Opinion: Poetry is a reminder of the beauty of life, especially at times of grief and upheaval 

Amidst news about the spread of the coronavirus, RTÉ's main news bulletin last Friday ended with a poetry reading. Irish poet Derek Mahon recited his poem "Everything is Going to Be Alright" over a montage of peaceful skies, verdant woods and lapping seas, scenes more typical of arts or nature programming than the national broadcaster's nightly news. This comes in a week where poetry has been widely circulated on social media, seeing even our President and poet Michael D. Higgins joining in, posting his 1993 poem, "Take Care" in response to the times.

But just why are we turning to poetry? What does it offer at these uncertain times? Words are powerful, provoking potent emotions in us and poets are true wordsmiths, choosing every word as carefully as the painter contemplates each brushstroke. Poems such as "Take Care" and "Everything is Going to Be Alright" offer reassurance to people. The words that Mahon and Higgins write extend hope, reminding people, as the Persian poet, Rumi, wrote that "this too shall pass". Phrases and images open up to a world beyond the current one and help us to imagine the future that will come. Mahon reassures us that "the sun rises in spite of everything", while Higgins calls us to "hold firm. Take care. Come home together".

Poetry is also a reminder of the beauty of life, especially at times of grief and upheaval, as Seamus Heaney reasoned. Writing during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Heaney often grappled with the value of his work in such times. He writes about an incident in 1972 where he and singer, David Hammond, were to meet at a Belfast studio to record poetry and music but never made it, as a number of explosions went off in the city.

Seamus Heaney's The Singer's House as read by Maura O'Connell

At the time, Heaney said, the music they were to make paled in comparison to the sounds of ambulances but, on reflection, he asks "why should the joyful affirmation of music and poetry ever constitute an affront to life?" Heaney declares, "The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release."

Whether reading or writing a poem, emotions, tensions and fears are released. This is not to say that poetry ignores suffering, but that it can see beauty in life even at those critical times. Indeed, Mahon's poem contains those chilling lines "there will be dying, there will be dying/But there is no need to go into that." Yet, it is also a life-affirming poem.

For the most part, the poetry that appearing online or amongst friends during this time is short, lyrical poetry. Not only is it easily shared as a quote or an image, but also it changes our perception of time. As days feel stretched by the hours at home, the poem gives us something to hold on to. It does not require the commitment of a novel and its words resonate well beyond the few minutes we took to read it. A poem written by American teacher, Kitty O’Meara, which has also gone viral, slows time as the speaker adapts to this new way of living. "And the people stayed home. … and learned new ways of being. And were still. And listened more deeply".

While poetry is often critiqued for being obscure or difficult, it is perhaps this oblique nature that makes it the art form of the moment. A global pandemic means that uncertainty abounds, with the world’s scientists, researchers and doctors reminding us that while we learn more every day, there is much still that we do not know.

TEDx talk by poet Mary Jean Chan on how ideas about what constitutes a "good" society can only emerge from the tapestry of narratives that we weave every day of our lives

Poetry rarely offers a straightforward answer either. We may take comfort in the poet’s words without understanding their meaning. Often, poets reject that there is an ultimate meaning, leaving readers to find what they like in a poem. Other times, the poem is a mystery even to the poet, as Chinese-British poet Mary Jean Chan discovered. Writing in the Guardian, Chan noticed that her poem "Safe Space (II)" was being shared on Twitter recently. The short, prose poem opens, "Wash your hands. Rub soap into foam into lost hands. Focus on the running tap, the way your hands momentarily disappear and you feel safe again. The bathroom is a place you can always rely on".

Chan said "I realised – for the first time - that this was a SARS poem, which had not occurred to me when I wrote it in 2017." In the poem, Chan releases a deep connection with hand-washing, controlling time with an intense focus on the process of soaping and rinsing her hands. Yet, its relationship to the earlier SARS epidemic, only became clear to her in light of the current context, offering a new release.

Poetry connects us at this time of seclusion. We read, we share, we release. Lines that tell us that "everything will be alright" and remind us to "take care" remain in our hearts even if we do not know they are there. For me, the lines of Jamaican poet, Lorna Goodison were a balm this week and shall continue to be for some time.

Accept the sea the salt the bread
May the peace within this poem
stay the devils in our heads.

Out of the blackbird’s feathers
shine the holy peacock blue.
All things, all things work together.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ