Words to Live By: Fighting a Pandemic With Poetry

Celebrating April: National Poetry Month
April 18, 2020 Updated: April 18, 2020

April,” poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “is the cruelest month.” Certainly his words apply to April 2020.

Though we are slowly winning the fight against the pandemic, the struggle has brought hardship and dire changes to all. Untold numbers of businesses have closed, and some are likely to remain so once the pandemic passes. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, millions more are locked inside their homes under “shelter-in-place” orders, the stock market gyrates up and down, and we are in the meantime beset by a maelstrom of faulty models, misinformation, and biased reporting by many in the mainstream media seeking to point fingers for this disaster.

In such a dark time, we can take comfort and hope from the heroic efforts of some of the people around us: our health care providers, our truck drivers and grocery store clerks who have kept our system running as best they can, even the loan officer I know who is working 12-hour days seven days a week at her bank to help thousands of customers with their mortgages and the loans pouring out of the Small Business Administration.

Some of us gather strength from our religious faith, some from the presence of family and friends, some from the examples of our ancestors who themselves endured terrible calamities.

And some of us turn to the written word to keep us going, to strengthen our hearts and minds, to inspire us to keep up the good fight.

Candles in the Darkness

April is National Poetry Month. It is the month when libraries and bookstores typically set up displays of poetry books, offer readings from the works of poets both living and dead, and celebrate the place of verse in literature and in our lives.

Those stores and libraries are mostly shuttered now, locked down for the duration of the pandemic, but we Americans can still salute poets and their verse by means of the internet. Even more importantly, we can avail ourselves of poems that will inspire us, boost our spirits, quell our fears, and push away despair.

Google “poetry” on your electronic device, and sites will pop up like the dandelions on my front lawn. Though I find the Poetry Foundation and the Society of Classical Poets especially helpful—the Society even features poets writing about the pandemic—I encourage you to shamble around on the internet and investigate other sites as well.

Reading Tips

Poetry is best read aloud and to others. If you are quarantined with family or friends, and particularly with children, now is the time to cut loose and take some fun from these readings. If you’re delivering Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” for example, give rein to your inner actor, match your gestures to the poem’s actions, and roar out the words until you arrive at the last stanza, discarding that roar for a whisper.

Charge of the Light Brigade
Release your inner actor and read Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The painting is by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. (Public Domain)

Even if you live alone, I encourage you to read poetry aloud. If you’re like me, you’re talking to yourself anyway, and the read-aloud approach not only enhances the meaning of the poem but also fills your silence.

If you’re now teaching your children at home because of COVID-19, adding poetry to your curriculum can bring both pleasure and learning. The older children can read poetry to the younger, thereby enhancing their ability to read with greater expression. You might consider, too, asking your students to memorize some poetry as a part of their school day. Learning poems by heart, as we once called it, gives young people a gift of words and sentiments they can carry through the rest of their lives.

Listening

If you want a change of pace, go to YouTube, where you can enjoy thousands of read-alouds by those who love poetry. Some of these presentations are amateurish, but you’ll also find recitations by men and women whose voices can break your heart or bring shouts of laughter.

The poetry read at RedFrost Motivation, a channel on YouTube, for example, stirs the heart and soul. One of my favorites is “The Man in the Glass,” which I’ve listened to so many times that I almost have it memorized. At Pearls of Wisdom, the woman reading John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” has a voice and an accent as entrancing as the poet’s words. She shares many other poems as well, and in part because of her magical voice, I now listen to a poem a day there.

John Donne (Public Domain)
A portrait of poet John Donne, 1622, by Isaac Oliver. (Public Domain)

Words of Courage and Hope

To help you get started, below are eight inspirational poems, all of them available online in print, as an audio, or both.

RedFrost Motivation offers a beautiful recitation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “If.” Though aimed at the younger set, all of us can draw strength from these wise reminders of what it means to be a mature adult.

Henry Newbolt’s “Vitai Lampada” reminds us to “Play up! play up! and play the game!” Life is a battlefield, and Newbolt urges us to join the action.

Elsie Robinson’s “Beauty as a Shield” was new to me before I began this article—I stumbled across it in the book “The Best Loved Poems of the American People”—but it is a fine piece of verse recommending beauty as a guard against despair.

Lanta Wilson Smith is another poet I’d never read, but her “This, Too, Shall Pass Away” reminds us that troubles may be always with us but that all of them, including our pandemic, eventually end.

R.L. Sharpe’s “A Bag of Tools” asks whether we will be “a stumbling block or a steppingstone.” Because of the poem’s brevity and its powerful message, I used to ask my students to learn it by heart.

John James Ingalls’s “Opportunity” tells us that when opportunity knocks, we have but one chance to answer. “Opportunity” was Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite poem, and an autographed copy of it hung from the wall of his office in the White House.

In “Worth While,” once-renowned poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whose most famous line was “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone,” writes “the man worth while is the one who will smile, /When everything goes dead wrong.” One line in the poem really hit home with me: “the sorrow that hides in a smile.” Often, like some of my readers, my smile has hidden my sorrow.

Ella_Wheeler_Wilcox_circa_1919
Ella Wheeler Wilcox circa 1919. (Public Domain)

The mother in “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes explains to her child and the rest of us that “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” but “I’se still goin’, honey, /I’se still climbin’….” For most of us right now, life is no crystal stair, but we nevertheless must keep climbing.

Renewing Our Hearts and Minds

All of these poets have gone to the grave. Nearly all of them are little read these days, which is one reason I sought them out. Like all human beings, they endured and suffered personal tragedies, which are echoed in their words. If we have the ears to listen and the eyes to see, these writers of verse have lessons to teach us.

Great poetry, as is true in all classical arts, summons us to look to the stars, to know we are not alone in misfortune, to find the courage when we are on a walk through hell to keep on walking.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.