Poems for the world during a pandemic are also poems for all of life.
It goes without saying that poetry isn't designed for easy times.
Instead, it's designed to sit with us through darkness, to echo our thoughts back at us, to show us we're not alone.
None of the following poems shy away from violence, fear, or suffering. They approach it from different angles—sometimes through the prism of solitude (like A. R. Ammons' meditative "Still,"), at other times refracted through music and cultural iconography (see "The Book of Yeezus" by Julian Randall, a poem that reads more like a primal scream). But each one looks unblinkingly at reality and, instead of denying it, shapes it into something more beautiful and more raw, and somehow closer to the actuality of the feelings and experiences that comprise being alive.
Today, many of us are facing a long stretch of unknowable changes from coronavirus. But as these poems remind us, humans have long been facing tremendous upheaval, staring disaster in the face and finding the song inside it—whether by choice or by some primal force that drives us to create in times of chaos. These poems show us that no one is alone in this, even though we're all facing different choices and approaching them from the isolation of our rooms. Poetry can bind us all together, across time and space, and if there were ever a time for it (to share it, to write it, to lose yourself in it), that time is now.
Here are 15poems to read during the onset of the coronavirus in America.
1. For when you're seeking hope: "Lockdown" by Brother Richard
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
2. For when dark thoughts come: "Divine" by Kim Addonizio
Oh hell, here's that dark wood again.
You thought you'd gotten through it –
middle of your life, the ogre turned into a mouse
monsters hammered down
into their caves, werewolves outrun.
You'd come out of all that, into a field.
There was one man standing in it.
He held out his arms.
Ping went your iHeart
so you took off all your clothes.
Now there were two of you,
or maybe one mashed back together
like sandwich halves,
You lived on grapes and antidepressants
and the occasional small marinated mammal.
You watched the DVDs that dropped
from the DVD tree. Nothing
was forbidden to you, so no worries there.
It rained a lot.
You planted some tomatoes.
Something bad had to happen
because no trouble, no story, so
Fuck you, fine, whatever,
here come more black trees
hung with sleeping bats
like ugly Christmas ornaments.
Don't you hate the holidays?
All that giving. All those wind-up
creches, those fake silver icicles.
If you had a real one you could stab
your undead love through its big
cursed heart. Instead you have silver noodle
with which you must flay yourself.
Denial of pleasure,
death before death,
alone in the woods with a few bats
unfolding their creaky wings.
3. For when America fills you with rage and the powers that be are failing: "Dancing" by Robert Hass
The radio clicks on—it's poor swollen America,
Up already and busy selling the exhausting obligation
Of happiness while intermittently debating whether or not
A man who kills fifty people in five minutes
With an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose
Is mentally ill. Or a terrorist. Or if terrorists
Are mentally ill. Because if killing large numbers of people
With sophisticated weapons is a sign of sickness—
You might want to begin with fire, our early ancestors
Drawn to the warmth of it—from lightning,
Must have been, the great booming flashes of it
From the sky, the tree shriveled and sizzling,
Must have been, an awful power, the odor
Of ozone a god's breath; or grass fires,
The wind whipping them, the animals stampeding,
Furious, driving hard on their haunches from the terror
Of it, so that to fashion some campfire of burning wood,
Old logs, must have felt like feeding on the crumbs
Of the god's power and they would tell the story
Of Prometheus the thief, and the eagle that feasted
On his liver, told it around a campfire, must have been,
And then—centuries, millennia—some tribe
Of meticulous gatherers, some medicine woman,
Or craftsman of metal discovered some sands that,
Tossed into the fire, burned blue or flared green,
So simple the children could do it, must have been,
Or some soft stone rubbed to a powder that tossed
Into the fire gave off a white phosphorescent glow.
The word for chemistry from a Greek—some say Arabic—
Stem associated with metal work. But it was in China
Two thousand years ago that fireworks were invented—
Fire and mineral in a confined space to produce power—
They knew already about the power of fire and water
And the power of steam: 100 BC, Julius Caesar's day.
In Alexandria, a Greek mathematician produced
A steam-powered turbine engine. Contain, explode.
"The earliest depiction of a gunpowder weapon
Is the illustration of a fire-lance on a mid-12th-century
Silk banner from Dunhuang." Silk and the silk road.
First Arab guns in the early fourteenth century. The English
Used cannons and a siege gun at Calais in 1346.
Cerigna, 1503: the first battle won by the power of rifles
When Spanish "arquebusiers" cut down Swiss pikemen
And French cavalry in a battle in southern Italy.
(Explosions of blood and smoke, lead balls tearing open
The flesh of horses and young men, peasants mostly,
Farm boys recruited to the armies of their feudal overlords.)
How did guns come to North America? 2014,
A headline: DIVERS DISCOVER THE SANTA MARIA
One of the ship's Lombard cannons may have been stolen
By salvage pirates off the Haitian reef where it had sunk.
And Cortes took Mexico with 600 men, 17 horses, 12 cannons.
And LaSalle, 1679, constructed a seven-cannon barque,
Le Griffon, and fired his cannons upon first entering the
Interior. The sky darkened by the terror of the birds.
In the dream time, they are still rising, swarming,
Darkening the sky, the chorus of their cries sharpening
As the echo of that first astounding explosion shimmers
On the waters, the crew blinking at the wind of their wings.
Springfield Arsenal, 1777. Rock Island Arsenal, 1862.
The original Henry rifle: a sixteen shot .44 caliber rimfire
Lever-action, breech-loading rifle patented—it was an age
Of tinkerers—by one Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1860,
Just in time for the Civil War. Confederate casualties
In battle: about 95,000. Union casualties in battle:
About 110,000. Contain, explode. They were throwing
Sand into the fire, a blue flare, an incandescent green.
The Maxim machine gun, 1914, 400-600 small caliber rounds
Per minute. The deaths in combat, all sides, 1914-1918
Was 8,042,189. Someone was counting. Must have been.
They could send things whistling into the air by boiling water.
The children around the fire must have shrieked with delight
1920: Iraq, the peoples of that place were "restive,"
Under British rule and the young Winston Churchill
Invented the new policy of "aerial policing," which amounted,
Sources say, to bombing civilians and then pacifying them
With ground troops. Which led to the tactic of terrorizing
Populations in World War II. Total casualties in that war,
Worldwide: soldiers, 21 million; civilians, 27 million.
They were throwing sand into the fire. The ancestor who stole
Lightning from the sky had his guts eaten by an eagle.
Spread-eagled on a rock, the great bird feasting.
They are wondering if he is a terrorist or mentally ill.
London, Dresden. Berlin. Hiroshima, Nagasaki.
The casualties difficult to estimate. Hiroshima:
66,000 dead, 70,000 injured. In a minute. Nagasaki:
39,000 dead, 25,000 injured. There were more people killed,
100,000, in more terrifying fashion in the firebombing
Of Tokyo. Two arms races after the ashes settled.
The other industrial countries couldn't get there
Fast enough. Contain, burn. One scramble was
For the rocket that delivers the explosion that burns humans
By the tens of thousands and poisons the earth in the process.
They were wondering if the terrorist was crazy. If he was
A terrorist, maybe he was just unhappy. The other
Challenge afterwards was how to construct machine guns
A man or a boy could carry: lightweight, compact, easy to
First a Russian sergeant, a Kalashnikov, clever with guns
Built one on a German model. Now the heavy machine gun.
The weapon of European imperialism through which
A few men trained in gunnery could slaughter native armies
In Africa and India and the mountains of Afghanistan,
Became "a portable weapon a child can operate."
The equalizer. So the undergunned Vietnamese insurgents
Fought off the greatest army in the world. So the Afghans
Fought off the Soviet army using Kalashnikovs the CIA
Provided to them. They were throwing powders in the fire
And dancing. Children's armies in Africa toting AK-47s
That fire thirty rounds a minute. A round is a bullet.
An estimated 500 million firearms on the earth.
100 million of them are Kalashnikov-style semi-automatics.
They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
The immense flocks of terrified birds still rising
In wave after wave above the waters in the dream time.
Crying out sharply. As the French ship breasted the vast
Of the new land. America. A radio clicks on. The Arabs,
A commentator is saying, require a heavy hand. Dancing.
4. For when you're scrolling through pictures of empty New York, remembering: "Meditations in an Emergency" by Frank O'Hara
Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?
Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list!), but one of these days there'll be nothing left with which to venture forth.
Why should I share you? Why don't you get rid of someone else for a change?
I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.
Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don't I? I'm just like a pile of leaves.
However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they're missing? Uh huh.
My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time; they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal, so that no one trusts me. I am always looking away. Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them still. If only I had grey, green, black, brown, yellow eyes; I would stay at home and do something. It's not that I am curious. On the contrary, I am bored but it's my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth. And lately, so great has their anxiety become, I can spare myself little sleep.
Now there is only one man I love to kiss when he is unshaven. Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How discourage her?)
St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. How am I to become a legend, my dear? I've tried love, but that hides you in the bosom of another and I am always springing forth from it like the lotus—the ecstasy of always bursting forth! (but one must not be distracted by it!) or like a hyacinth, "to keep the filth of life away," yes, there, even in the heart, where the filth is pumped in and courses and slanders and pollutes and determines. I will my will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in that department, that greenhouse.
Destroy yourself, if you don't know!
It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so. I admire you, beloved, for the trap you've set. It's like a final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.
"Fanny Brown is run away—scampered off with a Cornet of Horse; I do love that little Minx, & hope She may be happy, tho' She has vexed me by this Exploit a little too. —Poor silly Cecchina! or F:B: as we used to call her. —I wish She had a good Whipping and 10,000 pounds." —Mrs. Thrale.
I've got to get out of here. I choose a piece of shawl and my dirtiest suntans. I'll be back, I'll re-emerge, defeated, from the valley; you don't want me to go where you go, so I go where you don't want me to. It's only afternoon, there's a lot ahead. There won't be any mail downstairs. Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.
5. For when sorrow comes: "Grief" by Matthew Dickman
When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky.
You must offer her what's left
of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish
you must put aside
and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,
her eyes moving from the clock
to the television and back again.
I am not afraid. She has been here before
and now I can recognize her gait
as she approaches the house.
Some nights, when I know she's coming,
I unlock the door, lie down on my back,
and count her steps
from the street to the porch.
Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known,
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.
I play her favorite Willie Nelson album
because she misses Texas
but I don't ask why.
She hums a little,
the way my brother does when he gardens.
We sit for an hour
while she tells me how unreasonable I've been,
crying in the check-out line,
refusing to eat, refusing to shower,
all the smoking and all the drinking.
Eventually she puts one of her heavy
purple arms around me, leans
her head against mine,
and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.
So I tell her,
things are feeling romantic.
She pulls another name, this time
from the dead,
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.
Romantic? She says,
reading the name out loud, slowly
so I am aware of each syllable, each vowel
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person's body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.
6. For when you find solace and catharsis in music: "The Book of Yeezus" by Julian Randall
An arrow does its own form of singing I like to believe
this means nothing is ever too far
from the bird that it was I tender the dark
with a hum we cannot die in a legion
of spells for the Black boys who learned
to make the light sorry All I have ever wanted
is to be the wound you neon
All I have ever wanted is to die beautiful
in hands I could mistake for yours
All seasons are becoming the season
of my isolation The green sputters long
into December so I think we are all less invested
in loyalty these days O you gilded Amistad
the mouth I'd forgive without question froths
with an armada of golden-hulled ships Excess
I too pretty the interruption when I cannot bear
the elegy any longer I don't know how not to love
what would kill me without noticing I can be
ferocious with my ugly I can be the knife chanting
silver through the abrasion I wish I could write
of you as something that would break if I held it
living for too long O grief-cousin phantom-chain
wind-throne blade-choir What is death to the children
of the forgotten One day too my mother will die
and my loneliness will be a hyperbole of ravens
all of which will sing like fugitives Glory Glory
how much I'll miss her While yours anthem in the wrong
direction I will probably still love you then Glory Glory
how easy I march in defense of another man who wants me dead
7. For when your dreams turn apocalyptic: "Prayer for the Mutilated World" by sam sax
what will be left after the last fidget
spinner's spun its last spin
after the billboards accrue their thick
layer of grit masking advertisements
for teeth paste & tanqueray gin
after the highways are overtaken
by invasive forests
after the ministers give up their gods
& the rabbis their congregations
after new men rise to lead us sheep
toward our shearing, to make bed
sheets from our hair
after the high towers have no airplanes
to warn away & instead blink purely
toward heaven like children
with one red eye
after phone lines do nothing
but cut the sky into sheet music
& our phones are just expensive
bricks of metal & glass
after our cloud of photographs collapses
& all memories retreat back
into their privatized skulls
after the water taps gasp out their final
when even the local militias run
out of ammunitions
when the blast radii have been
chalked & the missiles do all they were
when us jews have given up our state
for that much older country of walking
& then that even older religion of dirt
when all have succumbed to illness
inside the church of our gutted pharmacies
when the seas eat their cities
when the ground splits like a dress
when the trash continent in the mid-atlantic
at last opens its mouth to spit
what will be left after we've left
i dare not consider it
instead dance with me a moment
late in this last extinction
that you are reading this
must be enough
8. For when you want to find peace: "Love Sorrow" by Mary Oliver
Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,
what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so
utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment
by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,
as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.
9. For when you're inspired to create: "Poet" by Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs
For Roberto Tijerina
After Audre Lorde's "Thanks to Jesse Jackson"
say it like bridge
spell it like splinter
these are the times
when words need carpenters
think out loud reshaping
into places to sit and meet
and walk and not fall through
write it like rice
growing hot and irresistible
undercover in the watched pot of revolution
spell it like cauldron
these are the years
when we eat our words
when the boil-over of desire
is the table we build by sharing
train our tongues to be trans
send ground tap rhythm of meaning
generate light like a helmet
in the mines
like a tread in the sloop
in the loop down of question
this is it
the time when each word
catch fire to ear
clean throat back to pink
when each word
sear like prophecy on our hearts
this is the moment
we all become
10. For when you're envisioning the future: "Sci-Fi" by Tracy K. Smith
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we'll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we'll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we'll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
11. For when the future comes, and it looks familiar: "An Old Story" (also by Tracy K. Smith)
We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.
A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
12. For when you are relishing stillness: "Still" by A. R. Ammons
I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity
each day I'll wake up
and find the lowly nearby,
a handy focus and reminder,
a ready measure of my significance,
the voice by which I would be heard,
the wills, the kinds of selfishness
freely adopt as my own:
but though I have looked everywhere,
I can find nothing
to give myself to:
magnificent with existence, is in
surfeit of glory:
nothing is diminished,
nothing has been diminished for me:
I said what is more lowly than the grass:
a ground-crust of dry-burnt moss:
I looked at it closely
and said this can be my habitat: but
nestling in I
below the brown exterior
green mechanisms beyond the intellect
awaiting resurrection in rain: so I got up
and ran saying there is nothing lowly in the universe:
I found a beggar:
he had stumps for legs: nobody was paying
him any attention: everybody went on by:
I nestled in and found his life:
there, love shook his body like a devastation:
though I have looked everywhere
I can find nothing lowly
in the universe:
I whirled though transfigurations up and down,
transfigurations of size and shape and place:
at one sudden point came still,
stood in wonder:
moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent
13. For when you turn off the noise and listen: "The Word of the Silence" by Aurobindo
A bare impersonal hush is now my mind,
A world of sight clear and inimitable,
A volume of silence by a Godhead signed,
A greatness pure, virgin of will.
Once on its pages Ignorance could write
In a scribble of intellect the blind guess of Time
And cast gleam-messages of ephemeral light,
A food for souls that wander on Nature's rim.
But now I listen to a greater Word
Born from the mute unseen omniscient Ray:
The Voice that only Silence's ear has heard
Leaps missioned from an eternal glory of Day.
All turns from a wideness and unbroken peace
To a tumult of joy in a sea of wide release.
14. For when you're seeking redemption in the isolation: "It is the pang of separation that spreads throughout the world (from Gitanjali), by Rabindranath Tagore
It is the pang of separation that spreads throughout the world and gives birth to shapes innumerable in the infinite sky.
It is this sorrow of separation that gazes in silence all night from star to star and becomes lyric among rustling leaves in rainy darkness of July.
It is this overspreading pain that deepens into loves and desires, into sufferings and joys in human homes; and this it is that ever melts and flows in songs through my poet's heart.
15. For when you are healing: "A Map to the Next World" by Joy Harjo
for Desiray Kierra Chee
In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map for
those who would climb through the hole in the sky.
My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged
from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens.
For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.
The map must be of sand and can't be read by ordinary light. It
must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.
In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it
was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.
Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the
altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace.
Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our
children while we sleep.
Flowers of rage spring up in the depression. Monsters are born
there of nuclear anger.
Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to
We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to
them by their personal names.
Once we knew everything in this lush promise.
What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the
map. Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us, leav-
ing a trail of paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.
An imperfect map will have to do, little one.
The place of entry is the sea of your mother's blood, your father's
small death as he longs to know himself in another.
There is no exit.
The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—a
spiral on the road of knowledge.
You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking
from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh
deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.
They have never left us; we abandoned them for science.
And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world
there will be no X, no guidebook with words you can carry.
You will have to navigate by your mother's voice, renew the song
she is singing.
Fresh courage glimmers from planets.
And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you
will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.
When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they
entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us.
You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.
A white deer will greet you when the last human climbs from the
Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our
We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.
We might make them again, she said.
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.
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