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21 July 2020

From Ovid to Covid: why poetry is enjoying a renaissance

Throughout the pandemic, poetry has been mobilised as a source of consolation and a powerful form of self-expression.

By Katy Shaw

In his recent economic statement, Chancellor Rishi Sunak made the impassioned declaration that the UK “will not be defined by this crisis, but by our response to it. It is an unambiguous choice to make this moment meaningful for our country in a way that transcends the frustration and loss of recent months”. This is somewhat ironic since, to date, it has not been economics but culture that has risen to the challenge of defining our response to the biggest global pandemic for decades. 

In moments of crisis, certain cultural forms come to the fore, and in the midst of Covid-19, poetry has found its calling. Over the last four months, poetry has emerged as a dynamic form capable of contesting statistics, government briefings and media reports by offering a counter-narrative about our lives in lockdown. The unique intersection of time and space provided by lockdown, and the democratising capacity of social media, have created the conditions necessary for a poetry renaissance. 

Lockdown produced a rare time for reflection, but also for writing. Quarantined in domestic spaces, people turned to digital platforms to share canonical poems from the past or to create new work in response to Covid-19. By capturing thoughts on the rapidly-shifting contexts of lockdown life, literary responses to the pandemic remind us not only of the universal element of art but the enduring nature of human experience.

During the initial crisis period, poetry was quickly mobilised as a source of consolation and a powerful form of self-expression and communication. At a time of sudden isolation, and profound disconnection, social media feeds studded with verse offered vital relief. The hashtag #PandemicPoems began to trend on Twitter in March and in April National Poetry Day aimed to counter the isolation of lockdown through the sharing of humour and experiences. From NHS workers and furloughed executives, to poet laureates and published authors, pandemic poetry was quickly populated by a range of new and established voices and perspectives. 

London’s National Poetry Library joined with sister organisations in Germany and the US to commission 12 new poems about the initial stages of the pandemic that aim to “show what poetry can do in a crisis, bringing chaos into focus”. Manchester Writing School launched “Write Where We Are Now”, a new project to create a living record of Covid-19 through the eyes of poets. Director Carol Ann Duffy spoke of new poems as an act of creative necessity, arguing that “we need the voice of poetry in times of change and world-grief. A poem only seeks to add to the world and now seems the time to give”. Poet laureate Simon Armitage also released a new poem “Lockdown”, arguing for the power of poetry at times of crisis. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of Covid-19, Armitage reflects that poetry “asks us just to focus, and think, and be contemplative […] to be considerate of language, to be considerate of each other and the world”. 

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But some of the most exciting pandemic poems have emerged from fresh voices in the wake of the crisis. Tony Walsh, a poet who responded to the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017 with his rousing tribute to the city “This Is The Place”, has penned his own pandemic poem “The Sum Of Us” to explore the gulf in Covid-19 experiences between those in different social and economic classes.  

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His poem captures a newly locked-down Britain in which “Some of us are sewing scrubs and some are sowing seeds / Some are stitching fragments into plans / Some are holding Zoom meetings with babies on our knees / Some are holding only lonely hands.” The capacity of the pandemic to highlight the global interconnectedness of societies locally and globally is hammered home by Walsh’s repeated refrain that “some of us are wealthy, healthy; some of us are poor,” and “Some of us will… buy a magic pill / But some of us know ‘some of us’ won’t cut it anymore/ If some of us are sick, we all are ill.”

This is a sentiment echoed by the pandemic poetry of Twitter laureate Brian Bilston. In a series of daily poems published for free on his feed, Bilston charts the evolution of lockdown life and global government responses to Covid-19. From “Dominic Cummings: The Lockdown Tour” and “The New Encyclopedia of Alternative Facts”, to “Comparative Guidance for Social Distancing” and “Easings”, Bilston repurposes government soundbites and statistics into new poetic interventions that collectively provide a satirical critical commentary on how the crisis has been (mis)handled and what society has lost as a result. 

Indeed, some of the most powerful pandemic poetry of recent months has offered us space to reflect on what we have lost both individually and collectively as a result of Covid-19. In “Everybody Hates Grief” – a new poem commissioned for Marie Curie’s #UniteInMemory movement, a campaign that is calling for a day of national remembrance for coronavirus victims – UK 2020 Poetry Slam champion Tyrone Lewis creates a contemporary elegy to remote mourning and digital grief. He reminds readers that 

while trading tales over Whatsapp

In lieu of drunken strolls down memory lane

Doesn’t quite hit right

It does help us unite.

So why has poetry emerged as the pre-eminent form of expression and identification during the biggest global pandemic in living memory? Quick to craft and consume, poetry is uniquely placed as a cultural form to offer catharsis for current readers, as well as a unique documentation of tensions for future ones. At a time when we are all struggling for words to make sense of wholesale change in our personal and professional lives, poetry offers comfort by imposing order on otherwise seemingly random events. 

From the individualism of toilet-roll battles and panic buying, to the communalism of clapping the NHS, pandemic poetry maps a diversity of encounters and experiences, forming a living archive of how we navigated this new world. It must be read now, and by generations to come, not as an escape from politics but as a cultural expression of creative resistance. By providing a vital space for critical thinking, as well as for political and social engagement, these new writings demonstrate the capacity of the poetic form to help us make sense of the past both now and in the future. As we look ahead, we need to consider how poetry and the wider worlds of arts and culture can furnish society with a platform for rethinking the kind of world we want to create beyond lockdown. 

Katy Shaw is professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University and editor of the C21 Literature journal