PEOPLE often underestimate the power of a poem. The irony in this is the fact that poetry, perhaps the most difficult and most sublime of the literary arts, offers us many opportunities that can be utilised into mechanisms for survival.
Obviously, a poem is not a tangible thing. You cannot eat it. You cannot wield it. You cannot use it to provide a roof over your head. However, other, more subtle, but equally important uses can be pulled from a well-constructed poem.
Poetry can invoke catharsis, allowing readers to have a chance to release pent up emotions, like guilt, anger, sorrow, and fear, that have been growing since the announcement that the spread of the pandemic. Poetry also allows us to feel necessary emotions – the warmth of kindness, the sweet scent of love, the sturdy, wooden texture of protection.
Every emotion that we are missing in this period, can be gained by reading the appropriate poem. Poems also tell us stories, despite their size. A poem can hold a narrative thousands of years old within two lines, or it can carry the voices of several people within it in three lines of a haiku, or give us the tragedy of a romance gone wrong while shaped as a sonnet.
The two poems discussed in this article serve all of the purposes listed above, but they also contain within them, essential kernels of the most necessary of all emotions in this time: hope. It is the one thing that we must not lose sight of, the one thing that is necessary for survival and the continuation of every individual life in the world, and poems, with their compact size and eternal depth, are like wells from which we can continuously draw hope, again and again and again, without having to worry about ever running out.
The first poem I would like to recommend is “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by United States Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. This poem focuses on a simple premise, that of a kitchen table – an item, whether large or small, old or brand-new, that is found in every household, and yet the poet manages to transform that object into something through which all the greatest moments within human existence can be experienced.
Harjo begins by saying, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” Then she goes on to describe in soothing visual language, all of the happenings that take place at the kitchen table. It is at the table that “children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” It is at the table that we “recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.” The table, Harjo says, “has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun” and that in the end, perhaps, “the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”
The poem is much more than just about the table. The table is given meaning because of the people, the family, the relatives and friends, the lovers, the children, who gather at the table. These are people who create the big moments in our lives, and without them, like the kitchen table itself, life would hold no meaning.
This poem, to me, represents the promise of what is to come when the pandemic is over – loved ones crowding around the table, regardless of whether it is a literal kitchen table, or a desk in the office, or a pool table in a GT bar. It also serves as a reminder for those people who are lucky enough to be with their families in this time that they should be grateful, because even though the world is in shambles right now, at least their kitchen tables are full, at least they are surrounded by the people who matter most.
My second recommendation is a rather famous poem written by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. The poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” has been referenced in popular culture in various ways since its publication. The most recent example that I can think of is the way it was recited in Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction film, “Interstellar,” which starred Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain, among others.
The most easily remembered parts of this poem, include the opening line: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and the line that appears throughout the poem at the end of alternating stanzas, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” The poem is about the speaker telling his father to fight against death, or “the dying of the light.” It is a call, a plea, for the dying person to “rage,” to fight, to keep striving to stay alive. The relevance of this poem to the coronavirus situation should be obvious, but there are several other, positive ways, in which the poem can be read and be more uplifting than gloomy.
The speaker’s desperation, and use of a range of examples to motivate his father, is something that can inspire us all. It is a reminder that no matter how hopeless the situation seems, no matter how dark it gets, there is always someone supporting you, there is always someone who wants you to fight, someone who wants you to stay alive, someone who wants you to do your best to not succumb. The poem encourages you to keep on keeping on, if only because that one person expects and wants you to.
Are you tired of having to wear a mask and you want to take it off? Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Are you angry at being pent up at home and you want to go outside? Do not go gentle into that good night. Are you lonely and sinking into a pit of depression? Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Are you about to let coronavirus win because you feel hopeless about the situation? Do not go gentle into that good night.
Thomas’ poem is both an anthem of encouraging and an exclamation of love, and it is a reminder that no matter how dire the situation, there are always others who encountered worse, and if they can keep holding on to hope, then so can you.