When the novel coronavirus outbreak peaked in China, Wei Shuiyin from Gansu province volunteered to work as a nurse in one of Wuhan's many "shelter hospitals" or fangcang—these makeshift tents were put together to ease the burden on hospitals with limited beds. Working on the frontlines with a medical team, Shuiyin's stayed weary and sleep-deprived for most of her days, with no time to choose between life and death. Overwhelmed by her experience, she composed a poem called 'Please Don't Disturb' which went viral on WeChat, but was later deleted. Almost pleading to be left alone with her work, she wrote:
Please, don’t decorate me in garlands
Don’t give me applause
Spare me recognition for work injury, martyrdom, or any other merits
I didn’t come to Wuhan to admire the cherry blossoms
And I didn’t come for the scenery, the reception of flattery
I just want to return home safe when the epidemic ends
Even if all that remains are my bones
I must bring myself home to my children and parents
In this time of spiralling chaos and uncertainty, look no further than poetry for curative metaphors and images. Poems are lifesaving drugs whose intake in isolation has proven restorative powers. And crisis begets poetry, as can be seen in the example above. The internet is awash with lockdown poems. From a Capuchin Franciscan Brother in Ireland holding out against hate and loneliness to Simon Armitage, poet laureate of the United Kingdom, channeling a bit of ‘Meghaduta’ by Kalidasa to foster hope and patience, the creative stress is expected to produce anguished verses like a river undamned. Instagram hashtags #coronapoetry and covid19 poetry on isolation, solitude, quarantine and ill-health were inevitable. Poets’ communities have converged in online meet-ups and livestreams to read out the most resonant compositions.
As we wander adrift in this thicket of corona-inspired poesy, one must not miss the Poetry Live sessions by Indian Novels Collective in collaboration with Mumbai's popular bookshop Kitab Khana. Every evening at 5:30pm, between March 31 and April 14, live poetry readings will broadcast words of "peace and calm". Curated by Mumbai- based Indian English poet Ashwani Kumar, the speakers include many regional poets waiting to unleash a treasure trove of Indian poetry at a time when Indian poems are struggling to reach a larger audience.
The inaugural session had popular Indian poet, writer and critic Arundhathi Subramaniam read out Rumi's ‘The Tent’ and her own poem the ‘Memo’, amongst others. As Subramaniam rightly pointed out, recreating this recital is like a "virtual campfire" for poetry lovers.
‘The Tent’ by Rumi
Outside, the freezing desert night.
This other night inside grows warm, kindling.
Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.
We have a soft garden in here.
The continents blasted,
cities and little towns, everything
become a scorched, blackened ball.
The news we hear is full of grief for that future,
but the real news inside here
is there's no news at all.
The short, succinct poems posted by British poet and translator George Szirtes on his Instagram handle offer much to ruminate on the ongoing infodemic.
There are profiteers
in the cupboard. There are thieves
in the neat hedgerows.
There are the rumours
and the alarms. It's the times
we live in they say.
Darling, these are days
of anxiety. Listen
to the high pitched call
of small birds. Kiss me.
With the closure of schools and colleges, the resources released under Poetry Foundation's Teaching Poetry Online has poetry teaching content for people of all age categories, apart from an exhaustive '101 Guides to Individual Poets' featuring the best in American poetry.