An open book lies flat on a table with the page opened to a poem as red roses lie on the book's page.
Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: Poetry Power: Faculty and Students Turn to Art Form During Pandemic

Date Published: April 28, 2020
Graphic of Duncan Wu with a blue overlay.

Time of Plague

“Poets are often people who see very clearly the problems in the world, and their works often come from a sense of despair because they feel they can’t do anything about it,” says Wu, an expert on Romanticism and contemporary British drama.

Wu’s research mostly focuses on the Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. He’s co-edited and authored The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth (Oxford University Press, 2014), four editions of Romanticism: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 1994, 1998, 2007, 2012) and several other books.

These days, the literary scholar has found himself recalling the now relevant stanzas from Elizabethan poet Thomas Nashe’s “Litany in a Time of Plague.”

Beauty is but a flower

Which wrinkles will devour;

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.

I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us!

Thomas Nashe, “Litany in a Time of Plague”

“It’s not a happy poem of course,” he says. “It’s kind of a lament about times similar to what we’re living through now. That line, ‘brightness falls from the air,’ is shoved into a poem about a terrible crisis in human history.”

“It kind of does something amazing,” he adds. “It makes you feel alive.”

Graphic of Carolyn Forché with a blue overlay.

Seeking Refuge

Forché’s most recent book, In the Lateness of the World: Poems (Penguin Press, 2020) is a collection of work she wrote over the past 17 years.

“They are the poems that I saved, the ones I collected together and that seemed to be in conversation with each other,” she says. “I’ve written poetry for 61 years. I imagine that I’ll write for the rest of my life.”

Forché has sought refuge from thoughts about COVID-19 by turning to Georgetown alumnus Ilya Kaminsky’s (C’01) “We Lived Happily During the War” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

I was in my bed, around my bed America was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

Ilya Kaminsky, “We Lived Happily During the War”

Forché and Kaminsky were both finalists for the 2019 National Book Award – Forché for her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press, 2019) and Kaminsky for Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019).

Georgetown English professor and poet David Gewanter, author of Fort Necessity (Phoenix Poets, 2018) and several other books of poetry, advised Kaminsky during his time at the university. He says even Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Sandpiper,” about a bird frantically exploring the beach can be an easy distraction from the world around us.

The world is a mist. And then the world is

minute and vast and clear. The tide

is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.

His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Sandpiper”

Poetics and Social Practice

“Poetry speaks to us in times of peril in all human languages,”Forché explains. “It might even be the first time we are conscious as a species of our own vulnerability and susceptibility to the worldwide spread of disease that threatens our mortality.”

Forché and Wu, both professors in the English department, are now teaching students during the transitions and disruptions caused by COVID-19. They note the challenges and worries faced by their students.

“I’ve talked individually with students, and this is a very hard time for them,” says Wu, who is teaching 20th-century British poetry this semester.

Graphic of Maya James with a blue overlay.

Finding Optimism

James, who was selected as a Lannan Fellow, has spent the semester immersed in poetry and prose in Forché’s seminar among a close-knit group of graduate and undergraduate students from across Main Campus.

“It was a little strange explaining to some of my mentors that as a government major I was spending my last year on something that wasn’t seen as more traditionally political,” says James, who will study religion, ethics and politics at Harvard Divinity School in the fall.

James says she’s found optimism about the future in the words of Kaminsky, Audre Lorde and Jericho Brown.

“We’ve tried not to focus on the pandemic too much with the poetry we share in class. I’ve tried so hard to be inspired by those small moments within this pandemic experience instead,” she says, “but the weight of all that’s going on has made it harder to write in a more focused way than I’m used to.”

Graphic of Michael Lundgren with a blue overlay.

Power of Words

Michael Lundgren (SFS’22), a sophomore regional and comparative studies major, is finishing his spring semester at home with his family in San Francisco. He says being a Lannan Fellow gives him a chance to express his thoughts about life in the pandemic.

“Over the course of this a year, I feel like my poetry has really grown,” he says. “I set aside at least one day out of the week to just sit and read and write about what I know and what’s going on in my life.”

Lundgren says his appreciation for poetry stems from the power of words.

“I think one thing that we’ve learned in this day and age is that words have power and meaning,”Lundgren says. “Our leaders treat words as tools, as a means of gaining power and enhancing their own stature without thinking about the impact.”

He says taking in daily tallies of coronavirus cases, deaths and updates can be overwhelming, but expects the words that will come after some distance from the pandemic will be particularly powerful.

“Poetry is the embodiment of the power of language,” he says, “and I think that’s why it matters so much today.”