In 1821, the poet John Keats—self-quarantined with a dear friend who served as his nurse—lay dying of tuberculosis, coughing up blood in a small house at the foot of the Spanish Steps. He was 25 years old. The following fragment of poetry was found among his papers:
“This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.”
Like much great verse, this little poem is incurably ambiguous. However, many readers, including myself, think that Keats—misunderstood, abused, and miserable for much of his life—is addressing future readers like us, stretching out his hand to those who would grasp it. His dream is that we might be “conscience-calm’d,” which I take to mean “heartened” or “consoled.” At the same time, he imagines that if we grasp his hand, we once again would see “red life” flow through his veins. He’s receiving and giving blood. He’s a friend. The poem is a powerful image of the mysterious commerce that exists between poets and readers, through time and space, across languages and cultures.
Throughout my life, I have often turned to poetry for clarity and consolation, especially during stressful and uncertain times. In light of recent events, it won’t surprise you that I’ve been reading and writing a lot of poetry lately. In this essay, I will try to explain why I find poems so useful. Along the way, I will introduce you to some old friends that have helped me over the years. Maybe they can help you, too.
Is Poetry Dead?
Besides being a writer and an actor, I teach Shakespeare and poetry to students in a medium-sized city in Southern California. In fact, the day before the state of California ordered all public schools closed due to the outbreak, I was explaining to six different fifth-grade classes how and why they should read poetry. Most of the hundreds of children to whom I’ve introduced Shakespeare and poetry have discovered something useful and profound in a certain poem and in themselves. Poetry’s most valuable lessons have little to do with meter, rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, and so on. Great poems have less to do with a poet’s skill, and more with connections the poet makes between herself, her readers, and the divine.
If that hasn’t been your experience with poetry, you’re not alone. Poetry is a dead art for most people. (Though I would argue that there’s little difference between well-written songs and well-written poems, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) Poems are about as relevant to our lives as macramé or the proper conjugation of Latin verbs.
Poet and scholar Dana Gioia explains this phenomenon in his seminal essay “Can Poetry Matter?”:
“American poetry … has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Like priests in a town of agnostics, poets still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.”
Or as American poet Marianne Moore famously put it in the first line of her poem titled (duh!) “Poetry”: “I too, dislike it.” Poems, she writes, are “useful” only if they can create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
“Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Perhaps that line gives you a spasm of confusion, dread, even frustration. I certainly had that sensation when I read it for the first time. I hear you say: “Curse you, poetry! There you go again.” Or it just makes you feel ignorant—vaguely aware of your unawareness. Well, join the club. As I tell my students, the best poetry makes you sweat a little. For me, Moore’s line has something to do with how the best poems can take us from the visible to the invisible. In Owen Barfield’s words, poetry marks the “forgotten relations” between things and among people. It bridges the chasm.
In my opinion, dead poets are best at this kind of bridging. They’re done with all the strife of existence. They’ve lived through wars, plagues, riots, and revolutions. They’re finished with “joy and moan,” as Shakespeare writes. As Henry Longfellow memorably puts in “A Psalm to Life”:
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.”
Poets tell us to take heart. They remind us that we have a friend who knows exactly what we’re going through. Maybe that friend wants to make us laugh, like Lear, Nash, Dahl, and Silverstein. Maybe they want to tell us a story, like Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Poe. Maybe they want to break our heart, like Sophocles, Yeats, Sassoon, Plath, and Bishop. Whatever it is a poet does, he or she is there to remind us—in a new way—what it is like to be a human being.
Reading and writing poetry is a way of thinking. A well-known definition of a poem is where “a feeling has found its thought, and a thought has found its words.” Poetry evokes emotion, and that emotion evokes thought—and often transformation. Poems are at their most powerful when they resound with a feeling that we have within us. They alert us to what is deepest in ourselves.
Here are a few other poetic descriptions of a poem, which can be found in Edward Hirsch’s outstanding book “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry”:
- A message in a bottle
- A soul in action through words
- A speaking picture
- The bloodiest of art forms
- Language compressed and raised to its highest power
- A time bomb designed to explode on contact
If none of these metaphors resonates with you, that’s all right. Poetry is one way of thinking, but it’s certainly not a popular way these days. In our modern world—especially with the surreal overlay of the coronavirus—our language is increasingly literal and prosaic. Today, for example, our dialogue is dominated by dreary words like epidemiology, germs, health care, containment, PPE, viruses, contagion, isolation, social distancing, lockdown, etc. We retreat to the safety of our various tribes. We look for existential meaning in science and politics, blaming or championing ideologies or leaders. We even dull our minds with food, alcohol, drugs, mindless entertainment, and other distractions.
All of this is normal and understandable. But as Hamlet—that sublime philosopher-poet and everyman—puts it:
“What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.”
Even a beast washes itself and avoids infection if it can. Even beasts seek protection with friends and kinfolk. Only humans search for meaning outside the physical plane. Only humans are poets, philosophers, and artists.
I’ve Been Busy During Lockdown
After governments around the world shut down much of civilization and banished all to our collective rooms, I instinctively turned to poetry (also faith, family, friends, music, the arts—I’m not crazy!) to help me navigate the sadness, fear, and chaos:
- First, a theater director and friend began a series of “Quarantine Monologues” from William Shakespeare as a way to reach out to the arts community. I was the first to contribute a speech (or two).
- I completed yet another draft of my verse adaptation of Sophocles’s “Electra” for a theater company that is producing it in October, if all goes well. A group of actors did two dramatic readings of the play in May.
- I began a daily feature on my Facebook page and YouTube channel I call “30 Poems of Hope and Joy in 30 Days.” Every day, I select and recite a well-known poem, sharing a few observations as well as a biography of the poet.
- I submitted a Shakespearean sonnet recitation (mine was Sonnet 32) as part of an online sonnet series in which 154 actors from all over the world perform all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I acted in live dramatic online reading of “Much Ado About Nothing,” “King Lear,” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” with an all-star cast of actors (myself notwithstanding).
- I started something I called “Plague Stone Poetry.” I placed a case of wine under a fake boulder at the top of my driveway and invited various friends to give me their favorite poem in exchange for a bottle of wine. I received poems by Gabriel Garcia Lorca, Plath, Henley, Poe, MacLeish, Millay, James Thomson, as well as a few originals.
- Based on my work teaching poetry in schools—and at the request of several teachers—I wrote and recorded a Young Poets Workshop, which you can find on my YouTube channel. I also recorded several Shakespeare speeches for classroom use.
- Finally, I wrote—and continue to write—poems, including several poking fun at the virus (they were funnier a few weeks ago). I submitted a poem called “The Virus and Cure” to an online competition sponsored by the Friends of Falun Gong. I wrote nine haikus about my chickens. My favorite poem so far is one I wrote about frogs. I just finished a sonnet about my relationship with my son and a ballad about plague stones.
Thanks to all this activity, I have a stronger mental and spiritual foundation that I hope will help me weather the thousand natural shocks that will visit us over the next weeks and months. I have “shored these fragments against my ruins,” in the words of T.S. Eliot. I hope these fragments, however, help you, too. I’ve tried to provide certain poetic and artistic resources for others, while also helping myself. Trust me—everyone benefits from a wiser, happier, less anxious me.
Before you go, allow me to introduce you to a few dozen old friends with whom I’ve been reacquainting myself during the quarantine. See? Here they are—they hold out their hands to you…
A Psalm of Life, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
No Man Is an Island, by John Donne
“Hope” Is the Thing With Feathers, by Emily Dickinson
The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by William Butler Yeats
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas
Sonnet 29, by William Shakespeare
God’s Grandeur, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Morning Song, by Sylvia Plath
Excerpt from “The Four Zoas,” by William Blake
How Do I Love Thee?, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sea Fever, by John Masefield
There Will Come Soft Rains, by Sara Teasdale
The Dying Christian to His Soul, by Alexander Pope
Travel, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The World Is Too Much With Us, by William Wordsworth
Macavity: The Mystery Cat, by T.S. Eliot
Invictus, by William Ernest Henley
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost
Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden
No Coward Soul Is Mine, by Emily Brontë
She Walks in Beauty, by Lord Byron
The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats
The Dream of the Rood, by Anonymous (Eighth century)
This essay is reprinted with permission from Rob Crisell. It was originally published with 25 other essays in the “Coronavirus Collective” in early May 2020.
Rob Crisell is a writer, teacher, and actor living in California.