally and through the English Department and Arts at Emory social media accounts. So far, works from Walt Whitman, John Milton, Lucille Clifton and Adrienne Rich have been circulated, among others.

Relating in new ways

The poems often take on entirely new meanings when read in the light of current circumstances. 

“Reading and reflecting on these little gifts from colleagues and students has become a fortifying ritual, allowing me to face each of these long days with my senses activated and powers of imagination strengthened,” says Benjamin Reiss, department chair and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of English. 

“I can honestly say that the best part of my morning is reading the submissions and choosing the poem of the day,” says Higgins.  “Often a line will come back to me during the day when I am feeling anxious or fearful. Emily Dickinson, who has been nominated more than any other poet, wrote, ‘I felt it shelter to speak to you.’” 

Higgins has also enjoyed hearing from faculty and students receiving the poems. One person wrote, “Can I just say again how much I love these poems? I also love how they’re all preceded by a brief explanation of why they were chosen. I think these are such a poignant marker of this time that we’re all going through.”

Take, for example, the submission on April 7.

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by Lucille Clifton

Associate professor Nathan Suhr-Sytsma discussed this poem with the students in his “Introduction to Poetry” class on the first day of remote teaching. As he says, “The last few lines have a new resonance in this moment.”

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

“When I read Lucille Clifton’s familiar lines – ‘come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed’ – I have a new appreciation for how a brilliant poet’s words can echo powerfully beyond their original context,” says Reiss. “All these years, I’d thought of those lines as an expression of joy in the face of social injustice, what it means for a person who refers to herself as ‘nonwhite and woman’ to reach for joy.  

“Being neither nonwhite nor woman myself, I thought I was hearing about someone else’s experience,” Reiss continues. “But now it’s mine, too, all of ours who make it through another day. To think that Clifton’s papers are lying untouchable in the darkness of the Rose Library is agonizing. I hope we can let them out of their quarantine soon, and that we can continue the ritual of poem-sharing long after the thing that is trying to kill us has vanished.”