The poetry of the Pandemic

The Oldie, July 2021

Compare the Duchess of Sussex with Anne Boleyn. Both married into the Royal Family and were imprisoned, Anne in the Tower of London awaiting execution, Meghan, like the rest of us, during the Pandemic. Both, too, turned to poetry. Anne wrote the haunting ode O Death Rock Me Asleep. Meghan produced the children’s book, The Bench, which was published last week. 

Sadly, it’s rubbish. Advising Harry on how to bring up their son, she says that sometimes he will fall, but “he’ll take it in stride”. In the final line, she notes, “you’ll never be ’lone”. Now I’ve written some pretty bad poetry in my time, but even I know that you can’t just invent phrases and words to fit the metre. Having said that, there is one justification of the Duchess’s decision to try her hand at verse. That’s the fact that, over the past 12 months — when so many of us have spent so much of our time ’lone — it seems almost everyone has been at it.  

Even before a 23-year-old recited a hip-hop panegyric at a president’s inauguration, the newspapers kept running the same story: the line that, amid the chaos, Covid had spiked a poetry boom. Often, the substance of these pieces consisted of little more than the fact that some poet had written a poem, which had got a smattering of likes on Twitter.

What most reports lacked was much in the way of data. So I dug deeper. The bottom line is: it’s true. Publishers rarely give out figures, but Carcanet Press revealed a 48% rise in unit sales. Suzannah Herbert of the Forward Arts Foundation reported a 67% rise in visitors to the National Poetry Day website, compared with 2019. The Poetry Book Society’s Alice Mullen said book sales and memberships were up 40%. Poet Liz Berry, who judged the 2020 Ledbury Poetry Competition, said the contest had had three times as many submissions as usual.

So did people write more poetry over the past year, or did they just consume more? It’s easier to measure demand than supply. When Frank Skinner launched his poetry podcast in April 2020, it entered the podcast charts at No 2. When Emilia Clarke asked her actor friends to offer solace to the masses by reading poems on her Instagram feed, the response was huge.

According to Berry, “we often turn to poems at times when we feel most deeply and intensely”. The practice of reading poetry at funerals and weddings has its roots in the eulogies and epithalamia of antiquity. The question is: why? Why is it that, when it really matters, when feelings run high, we reach for a Shakespearean sonnet? Clearly part of the answer is that poetry is short. At a wedding, no one is going to sit around while you read out War and Peace. In the Tower of London, Anne Boleyn naturally turned to verse. Her time was running out.

But I felt there might be more to it, so I asked around. Robin Robertson, a poet and publisher at Jonathan Cape, replied that, in a time of introspection, poetry, like all art, “makes you think and feel outside of yourself”. Canadian poet Rupi Kaur described the first lockdown as a “moment of stillness”, in which people could turn to activities they overlooked in the normal hubbub of life. The Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has suggested that, when people are in need of care and consideration, poetry, which is so careful with language, meets the mood. 

Poet Andrew Wynn Owen believes the constraints of poetry resonate with the constraints of the human condition, which the pandemic has highlighted. My own theory is that, in the face of chaos, poetry offers the most concentrated experience of meaningfulness of any art form. After reading words charged with meaning, you see more meaning around you.

What of the future? Covid has shifted poetry towards the digital. Advantages, says poet Rishi Dastidar, include accessibility for disabled people, who can attend on Zoom what they wouldn’t have travelled to. Poet Harry Man reported that he was able to contribute online to poetry readings in far-flung countries, which previously he couldn’t have afforded to attend.

Pace Meghan, it may be too soon to pass judgement on the quality of lockdown poetry, but I’d like to flag up two of my favourite examples. The first is the collaborative poem, Airborne Particles. It consists of a hundred loosely linked stanzas about the lockdown, contributed by poets from all over the world. Yes, it sounds like a mess, but the result is wonderful.

The second windfall is Andrew Wynn Owen’s invention of a new poetic form called the Portmanteaugram, which he invented while out walking with his golden retriever, Charlie, in Oxford’s University Parks. It involves taking the names of two famous people and blending them together to create two hybrid names, then writing a light four-line poem about them.

As follows:

Borston Churchson and Winis Johnill,
Both at the ready when things have gone ill:
One a tenacious commander,
The other a philanderer.