I sit under the front window in my apartment. Sunlight filters in through a broken blind my landlord hasn’t seen fit to fix, and the rug is warm under my outstretched palm. It is October now, and gloom seems to coat the ground alongside the leaves that whisper-skitter across the pavement. The colors of fall have always ushered in new beginnings for me—a symbol of the new semester, fresh notebook paper and sharpened pencil tips. I fear I state the obvious to say this is different this year, but the painfully obvious is painful, even so.
The differences have left me feeling, in October, semesters older; my body and mind feel as they do in February, knee-deep in work and snow with no Christmas music on the radio to scry better times. It is a bone-weary exhaustion that perhaps stems from my constant cycling through the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. (Acceptance comes and goes, but often wears sweatpants to virtual work meetings and binge watches the new season of The Crown.)
In my periods of denial, anger, and depression, I seek out other voices to speak my pain better than I. I hit upon a few classics—The Great Gatsby when I’m in riotous, century-removed denial, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me when my anger about the pandemic and intersects with my anger about racism, and, most often, William Shakespeare’s sonnets (he was no stranger to theatre closures and rolling quarantines) when I possess only sorrow under my front window.[i] Poets of each age are no strangers to suffering, nor to plague, as an excerpt from Thomas Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague” (1600) attests:
Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.[ii]
Anger comes on the heels of reading Nashe’s poetry, for our pandemic has shown that gold can, to a point, buy your health—or at least, place you farther away from the virus’ “equal” arm. And oh, that our “plague full swift” could have passed by, as it is now October and the leaves are changing more quickly than our circumstances. But swift indeed is the hand of death; too many this year have said, “I am sick, I must die.” Nashe voices the sneaking terror of the unseen hand in his day—who will be our sibyl?
Perhaps Louise Glück, the 2020 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, will be our voice of spiritual prophecy.[iii] Her career has been marked by extended and eloquent reflection upon grief and the unexpectedly tragic. With her poetry often described as “bleak” and “dark,” the Nation’s Don Bogen has said, “She is at heart the poet of a fallen world.”[iv] Her prose is austere, spare, and wildly intimate. It is cracking open a watermelon and delighting in the cool, dark pleasure of fruit created while sheltered within. In her past poetry, I find the wonder of the shade: “The great thing/ is not having/ a mind. Feelings:/ oh, I have those; they/ govern me.”[v] My feelings threaten to overwhelm me, my mask beckons me to silence, but Glück’s poem bolsters my resolve. “I speak/ because I am shattered.”[vi] Anyone in 2020 would know of shattered dreams and plans, but what are the people of 2020 saying about it?
The word around campus is that this isn’t going to end, anytime soon. The word around Provo is that masks are a bother, but public health must prevail. The word around the country is that—well, who’s to know? I can’t hear anything over the cacophony of “presidential” debating—but if I listen closely, I can hear the marginalized speaking: Black Lives Matter, the poor struggle more than the rich in times of sickness and plague, 2020 is a joke that never ceases to be cathartically funny. Normal was shattered long ago, but we keep trying to pick up the pieces and tape them together again into a collage of the old. Like everything in 2020, the tape doesn’t work, and normal falls down again and again.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
Is it the poet that speaks best when shattered? Perhaps. But in order to speak, one must first find a platform upon which to stand. A place to say what is on their mind. Wallace Stegner, “Dean of Western writers,” theorized a role for the poet even in the creation of such a space. “No place,” he says, “not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry.”[vii] While Stegner was focused upon a sense of physical place within the ontologically flattened natural environment, I find a sense of place essential within the soul. How to stumble upon the foreign terrain of denial without poetry to make it a place? How to find a place of anger? How to manage the landscape of bargaining, or depression, without poetry? And, finally, how to find a place of acceptance without poetry to make the place of acceptance less “wild,” more “place”?
Frequently, and perhaps even more in the time of pandemic, questions of relevancy and societal value are raised surrounding our beloved Humanities. Why study poetry in the time of plague when a vaccine is more urgent and securing the public’s health more pressing? Certainly, securing the hope of a living tomorrow is essential, and without people alive to read poetry it remains dead upon the shelf. But I suggest that poetry provides as much a panacea to the soul as the vaccine to the body. Poetry discovers and secures a place for the grief that grips and the anger that roars. Further, poets speak when we are shattered, and their words make our soul’s complaints feel heard. Lastly, it is poetry that helps us find and dwell in a place of acceptance and, more so, a place of hope.
In The New York Times’ interview about her Nobel Prize win, Glück said of the pandemic, “The hope is that if you live through it, there will be art on the other side.”[viii] With all the love and respect my bibliophile soul possesses, I respectfully disagree with Glück on this point and this point alone. Yes, there will be art on the other side—while in quarantine, Glück, like Shakespeare in one of his own periods of plague, penned a book of poetry to be released next year—but I would hope it is art that helps us “live through it,” be it visual, musical, or yes, especially poetic. It has helped me live through it myself, and arrive, at long last, at a place of acceptance. I turn to Glück once more and draw from “The Undertaking” to close my own.
The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.
There you are—cased in clean bark you drift
Through weaving rushes, fields flooded with cotton.
You are free. The river films with lilies,
Shrubs appear, shoots thicken into palm. And now
All fear gives way: the light
Looks after you, you feel the waves’ goodwill
As arms widen over the water; Love,
The key is turned. Extend yourself.
It is the Nile, the sun is shining,
Everywhere you turn is luck.[ix]
This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.
[i] Stephen Greenblatt’s article in The New Yorker, “What Shakespeare Really Wrote about the Plague,” (2020) is an excellent read on this subject. Due to this article, I found Thomas Nashe’s poem and fell in love with Summer’s Last Will and Testament.
[ii] This excerpt contains lines 1583-1589, from Nashe, Thomas. “Summer’s Last Will and Testament.” Thomas Nashe’s “Summer’s Last Will and Testament”: A Critical Modern-Spelling Edition, edited by Patricia Posluszny, vol. 108, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York, NY, 1989, pp. 31–109. IV English Language and Literature.
[iii] I attribute a reading of Glück’s voice as spiritual prophecy in part to Helen Vendler’s excellent work in The New Republic, published on 17 June 1978 (Vendler, Helen. “The Poetry of Louise Glück.” The New Republic, 8 Oct. 2020, newrepublic.com/article/159665/poetry-louise-gluck).
[iv] This quotation, along with more of Don Bogen’s praise for Louise Glück’s work, can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s biographical and literary essay on Glück (“Louise Glück.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2020, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/louise-gluck).
[v] Louise Glück, “The Red Poppy,” lines 1-5 (Glück, Louise. “The Red Poppy by Louise Glück – Poems | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 1992, poets.org/poem/red-poppy-0).
[vi] Louise Glück, “The Red Poppy,” lines 20-21 (Glück, Louise. “The Red Poppy by Louise Glück – Poems | Academy of American Poets.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 1992, poets.org/poem/red-poppy-0).
[vii] Stegner, Wallace. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, Random House, 1992, p. 205.
[viii] From Alter, Alexandra. “’I Was Unprepared’: Louise Glück on Poetry, Aging and a Surprise Nobel Prize.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/books/louise-gluck-nobel-prize-literature.html.
[ix] Glück, Louise. “The Undertaking.” Poetry, May 1971, p. 63. Accessed from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=31883 on 9 October, 2020.
Abby, thank you for sharing these poems. They do allow us to see how others–even from great historical distances–share some of the very same thoughts we are having right now. And that really does offer me some hope.